Southlake police creativity on social media may have saved someone from gift-card scam

Too often, we have to chide a government agency for poor communication with the public it serves.

So we were delighted when the Southlake Police Department provided a great example last week of how a little creativity can protect citizens from a potentially costly scam.

Officer Brad Uptmore, who handles the department’s social media efforts, posed in email and text messages as an elderly woman falling for a scheme involving gift cards.

Uptmore strung along the villain for a while with convincing messages. The scammer seemed convinced he was on the verge of getting codes for $1,000 worth of gift cards in exchange for a worthless “check” mailed out as a lure into the scheme.

The sting ended brilliantly with a picture of a Southlake police badge. The criminal undoubtedly got quite a scare, along with a whole lot of wasted time.

Uptmore noted that tracing down the scammer and prosecuting was probably impossible -- those types of schemes often originate overseas, and the department would need a local victim to follow up, he said. But by sharing the entertaining text-message string with the department’s nearly 42,000 Facebook fans (and 14,000 more followers on Twitter), he may have prevented a lot of people from falling for such fraud.

“Written a different way, maybe a couple thousand people would have read about this scam,” Uptmore said, noting that the work was viewed about 300,000 times.

That Southlake was the source of this public-serving creativity was not a coincidence. The department has had several social media efforts go viral, and one of Uptmore’s efforts was recently honored by the Public Relations Society of America.

Police departments, like any public entity or business, have to constantly be aware of the shifting focus and growing power of social media. Assistant Police Chief Ashleigh Casey said that her department made a deliberate effort over the last couple of years years to build a relationship with its audience.

Communication through social media is “what people want,” she said. “Whether we’re resistant to it is irrelevant.”

And it’s not just for pleasant community relations or even crime prevention. Eventually, building a stronger relationship with the community will pay off when conflicts “inevitably come up, whether major, like an officer-involved shooting, or not so major, like a disagreement about how a case is handled,” Casey said.

Being responsive when citizens ask questions online is key, she said, helping ensure “a productive conversation” rather than just typical online provocation.

Police-community relations in some areas, and particularly with some constituencies that have grievances about use of force, are on a hair trigger. Smart policies, rigorous training and transparency in times of crisis are the long-term answers.

So is building trust and familiarity between officers and citizens with creative outreach. Plenty of departments get it and are working to communicate better. We’re heartened by how many officers are willing to participate in goofy videos and other campaigns to “humanize the badge,” as Uptmore says.

But Southlake’s mix of humor, personalization and advice deserve the spotlight they are getting.

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