Omaha, Bellevue police find good, bad in social media

“We use Facebook, Twitter, Ring, Nextdoor, Instagram, Tik-Tok.”
Police know they have to tune in where people are talking.
Published: Aug. 24, 2022 at 11:08 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Roger Cox did the math. Half of his hours each week as a Bellevue Police Department Community Relations Coordinator are spent on social media.

“We use Facebook, Twitter, Ring, Nextdoor, Instagram, Tik-Tok.”

Modern policing requires social media savvy. Usually, social media serves as a good platform to make announcements and clear misconceptions in the community. While police can only monitor what you share publicly, on the Ring Neighborhood app, for instance, what they see can help them widen the net to solve a crime.

“If a crime happened in a particular area with cameras being everywhere now with devices like Ring or Nest so on and so forth, we can put out a request a specific area and say does anybody have footage,” Cox said. " If people do then they can share those videos with us.”

Omaha Police Department now has crime prevention specialists like Vanessa Urbach in each precinct. She acts as a liaison between the community and the department and uses social media to connect with the community where they gather, social media. She also tries to encourage people to do more than post what they see.

“I will get community feedback where somebody says you know every car in my neighborhood was vandalized or somebody stole something from it and then I pull the reports and I see one or two reports,” she said. “One or two reports is not as alarming as ten or twelve, so we try to get that through to people that these are the numbers you need to call if you are a victim.”

Each OPD precinct has a crime prevention specialist number to call, but Urbach says don’t hesitate to call 911. Omaha has a call routing operator, for example, meaning you aren’t clogging emergency lines if you call. They will connect you with those officers if that’s what’s needed.

An area that concerns her remains individuals posting videos of incidents before they have been vetted. The results can be damaging.

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” she said. “If you drive by a terrible crash, you don’t have to take a picture and post it online because you don’t know if that family even knows yet and how would you feel if you found out by a picture online versus getting that phone call or being the one to go out and help. That’s where we do rely on media partners to gather the facts and report them so again if people have questions they can always call the source directly and that’s going to be us and again why we have community liaisons.”

Online misinformation is among the biggest social media concerns for law enforcement. Dr. Gaylene Armstrong is the director of one of the nation’s top schools of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

”Apps like Nextdoor, that information isn’t vetted, meaning nobody really checks to see if it’s accurate or not accurate,” Armstrong said. “And I think we have all heard stories or even seen things posted that we come to find out that is simply not true some of it is unnecessarily gross fear in a community some can be helpful.”

She says law enforcement across the country has embraced social media both as a tool for crime prevention as well as safety.

“There have been specific reports that OPD has put out to counteract false information on social media where there may have been reports that are shared on Nextdoor or other kinds of apps that they know to not be true,” Armstrong said. “They help reduce public fear of something that is simply not the case.”

“I imagine there are also several challenges not just locally but across the country that officers are having to deal with when there is misinformation put out,” Armstrong continued. “It’s a new approach to policing that has to incorporate technology both as a tool that they can use to help inform the public but then also help impact some other either proactive or community policing efforts.”

After several years of pandemic isolation, law enforcement we spoke with emphasized the importance of a return to socializing, and not just online.

“Nothing beats really knowing yourself who lives down your street, who are the kids that play nearby, should that car be talking to that child, is that a parent or relative,” Armstrong said. “Whether that’s through social media or physically to know your neighbors, to be out in the yard saying hello to people, that can actually go very far to prevent crime.”

“I think people rely a lot more on social media than they should,” Urbach said. “It is a great tool but nothing really beats that face-to-face of knowing your neighbors.”

One thing police do not want you to do is report a crime online. Their sites and pages aren’t monitored 24 hours a day, but call centers are. Tweets and posts can’t compare to calling 911.

“Never, ever hesitate to pick up the phone and call,” Cox said. “If you can’t remember the non-emergency number, that’s okay, call the number we’ve all known since we were knee high to a grasshopper, just dial 911.”

“If it’s not an emergency, they’ll direct you off to a non-emergency operator, take that information and get us dispatched out there to start the investigation,” Cox said.

OPD has crime prevention specialists in each precinct with direct numbers, in the event, someone needs to ask a question or reach out in a non-emergency.

Vanessa Urbach works out of the Southwest Precinct and can be reached by email or phone at 402-444-7928. Lauren Genier serves the Northwest Precinct and can be reached by email and phone at 402-444-6224.

Gabi Brockman is located in the West Precinct and can be reached by email and phone at 402-444-5923. Ofelia Robles serves the Southeast Precinct and can be reached by email and phone at 402-444-7743 while Samantha Flynn works in the Northeast Precinct and can be contacted by email and phone at 402-444-3367.