CHAPEL HILL – As technology becomes increasingly important in today’s society, several branches of the local government are turning more to social media to communicate with the public—but some officials are still cautious about making the shift.
For the Chapel Hill Police Department, Sgt. Josh Mecimore says officers are primarily focused on using Twitter instead of Facebook for up-to-the-second news.
“In the past, we’ve kind of put out the same content on both services,” he says. “Moving forward, I think you’ll see more of the current events and up-to-the-minute kinds of things on Twitter, and then we’ll use Facebook for more of the information about ongoing investigations, trying to elicit information from the public, and more detailed information about things we’re doing around town.”
Mecimore says the CHPD’s Twitter page seen particular success when it comes to traffic enforcement announcements.
“When we put out that our traffic enforcement is out doing doing speed enforcement or stop sign violations in a particular part of town, that’s one of the things that gets re-tweeted the most by people,” he says. “That seems like it’s of great interest of people, and they want to send it out to their followers so that they know we’re doing speed enforcement somewhere and we’re not trying to hide it.”
But unlike Chapel Hill, the town of Carrboro hasn’t set up social media sites for law enforcement.
“The town has a Facebook and Twitter account, but there’s not a separate one for the police department at this time,” says Lt. Chris Atack of the Carrboro Police Department. “So, if there’s any sort of information that needs to go out about upcoming events or other public safety issues, we usually use those two outlets.’
Still, Atack says the idea isn’t off the table for some point in the future.
“It’s been an avenue we’ve been looking at for a period of time because there are obviously departments in the area that have Facebook presence specifically, and there’s certainly usefulness in that application,” he says. “So that’s something we’re exploring.”
For the Town of Hillsborough, Facebook has been a useful tool in the apprehension of suspects. According to the town’s website, in March 2012, officers started using Facebook to request tips from the public—since that time, 14 posts have resulted in suspect identifications or arrests. Facebook tips have also led officers to recover numerous stolen items.
Meanwhile, in the educational branch of local government, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board member James Barrett says while social media can be valuable, it’s not without its risks.
“I think the biggest risk is that it’s very easy to say something that could be taken out of context,” he says. “As is the case with really all electronic communication, there’s no tone, so people lose that perspective on what’s being said.”
The Chapel-Hill Carrboro City School district does have both a Twitter and a Facebook page, but Barrett says right now, the board’s members are leaving most social media projects to district Executive Director of Community Relations Jeff Nash.
“I think Mr. Nash is certainly cognizant of trying to communicate with people more, and so I think he’s looking for ways to do that, but I don’t think it’s been a serious push of the board.”
But Barrett, who recently wrote a blog post on the growing role of social media in local governments, says he acknowledges the importance of social media for the district, especially for sharing images.
“I think particularly our Facebook presence allows us to share photos,” he says. “It’s been great for people to see pictures of things like Northside Elementary going up, for example. We’re definitely moving in the right direction.”