Facebook helps police track suspects, get tips in Heather Elvis case

troot@thesunnews.comMarch 1, 2014 

Two days after 20-year-old Heather Elvis’ car was found abandoned at a Myrtle Beach area boat landing, her friends and family took to social media, Facebook specifically, to plea for information regarding her whereabouts.

Social media keeps people connected and involved, but in the Elvis case the sites have helped investigators keep tabs on people of interest, and her family and community members organize vigils and searches for the young woman last seen Dec. 17. The Find Heather Elvis page on Facebook has more than 52,000 likes as of Thursday and continues to add new members as the case garners national attention.

“Social media can be a great help and it can help get people involved and bring forth awareness, but it can also be a double edged sword,” said Monica Caison, founder and director of the CUE Center based in Wilmington, N.C., which searches for missing people including Elvis. Some rumors about Elvis and her whereabouts were posted on social media and did take up investigators time and efforts, she said.

And time policing those social media posts can be a drawback for some law enforcement departments to starting their own pages, said Nancy Kolb, a senior program manager with community safety initiatives with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, based in Alexandria, Va.

“Social media has an impact on every aspect of law enforcement – from recruiting to community relations to patrol activities to crime prevention to investigations,” Kolb said. “Social media has allowed law enforcement to use technology to take community policing to a new level. Further, it provides a way for agencies to be more transparent, efficient, and engaging and quickly disseminate critical information to a large audience.”

Most area police and fire departments have some sort of social media presence, and they have officers dedicated to posting updates about events, crimes and public safety hazards in the community.

The local participation on sites such as Facebook and Twitter mirror a national trend, according to the fourth annual 2013 Social Media Survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. They surveyed 500 law enforcement agencies in 48 states and found that 95.9 percent of the agencies use social media in some way, including 86.1 percent for criminal investigations.

Of those, 80.4 percent of the agencies reported they had used social media to assist their officers in solving a crime.

Facebook topped the list with 92.1 percent usage, followed by Twitter at 64.8 percent and YouTube at 42.9 percent, according to the survey. More than half of the agencies also reported they developed social media policies for usage by department members.

Locally, Horry County police and the Horry County Sheriff’s Office were among the first agencies to adopt and use Facebook to inform residents of crimes, arrests and other events involving the department. Both sites are active with nearly daily posts.

Lt. Robert Kegler said the Horry County Police Department’s Facebook page, which was created in mid-2010 and by Thursday had 9,262 likes, plays “a big role” in how information is released by officers.

“It’s a very valuable tool for us,” Kegler said. “Let’s say we have a bank robbery in the south precinct and the officer calls and gives me a description and in a matter of minutes it’s out there to the public. And if someone saw something or recognizes the person they can comment.”

“We do utilize it as an investigative tool as well,” Kegler said.

Horry County police Chief Saundra Rhodes has said detectives used social media to keep tabs on a couple charged with murder and kidnapping in the Elvis case.

Tammy Moorer, who is charged in the case along with her husband Sidney Moorer, also defended herself and her husband, who she posted on Facebook had an affair with Elvis. Before her arrest Tammy Moorer had posted the couple had cooperated with police.

The Facebook pages for the couple, who remain jailed, had been deactivated as of Thursday.

Because of Facebook shares, Kegler said Horry County police were able to inform the world about the Elvis case quickly after she was reported missing.

“Because of the ability to share it all over the world, it received national attention pretty quick,” Kegler said. “It received a lot of attention much more quickly than cases did in the past.”

For instance, Kegler’s first official post about Elvis was in December after an Horry County police officer found her vehicle abandoned Dec. 19 at Peachtree Boat Landing.

“When I first shared her picture it went out to 836 people and now it’s reached more than 32,000 people and who knows how many people they’ve shared it with,” Kegler said. As of Thursday, that initial photo had been shared 147 times.

The circulation of false information and rumors are the downside to Facebook and social media, officials said.

“The theories being passed around can be a hindrance,” Kegler said and noted officers will investigate all tips they receive. “But we’re defeating ourselves by not reaching the maximum number of people possible.”

The Conway Police Department joined the ranks of Facebook on Jan. 13, and Lt. Selena Small, who is in charge of operating the page, said they are following the success of other departments such as Horry County.

The city’s page had 1,933 likes as of Thursday.

“Facebook seems to be it. Facebook seems to be what everybody looks at, . . . [Conway police want to] see what success it will be in helping get communications out there to the public,” Small said. “We want to use every avenue we have to get information out there quicker.”

The departments of Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach are the only larger agencies in the area without Facebook pages.

But Myrtle Beach police officials have talked about creating a page and may do so in the future, said Capt. David Knipes. However, there’s no specific timeframe as to when a page may be created.

“Developing case law is probably the main reason we have not entered into this ‘world.’ It is relatively new frontier as it relates to the work we do, and the liability potential that has yet to be clarified by the courts,” Knipes said and noted that officers have looked at social media while investigating cases.

But experts say the benefits of social media outweigh the challenges.

“Social media provides a way for agencies to be more transparent, efficient, and engaging and quickly disseminate critical information to a large audience,” Kolb said. “Social media presents challenges in that it requires resources to manage – whether responding to comments from the community or processing tips or evidence shared in the social space. Social media has serious implications for officer and public safety and rumors and false information posted on social media can also present challenges to law enforcement.”

Kegler and Small said they want residents to know their respective department’s presence on Facebook does not replace a telephone call to 911 to report a crime or to a non-emergency number to discuss community safety.

“It’s another avenue for them to communicate with us through private messages and comments, but they should call 911 for an emergency,” Small said. “We’re excited about what it can do and how quickly and efficiently we can communicate and this is just one way to help us do that.”

Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or follow her at Twitter.com/tonyaroot.

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