Sitting behind his desk at 145 Maple St., Ron Hoague looks every bit the part of a police captain: a towering figure whom potential wrong-doers may think twice before crossing. His office fits the bill, too, from artwork of a cruiser shining through the night to a tree-shaped ornament made of 12 bullet casings that stands below his computer screen. The tree is topped with a neat, blue bow.
So it’s all the more unexpected to hear the 28-year law enforcement veteran launch into his social media strategy like a college graduate applying for his first marketing job. He breezes past tips like know your audience, declares plans to break into Instagram – a great place to connect visually with all generations, he says, calling it a “middle ground” – and even teases a potential YouTube expansion, if the market supports it.
Since joining Essex Police in early 2018, Hoague has made growing the department’s online presence one of his top priorities – viewing social media as a “necessity” for 21st century law enforcement – and pushed EPD to join a growing number of police agencies that use social media to carry out some of the job’s basic functions.
“Everyone expects in this day and age to be able to look at their phone and find out what’s going on in the world,” Hoague said. “In their hometown, they expect that same thing.”
EPD started posting to Facebook regularly at the turn of the year and now has over 2,200 followers. Other local pages boast even greater numbers; Milton Police Department has over 5,000 followers, while more than 8,000 people follow the Colchester Police Department.
Before Facebook was a regular part of most people’s lives, police relied solely on media outlets to spread their message to the masses. Officers arrest a robbery suspect post-deadline? Detectives catch a break in a murder investigation after the nightly news? Tomorrow’s another day.
Not anymore. Through social media, local agencies can become de-facto media outlets, employing a public outreach and information gathering tool like none other in the history of policing – the most useful of which remains Facebook.
A scan of the three departments’ pages over the last few months shows announcements ranging from public service alerts, like when a registered sex offender recently relocated into the area, to more community-based notices, like when officers wandered upon a lost dog. But the departments also find in Facebook uses well beyond that of a modern bulletin board.
By allowing people to comment, the departments have created a two-way line of communication in which residents can weigh in on police performance or, in some cases, even become digital tipsters. More than once in recent months, officers have identified suspects with the help of their Facebook following; in one Essex case, the public found the suspect in less than 10 minutes. In another, commenters tagged the suspect’s personal page.
Facebook also allows the department to share the “good stories,” Hoague said. Sometimes that’s in the form of sharing positive news articles, like a recent story about a new school resource officer. Other times it’s photos taken at a Rotary awards dinner, or videos from a retirement ceremony – things known in the digital world as original content.
The common denominator is that, compared to other forms of public outreach, posting to Facebook takes little time.
“In a time where were struggle with having enough people to be able to do what we need to do and be proactive, this type of thing really fits into that,” Hoague said. “It’s relatively quick, it helps us and it’s a benefit to everybody who works here.”
But their newfound abilities bring new sets of challenges, forcing the departments to find a happy medium between a social media presence that provides information and, as some people see it, publicly shames. At the heart of that dilemma: mug shots.
Both Essex and Colchester have decided against posting photos of suspects in most arrests. Milton police, however, rolled out a new approach over the last month, posting a press release for nearly every arrest, with many featuring a photo of the arrestee.
Not everyone agrees with the approach.
“Clearly MPD is pretty bored if they feel it’s necessary to make a Facebook post for every DUI or misdemeanor arrest,” wrote one commenter last month. “The ‘small town mentality’ of publicly embarrassing people before they go to court is disgusting [and] immoral.” Other users have appreciated the department’s efforts, arguing that people who don’t want their photographs on the page shouldn’t break the law.
Milton Chief Stephen Laroche said the department formed its approach with an eye toward transparency, hoping to give a better idea of what officers do on a daily basis. But he said the feedback has prompted the department to alter its approach, believing the current system has brought a “negative undertone” to its community outreach efforts.
“It makes the positive efforts that we’re trying to do take a backseat to the constant barrage of mugshots and press releases,” he said.
Now, Laroche said MPD hopes to soon develop and publish a blog, like that of the Vermont State Police, where the department can post all of its arrest press releases.
That way, Laroche said, people interested in staying up-to-date on the most recent arrests – including mug shots – can make a conscious choice to visit the page instead of passively seeing the posts in their Facebook feed.
The change will put MPD’s Facebook usage more in line with the other two departments, which only post arrest press releases for more significant cases – think bank robberies or attempted murders.
Police Chief Doug Allen said Colchester typically only posts photographs of people they need to identify or locate. He acknowledged arrests and mugshots are public record, and for good reason: “We should be transparent about who we arrest,” he said. But he said mugshots posted online can and likely will be electronically stored forever, so “there’s got to be some caution with that.”
Top brass in Essex have a similar stance. They decided against regularly posting the photos because there’s “too many drawbacks,” Hoague said.
“You’re putting that picture out there on someone’s worst day, and forever and ever it’s going to live like that,” Hoague said. “We didn’t want to do that. We didn’t want to have that kind of controversy. We want to keep our page positive.”
Still, Milton is not alone in navigating a social media learning curve, with the other departments recently seeing firsthand how online social media posts can sometimes take on a mind of their own.
Last month, Hoague posted a screenshot from an EPD dash cam during a close-call between Winooski police and a driver. The photograph showed the moment when the driver nearly clipped the officer, who’s making a DUI traffic stop along Route 15. EPD’s post noted the driver was not a U.S. citizen and appeared unaware of the state’s move over law.
Some commenters chastised the driver, making references to his or her perceived immigration status, and an hour later Hoague had updated the post to remove reference to citizenship.
He added the following message: “The intent was to educate to prevent these types of incidents, not to create a discussion on the abilities or knowledge of foreign drivers. Further, by policy, we do not identify the immigration status of drivers and that is not what happened here. Our only concern is the safety of our officers and citizens.”
Weeks later, Hoague shakes his head at the mention of the post. “That got twisted around to something that was never intended,” he said, calling it a learning experience.
“You have to be cautious about what you put out,” he continued. “You have to be thoughtful about how it’s going to be interpreted, not just by your people but by other people who don’t have the same mindset as you would. It’s hard, sometimes, to interpret that and to remember how things are going to be seen.”
Allen said Colchester initially shared the post to its page, too, but he later removed it due to similar comments.
Both he and Hoague said their respective departments have strict rules on the Facebook page dictating the types of comments that will be removed.
“It’s like anything else,” Allen said. “We have pretty strict rules about bashing anyone.”
He said if a commenter shares a derogatory comment about the department, he will usually let it stand, as long as it doesn’t target a specific officer. But comments targeting someone in the community will be removed, he said, especially when dealing with issues like race or immigration status.
“We’re very sensitive about comments about people of minorities or really any segment of the community that’s marginalized,” Allen said.
None of the police leaders expected they would be including social media duties into their job descriptions after decades into their careers.
Allen, whose been with CPD since the 80s, recalled an age where police officers still used typewriters, or in some cases, paper and pens, to write out reports and affidavits.
Hoague dated himself, too, by remembering the first time he heard about the Los Angeles Police Department’s so-called “community policing” effort of the mid-90s. He became a police officer a few years before and said he and many of his peers questioned the idea at the time.
“[We] were thinking what in the world is this? What do they expect us to do? Go out, kiss babies, shake hands, that type of thing?” he said. “We’re like, ‘Oh, no. We’re not doing that. We’re here to enforce laws.’”
“Over the years, we’ve realized you can’t just be out there and be an occupying police force. You have to engage with the public to keep them informed of what we’re doing,” he said.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, ultimately: connect with the community and build our credibility.”
And Laroche, who started in law enforcement nearly 30 years ago, said outreach then was more “boots on the ground, walking through businesses, meeting people that way. Now, he said, “you have all these people – as they say – just a click away.“