Sunday afternoon the nearly 10,000 Facebook followers of the Union Police Department were shown two pictures.
Both pictures, screen captures taken from surveillance video, contained nearly the same caption. Union police were asking the public for their assistance identifying the person in the picture.
For the two men in the pictures, that’s probably bad news.
The Union Police Department has had a Facebook presence for several years now. The department regularly publishes images on its page when looking for leads in cases.
“If we believe that the photograph can give us a lead that we cannot get by other means, we’ll post it and ask for help,” Union Police Chief Norm Brune said. “We’ll generally not say, this is a suspect in a crime. Generally we’ll say this is a person of interest in an investigation and we’re trying to identify them.”
Brune said the goal of the photos is to generate a lead. More often than not, a single post does just that.
“It’s been very successful,” he said. “Whenever we do have a video with a good photograph, we’re able to post the person and generally get a name and we can proceed with the investigation. I don’t know what the percentage is, but I can say probably 90-95 percent success rate with posting the information and getting a response back and giving us a good lead.”
Those leads can jump-start a case that might have gone unsolved. He said sometimes investigations stall out and the posts have helped point officers in the right direction.
“Just giving us that lead, that name of a person, gives us somewhere to go,” he said.
Knowing the success rate of the Facebook posts has made them popular with officers, Brune said.
“They love it,” he said. “Otherwise we’d have investigations that wouldn’t even be able to get off the ground.”
Posting a picture online means it can spread quickly. Some pictures don’t get a quick response, but others do.
“Sometimes we’ll post a photo and, within minutes, we’ve got 10 names and it’s all the same name,” he said.
Brune said the majority of the posts tend to be from crimes committed at retail outlets. Those crimes range from stealing to fraudulently using a credit card device.
“Everybody knows that Walmart has good cameras, that Quickstop has good cameras,” Brune said. “What they don’t know is if they’ll get caught. They’ll still try and get away with it.”
Brune said with some of the crimes people think they can’t be caught.
“The fraudulent use of stolen credit cards — we can go back quite awhile and pull video,” he said. “They just don’t think. We’re able to get it and make a case.”
The pictures are possible thanks to advances in technology. The surveillance cameras have gotten better and are producing a more clear picture of possible suspects, Brune said.
Posting a picture online does notify a person that police are looking for them as a possible suspect. Brune said he’s not worried about tipping off the suspects.
“Sometimes, those same people, will call us and say, ‘You got me,’” Brune said. “It happens. They realize, when they see their picture, they’re caught. How long can they hide? We tell them to come in and give their side of the story.”
Brune said in some instances, the photo embarrasses the suspect.
“We’ve had the suspects call us and tell us take it down,” he said. “They say, “OK, you got me. Now take it down.’”
Union started posting the pictures after hearing about the success of other departments.
“You read about other agencies throughout the United States — you read about what is working,” he said. “Establishing the Facebook page was the logical way to go.”
Brune said Union’s success may be abnormal, but he thinks other departments should use Facebook more.
“It can be replicated,” he said. “Maybe you don’t have the success rate we have, but if you don’t have a lead and one out of 10 develops a lead, that’s successful.”
Brune said a big part of the department’s success is the Union community.
“People care,” he said. “I don’t know how many followers we have, but good people care. If they have the information, generally we get it.”
It’s not just caring, however. Brune said he thinks people like to imagine themselves as detectives and want to help solve the case. The department plans to continue using Facebook for the foreseeable future. Brune said the department is looking at other social media sites for the future.