Policing, protecting and informing the public has evolved in so many ways since social media and other online platforms transformed the way individuals gather, digest, and distribute data.
Long gone are the days of police posting a wanted ad on a community billboard or settling for a 10-second slot on the evening news about a wanted fugitive last seen wearing this and driving that.
Internet platforms have made the exchange and distribution of public information immediate. As in, five seconds ago. For a 21st-century law-enforcement agency, that brings with it many benefits.
CRIMEWATCH, a Carlisle-based company, has developed and successfully implemented – most recently in Bucks County - a single-channel digital location for information and intelligence-sharing between police and public.
Many of the 140 police departments now using CRIMEWATCH have stories of how the forum has helped their agency: solve crimes through the platform's convenient tip-sharing feature; improved relations and trust with the communities they serve by increasing transparency; and minimized time and efforts spent answering questions from reporters while still providing the desired information.
"We should take advantage of all available ways to exchange information with the public," said Bucks County Detective Martin McDonough, who recently benefited from CRIMEWATCH's relieving powers while distributing information about a quadruple homicide where residents and reporters clung to every developing detail and eagerly awaited the next.
After a years-long development process, CRIMEWATCH founder Matt Bloom unveiled the platform to the public in 2014. Since then, law-enforcement agencies in 23 Pennsylvania counties - from every geographical region and departments of all sizes - became clients. Many use the platform daily.
"More information, sooner!" is often the public sentiment accurately surmised by Richard Ficco Sr., Chief of Richland Township Police Department in northwestern Bucks County.
INSTRUMENTAL IN CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIONS
This past spring, Richland PD's public following spiked when a shooting investigation unfolded on CRIMEWATCH, where submitted tips helped capture the shooter in a matter of hours.
When Richland PD launched its CRIMEWATCH page in April, they had about 120 visitors in the first month. On May 18, a woman and her son were shot at at the rear of an area Wal-Mart store. Within 10 minutes, Richland PD had a wanted alert – and later a suspect's photo - on their CRIMEWATCH forum, which also pushed to their social-media locations.
Tips flooded into the department. Shortly after, investigators were told by an area hotel clerk that the shooter, later identified as Brandon Grosso, had just walked into the hotel. The clerk had followed the CRIMEWATCH post via Facebook.
About six hours after the shooting, Grasso was in police custody. As for those 120 first-month visits....
"We were pulling in approximately 6,000 (views) per second during the height of our search" for the Wal-Mart shooter, Chief Ficco said.
CRIMEWATCH also cuts through all geographical boundaries by presenting a wealth of data for department-to-department sharing. For example, a police department in southeastern Pennsylvania can input into the CRIMEWATCH database a fugitive profile - including photo, last known address, vehicle information - and an officer in the northwestern tip of the state, or beyond, can access on command.
It's a futuristic feature social-media apps and programs simply can not offer - and it is a reality today for officers and investigators to consume with CRIMEWATCH technologies.
Ficco stressed the value of how CRIMEWATCH keeps departments informed of what their peers are up to.
CRIMEWATCH “keeps my department informed as to what and who other departments are dealing with,” Ficco said. “Typically, we would only hear about it through a monthly crime meeting of local agencies.”
This all works toward achieving government's number one priority: Protecting the public it serves.
RELIEVING MEDIA PRESSURES
While reporters can be, let's just say, inconvenient at times, the truth is they serve as a liaison to residents. So, relationships with the media, while at times, a hassle, are necessary.
Many reporters accessing CRIMEWATCH in their coverage areas have rave reviews for the platform.
Why? Because the information is just there. There is no waiting period for a busy investigator to get a free minute to call back an anxious reporter.
Matthew D. Weintraub, Bucks County District Attorney who brought CRIMEWATCH to his county, quickly learned that crime-related news is most coveted among the media and mass-consumed by the public those TV stations and print publications serve.
It's cliche, but the oft-used credo "If it bleeds, it leads" is cliche for a reason: it's true. Crime-related stories often obliterate, in measures of clicks and views, companion stories in a newscast or newspaper that don't have elements of such hard-news appeal.
Weintraub was front and center this summer while dealing with a quadruple homicide case that started with four missing males and a suspicious set of circumstances. Objective One was finding the four males and what happened to them.
That only pushed reporters to call constantly for the latest developments. CRIMEWATCH, with relative ease to the investigators, appeased the thirsty reporters.
"This was a load off of our minds, as we didn't feel the need to respond to any individual media requests," DA Weintraub said.
At the same time, the dialogue lines for tips were wide open. "We knew the tips would come to one of two locations: either CRIMEWATCH or to a phone line at Solebury Police Department [the investigative agency]," Weintraub said.
While the case-breaker didn't come from one single CRIMEWATCH tip, Larry R. King, communications specialist for Weintraub's office, said the tips were numerous.
Distributing case information via CRIMEWATCH and attached social-media channels, King said, "saved me a ton of time and aggravation."
Similar to Richland, the Bucks County District Attorney's Office saw huge hikes in views and visits to their CRIMEWATCH and social-media forums.
"We had close to 450,000 original views during that one week" at the peak of investigation, King said, speaking of the many who sought out information on their CRIMEWATCH, Facebook and Twitter forums.
HOW IS CRIMEWATCH DIFFERENT FROM FACEBOOK?
CRIMEWATCH stands apart from existing social media by being the hub for information-sharing and exchanging, rather than a branch with limited capabilities.
CRIMEWATCH companions with Facebook and Twitter by automatically sending CRIMEWATCH posts and alerts to those forums, so it offers a “three birds with one stone” scenario.
In the quadruple homicide case, King said, "the (news) releases migrated automatically to our social media, we were able to communicate with the media and general public all at once without the need to use, and continually update, a conventional media email blast list."
The visual presence, and overall value, of a stand-alone Facebook post doesn't compare. Users would match rather click a link - to the CRIMEWATCH post containing all the information - rather than read through many words on a stand-alone Facebook post.
Robert Lupinetti, a sergeant at Newtown Police Department, credits digital platforms with increasing communication and transparency with the citizens his department serves. And CRIMEWATCH is at the epicenter.
"CRIMEWATCH has helped to facilitate the exchange of information by streamlining the release of information," Lupinetti explained. "Thankfully, our department made a concerted effort over the last few years to be involved in social media and has developed a good base audience. CRIMEWATCH tied that base together so that we could use CRIMEWATCH as our main point of contact with the community and the media."
"CRIMEWATCH allows all of our posts to be automatically and immediately posted on other social media platforms, should you choose."
More convincing evidence of CRIMEWATCH's advantage over existing social media lies within its search-find capabilities.
Here’s an example without revealing too many specifics due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing investigation:
A Bucks County department recently had an unsolved stolen-vehicle case and distributed information on the target vehicle via CRIMEWATCH and Facebook. A few weeks later, a tipster contacted the department and pointed officers to the vehicle; it was parked in front of the tipster’s house. The tipster, noticing the foreign vehicle, had done a Google search of the license plate. The first search hit was a CRIMEWATCH post, containing plate information.
The behind-the-scenes explanation is in how CRIMEWATCH indexes their content to optimize search results. Bloom explains that is all part of the CRIMEWATCH mission: To present a digital crime-fighting tool for police while offering an information-sharing location to the public.