Law enforcement agencies are using social media to connect with communities and solve crimes across the East.

In the last five years, the Facebook following for Greenville Police jumped from 1,000 to 28,000. The department currently engages nearly 40,000 people through social media .

“People will say things on email, on the Snapchat, on the tweet ,that they will not say in other places,” GPD Deputy Chief Ted Sauls said.

Comments typed and posted within seconds can reach hundreds of people online. Social Media allows departments to highlight cases not receiving attention through press releases.  The platform also enhances relationships between departments and citizens.

“We are building trust so citizens fill more comfortable sharing information with us,” Kinston Police Chief Alonzo Jaynes said. “Success cannot come into this city without that partnership.”

 The opportunity to share information quickly can come with challenges.

“Say we have a major crime and before we have to go out and notify the next of kin, social media makes it difficult because somebody will blast it out there on Facebook, “ Lenoir County Sheriff Ronnie Ingram said. “ That’s no way for a family member to find out about their loved one. We have to work quickly , identify the person, identify the family member and get to them  before it gets to social media. “

Information shared online can generate leads for investigators. Pitt County Detective David Flynn earns a living tracking digital trails.

“Usually you’ll have three stories when something happens. You’ll have side a, side b and somewhere in the middle is what actually happened, “ Detective Flynn said. “There is a digital fingerprint on every case now-a-days. Just about every case that comes through we’re looking at someone’s cellphone. We’re looking at text messages, their locations…just to make sure we know exactly what happened and get that accurate picture of what took place. “

 Online encounters can lead to offline consequences. In 2016, Pitt County Sheriff’s deputies arrested 36 sexual predators trolling for underage children online.  Some suspects made arrangements to meet deputies during the undercover investigation.

“The criminals are able to exploit the stuff developed by really smart folks,” Detective Flynn said.

A prostitution bust resulted in more than a dozen arrests by Greenville Police in 2016. The undercover officers posted online ads posing as johns and prostitutes. The suspects showed up to an advertised location.

“After 21 years in law enforcement, it continues to amaze me what lengths people will go to do bad,” GPD Deputy Chief Sauls said.

Arrests are happening across the East, including some linked to online apps and marketplaces. Meetups arranged online between strangers offer the access “crimes of opportunity” require.

“The criminals see it as an avenue to victimize, so we now use it as an avenue to investigate,” the Deputy Chief said.

Internet exchange zones are one way Greenville Police are fighting crime before it happens. The department started the internet exchange zones after a series of robberies involving mobile marketing apps in 2016. The zones are located at substations around the city, under surveillance 24 hours a day and provide safe locations for meetings between strangers.

“You say to them,’Oh just meet me out front of the police department.’ You’ll find out real quick if they’re legit,” Sauls said.

Greenville Police handled 11 cases linked to the apps “LetGo” and “OfferUp” in 2017. They received a sexual assault report involving the “Tinder” dating app in 2018.