More police departments are starting to develop presences in social network spaces. They ask for help locating suspects, tell community members about department-sponsored events, and interact via comments and messages. They may also drive traffic to a main Web site or warn citizens of nearby emergencies.
Many of these pages resemble the “cop on the beat” stopping to chat with passersby. Meeting casually may result in a citizen providing a tip, but it is not the same as, say, police actively soliciting feedback.
On “My #1 Friend is a Cop” pages, the focus is a little different. Less community outreach than crime prevention, these pages (mainly on MySpace) provide a way for young people to add police as a friend, so that prospective predators—pedophiles, bullies, or other offenders—know that this individual has a way to report suspicious behavior.
“The child can even tell anyone who asks that their dad or their uncle is a cop,” says Detective James Carden, a detective with the Fairfield (California) Police Department who is also attached to the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force.
Starting My #1 Friend
Carden created the Fairfield PD MySpace page after his 13-year-old son was approached, via MySpace, by an older man. “As a parent I wanted it to stop, but as a cop, I knew the local police department wouldn’t be able to handle it because it wasn’t criminal activity,” Carden explains. “I had no resource except to tell my son not to talk to him, and to use my son’s page to message the man to tell him to stop.”
Even that, he adds, was limited. “Kids are on MySpace all the time, and parents can’t be. Unless you go on your kid’s page regularly, you don’t know what’s going on, and there are no checks and balances to protect them.”
So Carden talked with Lauren Wagner, a high-tech crime training specialist with SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. Under an existing SEARCH program, she had already helped the Miami-Dade Police Department to create a MySpace page so that community children could “friend” the agency. (Law enforcement agencies looking for more information can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The concept is simple: a police department representative spends a few hours uploading the agency’s official emblem—its patch or badge—as its profile picture and filling out its profile to give other users a feel for “who” they are.
When “friended,” the patch will show up in the user’s “friends” list; MySpace allows users to rank their friends so that specific friends appear on the front page all the time. “It’s like parking a cop car in a neighborhood that’s being hit by burglaries,” Carden says.
Preventing cyber crime
It’s also a resource for the public to work with the police department, even if a felony has not taken place. Policy is to take the same action with offenders that Carden took with his son’s: message the person to ask them to stop contacting the victim before police take official action. “That way,” says Carden, “we don’t have to use police time by taking a report, but we still have a way to deal with the problem, to make sure that the only contacts kids receive are wanted.”
This is not limited only to child predators. Cyberbullies are addressed in the same way. “In one case I had, some kids put up a fake page of a classmate,” says Carden. “They even stole pictures off her page, then started to message their other classmates pretending to be her. She contacted me, so after I told her to tell her parents and her vice principal, I contacted that page and asked the users to take it down before I started a case number on it. The page was down the next day.”
The My #1 Friend page has become an easy, secure way for informants to tell police about illegal activity, because it gives Carden the ability to respond to members of the public who are either afraid of police, or don’t want to bother them.
“There are many reasons why people don’t communicate with police,” he explains. “The MySpace page levels the playing field, puts everyone on neutral ground where the public can interact with police in a positive way.” He adds that he has been able to get investigations started by forwarding citizen reports to other units such as narcotics.
The program doesn’t just address criminal or borderline criminal activity. “We got a good response from the public, who started making suggestions on how to improve the page,” says Carden. “They would ask about things that were happening in the city, so I asked the department public information officer to email me press releases at the same time they emailed them to area media outlets.”
The benefit of this has been significant. “People who don’t watch the TV news or read the newspapers now see what’s happening in the rest of the city,” says Carden, “especially in the pockets of town they don’t visit.” This helps police as well as the public. “People who live in the nicer areas see the police department at work.”
So, while the page’s focus is still on children, it has “morphed” into a more interactive community presence. Like other agencies in social spaces, Carden plans to post a slideshow of criminals wanted in Fairfield, along with video of fraud suspects in area businesses.
What the page is not for: juvenile disputes, including problems between kids using peer-to-peer music-sharing or similar programs. “Once kids think you’ll get involved, everything becomes a police matter to them,” says Carden, a former school resource officer. “Those are the kinds of issues that teachers, principals, yard monitors, and parents should be handling.”
Publicizing My #1 Friend
Both Carden and the Miami-Dade Police Department used traditional media to publicize the page. “We didn’t expect a lot of coverage; we thought it would be a positive story for parents to see and start to use,” says Carden. “But after we contacted our local paper and television news, reporters from the Sacramento TV station [KCRA] came down. The story ran on the 10 o’clock news and on the paper’s front page. After that it became a matter of word of mouth.”
Still, Carden finds people who don’t know about the page; he educates them whenever he makes field contacts. Next fall, he plans to visit schools with the school resource officers to tell students about the page. “I’d like for all kids to friend us; I think most parents would get behind it,” he says.
Public education will become more consistent after May, when Carden expects the department’s computer crimes unit to be fully up and running. “At that point we’ll be prepared to take more complaints through the page,” he says, noting that patrol officers as well as school resource officers will be given a handout about the MySpace page and how it works.
As for whether kids see “My #1 Friend” as “uncool,” Carden says from what he has heard, the bigger concern appears to be privacy. “Some will think it’s uncool. Others will have more forethought and recognize how they can use the page to avoid trouble.” Carden believes the personal visits will help dispel many misconceptions about the program.
Maintaining My #1 Friend
Carden spends about 15 minutes per day reading and responding to messages. Because the page is proactive, not meant to be an investigative resource, it doesn’t take as long to maintain as spending time undercover would take. However, he currently has no plans to join sites like Facebook or Twitter, even though other police departments use them as alternative ways.
This is because the MySpace page is a project he’s pursuing in his spare time, and also because the community hasn’t asked for other pages. “The page is driven by public request,” he says. “Everyone in town knows about the MySpace page, so that’s what we’re doing right now.”
In the future, the page—and possibly other social network presences—could involve other officers. Depending on future success, Carden hopes to see an entire special-assignment unit, perhaps even the SROs, take the page over as one of their duties. “One could work on the MySpace page, another on Facebook, another on Twitter,” he says, “and do it during the school day.”
So while MySpace, in February this year, took the radical step of expelling 90,000 registered sex offenders from its membership rolls (following the 27,000 it banned in 2007), still more exist who haven’t been caught. My #1 Friend is meant to add another layer of protection.
Ultimately, Carden hopes every police department will start a “My #1 Friend is a Cop” page—not only to connect with the community, but also to share information with each other.“Kids need to be able to point to a deterrent as society and technology change,” he says, “and police need to be able to change with it. I think 99 percent of potentially dangerous activity would stop on these sites just by having a patch as a friend.”