Five years on Facebook, the Wharton Police Department has more than 17,000 likes and as many followers to its page.
Being visible on social media has enabled the law enforcement agency to be viewed in a way that goes far beyond just glancing at the Wharton PD building, passing it, and going about your way along Richmond Road.
Facebook paves a way for residents, and even visitors, to be entrenched with Wharton PD happenings, and those who are associated with it, realize this and work it to everybody’s advantage.
“When I became chief, we started the Facebook page for the police department and within a few days it had 10,000 followers,” Police Chief Terry Lynch said. “We use it to interface and do outreach with the city, for community events and to humanize us.”
The first WPD “cover photo” was a group shot of personnel shortly after Lynch was sworn into office. That was June 25, 2014. The post had a modest 98 likes and 4 comments.
Throughout the years, posts that showed WPD police cruisers and community messages had in upward of 200 or 300 likes. Judging by the response since, Wharton PD appears to have employees who are social media savvy.
One post that comes to mind came March 5 of this year. This one too showed a WPD cruiser, but with the image of “MoMo” in the back of the vehicle suggesting she had been arrested.
The post was attributed to the “MoMo Challenge” that was spread on Facebook and other social media outlets, sometimes putting young people in harm’s way to perform a series of dangerous tasks including violent attacks and self-harm.
With her bulging eyes, stringy hair and sadistic smile, the MoMo post read “Show your kids. MoMo has been caught and arrested!” The post had 262 likes, 74 comments and 249 shares.
Wharton PD has joined other law enforcement agencies to utilize Facebook to issue press releases. Gone are the days when they were sent out via fax or by email, although that practice is sometimes used even today.
Lynch and Det. Ariel Soltura, the administrators of the page, post something on Facebook at least a couple of times per day. They will post press releases, request help finding suspects, announce road closures and hazards and other vital information to the public.
“It doesn’t replace down and dirty police work, but adds to it,” Lynch said.
When you add up all the posts WPD has placed on Facebook, it’s astounding. To date, there have been 2,050 mobile uploads, 587 timeline photos and 79 videos.
The timeline photos vary depending on the subject matter. They can take on serious issues. For example, seeking public help to find wanted people, severe weather alerts, stolen vehicles, scam alerts, public service announcements. Some poke fun at first responders with one of a before (Shirley Temple) and after (Wednesday Adams) photo of a 911 dispatcher. Most have shown photos of residents and organizations sharing food and sweets with police.
What further stands out with the craft of Soltura and Lynch and helps build their audience to almost twice the population of Wharton is their ability to create catchy memes (cultural items in image form that are spread online) and feed off a follower’s excitement.
Most notable is “Red Stick Man” Soltura drew and posted to represent a burglar who had hidden inside one of the exterior columns of CVS on April 24. Since then, Red Stick Man has become a popular recurring figure, reacting with an “I was there” to a screenshot of a mention of the CVS incident in Texas Monthly and appearing in a “Happy Father’s Day” drawing on the page. Fans of the page love Red Stick Man so much that they send Soltura their own Stickman memes.
“We even got a cult following with Stickman,” Lynch said.
Lynch said the page bolsters public trust and transparency.
“We have community partnerships that we would have been unable to connect with before. We plan to make it even stronger than it has been,” he said.
While some police departments have balked at using a Facebook page as a significant resource, Wharton PD plans to eventually further its social media presence by adding a Twitter account.
Tom Firme contributed to this story.