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For Farmington police, a tweet can spell trouble

Police see good and bad when it comes to the public’s use of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook

Michelle Leonard

Staff writer

Farmington police chief Brian Lindquist had no interest in getting onto social media. Facebook? Nope. Twitter? Not a chance.

These days he’s coming around a bit on the subject. It turns out, police are able to use social media to their advantage, at times.

But there are other times when something posted on a social media page has caused an unnecessary panic in parts of the community. He’d like that to stop, but, knowing that social media isn’t going away, he’ll settle for a piece of public awareness.

He uses the example of what has become known around the Farmington Police Department as “the white van incident.” A few months back, someone in the Charleswood development noticed a white van driving slowly through the neighborhood. The driver appeared to be looking closely at the homes, and neighbors became suspicious.

Someone called the police, and officers were sent to investigate. In the meantime, someone else posted a warning on their Facebook page, Lindquist said. Officers located the van and questioned the driver, who worked for the Pioneer Press and was driving out a new delivery route.

But, fueled by the information on Facebook, a couple of residents approached the van and demanded to know what the driver was doing. And that, Lindquist said, is when social media’s good intent goes bad.

“You can’t take those kinds of actions,” Lindquist said. “To do so is strewn with the possibility of danger to yourself. Something like that could lead to somebody getting hurt or killed.”

That’s the part of social media Lindquist still curses. He would also like to see residents be more careful if they are in the area of an accident or incident, particularly those who pull out their smart phones to take photos or video.

Not only does trying to take video or pictures mean the person taking them may be in the way of police or emergency personnel, but posting those images can be dangerous to the police who are responding. If a person is unstable, but sees pictures of police responding to an incident involving him or her, that individual may become more agitated and more dangerous.

Farmington administrative sergeant Jim Constantineau is amazed at how openly residents share information that could put them or their homes in jeopardy. In particular, when he sees messages where residents tag their location, he sees that as a flag to letting others know their house is empty and unattended.

“That just boggles my mind,” Constantineau said. “When you travel, wait until you get home to post your pictures. When you put your locations out there, it tells people you’re not home. All it takes is one time.”

A blessing

But social media has come in handy for police, as well. In some investigations, police use social media to get access to information suspects have readily put out to the public.

There have been instances, too, where using social media has helped police to solve crimes. When a suspect vandalized police cars last August, police put the man’s image on the city of Farmington’s Facebook page. Someone recognized him, and the man later turned himself in.

Since April, Farmington Police Department now has its own Facebook page — the City of Farmington, Minnesota Police Department — that is being used to get messages from police out to residents.

Constantineau plans to use the page as a method to share information about issues police face, or to look for participation from residents. He, Lindquist and the city’s communication specialist, Danielle Cahlander, will all post to the page.

Lindquist cautions, though, that posting to Facebook or any other social media site is not a first priority to police, especially when they are responding to a critical incident in the community. Their first priority is to handle the situation. If updating the public is necessary, they will do so.

Ultimately, Lindquist would like residents to police themselves, and use restraint and common sense when it comes to posting incidents and information on Facebook.

“There is great responsibility behind everything you do,” Lindquist said. “You don’t get to hide behind this veil of social media. That will get you into trouble. If you are going to be irresponsible on social media, there will be consequences.”

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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