When the Athens-Clarke County police department looked for a way to engage with the Athens community, social media seemed like the easy answer. Almost seven-in-ten Americans use at least one social media site, according to the Pew Research Center.Why It’s Newsworthy: The Athens-Clarke County police department has utilized social media to assist with stopping crime and humanizing its officers. With more than eight-in-ten officers saying police are mistreated by the media, information assistant Geof Gilland is using a social presence to change that.
Within the last three years, the police department has increased its social media presence, mainly on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Over 7,000 people follow the police department’s Twitter account, with a consistent following of 27,665 people on its Facebook. Geof Gilland, a public information assistant at the Athens-Clarke County police department, says that social media is part of the department’s community outreach.
“It helps people understand what the police department does for us,” Gilland said. “Our goal in social media is helping to tell the officers stories, helping to make the officers feel and look and portray them as more human.”
The social media posts range from officer highlights to asking the community to help identify an individual.
“Many people think different about officers, but from our perspective, we want them to think happy thoughts,” Gilland said.
Gilland says his department takes a conservative approach when it comes to engaging with the community over social media, different than the Sherriff’s Office in neighboring county, Oconee County.
The Oconee County Georgia Sheriff’s Office Facebook account has a larger following than Athens-Clarke County with 136,657 people following its page. The Oconee County page will sometimes try humor to engage its following.
“They’re almost like a TV station in a sense,” Gilland said. “People follow them because they want to hear what’s coming out next because some people think they’re funny, so it’s just a little different.”
Gilland said the Athens-Clarke County police will likely stick with its approach on social media, because it is better suited for the Athens community.
Eighty-one percent of U.S. police officers feel they are treated unfairly in the media. Gilland believes that the transparency on social media can help change the perceptions for the public.
“I think so many times agencies or officers have seen the negative side that they are very conservative when it comes to allowing pictures and videos and letting us into their daily lives,” Gilland said.
The department boasts five assists from the public out of 12 Athens-Clarke County P.D. Facebook posts that ask for assistance with a situation since March.
Gilland says there has been little pushback from community, which will allow them to continue to grow their social presence and engage with the community.
“There’s just so many ideas about what could be done, and I think we’re just scratching the surface in ways that we could do things better,” Gilland said. “We’re going to keep trying.”
Abby Stolz is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism
and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.