How social media has become an essential policing tool for the RNC

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is tapped into what the youngsters are into, and it's paying off, writes Ariana Kelland.

Majority of crimes posted to social media solved, Const. Geoff Higdon says

Const. Geoff Higdon is one of several officers in charge of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's Facebook and Twitter accounts. (CBC)

If you told Const. Geoff Higdon two years ago he'd have the reigns of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's social media accounts, he likely wouldn't believe you.

Yet, here he is today, reaching thousands of people with each post.

Higdon is one of several RNC officers who operate the force's Facebook, Twitter and newly-established Instagram accounts. He sends weather alerts, news releases, photos of suspects and a joke here and there to the masses.

The RNC's Facebook page was launched three years ago, as a means to recruit new officers, and it has since morphed into an essential policing tool. Twitter followed later, generating over 22,400 followers to date.

Higdon estimates that approximately 95 per cent of crimes posted to the RNC's Facebook page have been solved, thanks in part to the 16,000 people who like and share content from the page.

"If we have a serious crime that shocks the public and we put a picture out of it more people are sharing it, more people are seeing it," Higdon said.

There may be no better example of this than the case of the red Corvette that peeled into Kenmount Road in May and did dangerous stunts in the middle of oncoming traffic. The event was (fortunately for police) caught on camera and then shared online.

Almost two months after the public outrage subsided, police announced an arrest in the case and specifically thanked people on social media for helping spread the word.

"There is seven degrees of separation from everybody," Higdon said. 

"It doesn't take a whole lot for somebody to say, that looks like so-and-so, us to interview so-and-so and find out it was in fact so-and-so."

More recently, the RNC has posted photos online of people suspected of crimes. The shots are often grainy and taken from surveillance footage or CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras.

At first, Higdon said, they would post photos without context — only asking for the public to help identify the person in the photo.

"They didn't really care to help us because they wanted to know, "Why are you looking for this person?" So of course, we tried to strike that balance with privacy, obviously, and grounds for arrest," Higdon said.

'Just take the picture down, it wasn't me'

Legally, the RNC can publish any photo taken in a public place, such as a mall or box store, Higdon said.

"If you're seeing someone [on social media], you may not see them committing the crime but the photo right before it, or the video segment right before it, before we could get a better still shows them commit the crime," he said.

"So, we have the evidence or witness statements to back it up."

By posting images online, it's not just concerned citizens who identify the culprits, it's the suspects themselves. Desperate to take the photos down, they turn themselves in to police, Higdon said.

"People write us sometimes and say, 'You have a photo of me on your Facebook — I didn't do it'" he said.

Public shaming isn't the objective of posting suspect pictures online, Higdon said, "People will come in turn themselves in and say, just take the picture down, it was me."

Every now and again, those wanted for a crime do not bother coming into RNC headquarters, or even writing a private message. They post publicly.

For instance, Rodney Constantine's response in the comments section of one Facebook post about a warrant for his arrest drew thousands of views.

He promised to turn himself in "Monday morn" and even provided a followup comment to make sure people knew he wasn't taking it lightly.

"Look I'm just letting everyone know this isn't a a joke or intended!!!! I was just been honest about turning in Monday morn that's all !!!!!"

While it's uncommon, Higdon said overall the experience with Constantine wasn't a bad one — he did turn himself in that following Monday.

"He was respectful with us and we were respectful with him," said Higdon, adding the Constabulary thanked him publicly for sticking to his word.

In addition to being an investigative tool, social media channels have allowed the RNC to reach out to the community in ways it never could before, letting the public know they're human too.

By posting photos of its K-9 and mounted units, as well as operating Tweetalongs, the public gets a better sense of what the force does.

Higdon said he looks to other police forces, like the Rosenberg Police in Texas, for ideas and tips for what works and what doesn't

In the future, Higdon said the force is going to start posting "Warrant Wednesdays" — a la Throwback Thursday — in an attempt to catch suspects with longstanding warrants for their arrest.

About the Author

Ariana Kelland

Reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

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