Police turn to social media as form of communication

Renton Police Department is utilizing an unlikely weapon to tackle crime — social media.

While RPD has used Facbeook and Twitter accounts in the past, what they lacked was a strategy and the brains of community program coordinators Sandra Havlik , Stephanie Hynes and Cyndie Parks.

The trio has been working on creating a social media strategy that not only informs, but educates and connects with their audience.

“When there are cases or things happening in Renton…. It comes down to if there’s going to be a story,” said Havlik. “We rather put it on social media first before a news station pulls information from the public or cut out parts of stories, and behind that is a whole story. We want to get out as much facts out first so the community comes to us for information and trusts us for that information is going to be right. We’re trying to direct the community to us first.”

Due to staffing issues in the past, the social media was largely forsaken as a means to reach and connect with the public. But when Hynes joined staff last year, they had enough the right group to create and implement a strategy.

“We want to put out our story,” said Havlik. “We don’t do make up a story. We want to put up as much facts up as possible and if we can’t put out things that are under current investigation, we refer them to the right people. If there are facts that are distorted we want to correct that. That’s our obligation to the community, to get them the right information as much as we can put out and not jeopardize someone’s safety or identity.”

The department has been utilizing Facebook, Twitter and Nextdoor to connect with the community. Nextdoor has been the best platform to reach residents, Havlik said, since it directly connects with the people RPD serves.

“Nextdoor seems a bit more personal,” she said. “And it should be because it’s for Renton residents. We could put the same put the same post on Facebook and Nextdoor, and a lot more conversation would happen on Nextdoor.”

Not only do they use Nextdoor to inform residents of investigations, emergencies, and upcoming events, they also post monthly residential burglary recaps so residents can be more aware of trends and tips about safety.

The platform also allows the department to target audiences based on their neighborhood. Hynes gave the example of targeting neighborhoods with more reported mail thefts, and how Nextdoor allows them to share tips and engage with residents of those neighborhood specifically to tackle that issue.

The more frequent and targeted social media approach over the past year has proven to be helpful already. According to Hynes, a post about a wanted suspect went live nearly a month ago, and within minutes the detective in charge of the case received numerous calls identifying the location of the suspect. They were able to successfully track down the suspect.

Havlik admitted that it’s still a trial and error journey.

“Right now we’re still testing and learning, but we’re figuring out what gains popularity, what gets shared the most and what causes the most discussion in the positive way. We’re still figuring out what the public wants and what they like,” she said. “We joke about we put a puppy story out there and people just go crazy. You’ll get 10,000 hits on that cute little lost dog than you would over a shooting that no one got hurt.”

Like any social media guru knows, audience engagement is key.

“We try to engage with people,” said Hynes. “When people are upset, we try to respond. And that has helped with getting more followers.”

“We want to know who’s talking about us and what are they saying, is it positive or negative, and can we turn that around,” added Havlik.

For a police department, audience engagement can be even more crucial, especially during emergency situations when the department wants to reach as many people as they can.

“One of the main reasons we want to gain more followers is that if something were to happen, like an earthquake or a major fire, we want to reach the most people possible,” said Hynes.

“We want to free up the dispatch 911 phones and free up our front counter phones because that’s who people call when there’s a major incident,” said Havlik.

The department is currently working towards launching an Instagram and YouTube channel. The YouTube channel will focus on educational videos including tips on avoiding scams, how to avoid getting packages stolen from your porch, etc.

Havlik, Hynes and Parks are also training other RPD departments to use the platforms in case of emergencies.

“If there’s something happening and we’re home sleeping, we need to trust that someone can put this information out,” said Havlik.

While engagement rates and followers have increased over the past few months, Havlik, Hynes and Parks wear multiple hats at the department and aren’t solely focused on updating the social media platforms.

“We rather do quality over quantity,” said Havlik.