This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
uring the early morning hours of May 12, someone vandalized a car parked at the Underwood Lodge in the city of Dalton.
The initial tweet sent out by the Dalton Police Department after the school shooting incident on Feb. 28
The only clue Dalton investigators had to identify the keying culprit was a grainy black and white surveillance video showing the suspect, a white female wearing a t-shirt with a distinctive skull design on the front. According to Bruce Frazier, Dalton Police Department (Dalton PD) public relations specialist, no one at the apartment complex recognized the woman, nor did any police investigators.
While that might have been where the story ended in 2005, in 2018, police investigators have new a tool connecting them directly to thousands of people who can recognize a suspect’s face: social media. When Dalton Detective Aaron Simpson posted the suspect’s picture on the department’s Facebook page, he only waited a little over an hour before a tipster sent him not only the suspect’s name but also a selfie photo the suspect posted on her personal Facebook page hours before the crime wearing the same skull t-shirt. The investigation quickly led to a warrant and the suspect turning herself in.
Social media success for the Dalton PD began well before 2018. When the department first started its Twitter account in February of 2009, national media, including CNN, covered the page’s launch because the concept of law enforcement agencies utilizing social media was so novel at the time.
“Before the internet and social media, you really had to rely on press releases and hope that TV stations and newspapers would run the pictures you might need to get out there. You also had to hope that the right person would be looking at the screen at the right time,” said Dalton Chief of Police Cliff Cason. “Now, social media gives public safety agencies a direct line to the people with a much better chance of amplifying their message.”
Dalton PD investigators post several stories a month hoping to put names to suspects’ faces. Detective Simpson shared that in the past year he’s made arrests in four of the six cases he’s posted using the department’s social media accounts.
While social media has helped close several cases, it’s also served a larger and much more important role during times of crisis for the city of Dalton.
When a Dalton High School teacher barricaded himself in his classroom on Feb. 28 and fired a shot from his handgun, the police department’s social media accounts became a critical communications tool to let parents know that their children were safe and where they could reunite with them.
The “shots fired” call was reported at 11:47 a.m. Officers were inside the school within one minute. As soon as confirmed information about the incident was available (that the teacher was alone, and no children were injured or in danger) the first press release was emailed from the scene at 12:07 p.m.
According to Dalton officers, Twitter ultimately became the main avenue to communicate with the public during the event due to its real-time news sharing capabilities. The first tweet from @DaltonPD account was made at 12:16 p.m. and read: “DPD on scene at report of shot or shots fired at Dalton High. NO CHILDREN AREINJURED OR IN DANGER.”
A Facebook post was also shared at 12:20 p.m. to notify parents and the community. This post was updated within minutes of all pertinent updates throughout the rest of the day.
“In retrospect, the social media postings probably should have been made first, before the press release. Twitter and Facebook posts are direct lines to the public and can also be used by media covering the story,” said Frazier. “Through this we’ve learned that whether public safety agencies need a direct line to the people they serve in times of crisis or during a more ‘routine’ day, the importance of social media continues to grow.”