How A Sheriff Uses His 10,000 Facebook Fans To Solve Crimes

Sheriff Al Lamberti, 54, is like The Consumerist with a badge and a gun.

His beat is Broward County. He’s been walking it for 34 years. But he’s always looking for new ways to help out the citizens he keeps watch over. Like using Facebook to solve crimes.

When a rash of air conditioning thefts hit the county, where they can go for $500 a pop resale, Sheriff Al posted about it on his Facebook wall. His over 10,000 Facebook fans saw a description of the suspects and the make of their car. Within two days, a homeowner called up 911 and said, “I think they’re at the house next door.” Police swooped in and made four arrests.

Normally, “That would have taken several months,” Lamberti told me. First there would have had to have been the usual internal conflict and consensus-building about resource allocation. Then the information would have dribbled out through Crime Watch and Neighborhood Watch. A special task force might have to be created. Eventually a lead would generate. A few months later, an arrest. Maybe. Or maybe nothing.

But through the power and immediacy of using Facebook to directly interact with his constituency, Sheriff Al’s team was able to close the case in just a couple of days.

“We could have never touched that many people through Crime Watch,” he said. Al maxed out his 5,000 friend limit on his personal page and had to set up a fan page to deal with the overflow. It’s got over 5,580 likes. Al often posts an “early morning wakeup call” where he wishes people a good day and comments about the weather. His fans can also learn that he is draining the pool, attending the 11th Annual Bubbles & Bones Gala, and working on the campaign for his upcoming re-election. Other times, he requests help and information from the citizens about crimes in their community.

“A lot of crimes now are non-traditional, like prescription drug abuse and identity theft,” said Sheriff Al. “All these new waves of crime we just don’t have the resources to deal with them while still going after bank robberies and auto theft.” For instance, coupon theft isn’t usually a high priority. But after hearing casually that there might be a problem with folks systematically stealing coupons from newspaper bins, Al posted about it on his Facebook wall. He got 50 public replies and over 100 private messages. A few were credible leads with eyewitness accounts, giving police the info to go on to set up a sting operation and catch several coupon thieves in the act.

But while leveraging social media can generate leads faster, there’s no Facebook app that will make the final arrest. The last mile still has to be done with boots on the ground, following proper police protocol. One coupon thief was caught on camera by a local news crew stealing the coupons, but because an officer hadn’t witnessed it, the Sheriff’s Department couldn’t make an arrest. But then a local news reporter confronted the suspect with the footage and he admitted, on camera, that he had stolen the coupons. That gave the police what they needed to take him in to custody.

By leveraging social media to directly connect with his constituents, Al’s department is able to solve more crimes, faster, and go after cases that might normally slip through the cracks.

This is all the more important in an era where police departments have to let cops go and scale back the kinds of calls they will go after. After budget cuts, Oakland PD will no longer send officers to respond to of grand theft and burglary. Sheriff Al’s department has been forced to reduce their truancy program and has cut their mounted patrol.

“When you talk about reducing budget and service, you need the public on your side more,” said Sheriff Al. “Social media is a force multiplier.”