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Police turn to Facebook to tell public about lawbreakers

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Darryl Enriquez
April 29, 2011

Walworth County's most wanted are online.


The number of county police agencies posting on Facebook has quickly grown as viewers watch the sites for scofflaws who have skipped court or failed to pay fines.


"It's where people are, now, and we have to roll with the times," Elkhorn Police Lt. John Anzalone said of his department's Facebook site.


Delavan Police Sgt. Todd Wiese said his site has almost 700 friends, a large number for a small town. A main attraction is weekly postings of warrants from the city's municipal court.


Two of the county's six police departments with Facebook pages post local warrants, and two more are likely to follow soon.


Delavan and Geneva Township post warrants. Elkhorn and Darien are considering it, officials from those departments say.


"We get tips, and people give us a call about the locations of wanted people," Wiese said about Delavan's most wanted list.


"On a dozen or so occasions, people with warrants knew we were coming to pick them up because their names were on the Facebook list. Usually, a friend tells them. When we arrive at their house, they're prepared to get locked up because they tell us they don't have the money (to pay fines)."


Under former municipal court clerk Henry Johnson, Delavan court is alleged to have accumulated a large number of unpaid tickets, prompting a state investigation that led to a criminal charge of misconduct in public office. Johnson wants a special prosecutor to review the case.


Wiese said his department began posting the warrants after a new judge was elected and a new court clerk was appointed.


Officers at other police agencies, agents with probation and parole and staff at the Walworth County Jail check the names on Facebook warrants pages, but the most help and readership comes from the public, Wiese said.


UW-Whitewater Chief Matthew Kiederlan said his department's Facebook site is a tool to communicate with students.


"We are exploring using it as an emergency messaging tool for campus," he said.


Genoa City recently launched a site, too.


Geneva Township's site was born when its author was laid up.


"It came about while I was recovering from knee surgery a few months ago," Geneva Township officer Bob Linder said. "I noticed the city of Delavan was posting outstanding warrants, and I was impressed with how many people were following Delavan."


Darien Police Chief Hunter Gilmore said his department's site is another tool to get information to people quickly.


"We likely will put outstanding warrants on it," Gilmore said.


Wiese attributes the success of Delavan's site to word of mouth among residents who understand that police are trying to keep them informed about crime and community events. The site also reaches a population that is not inclined to read newspapers, he said.


"We're trying to keep it fun and informative and at the same time keep it fresh and light," Wiese said.


He recently posted a humorous picture of a police officer eating a donut. It received some god-natured responses, Wiese said.


All of the site keepers say they wrestle with finding time to maintain their sites while dealing with the day-to-day demands of being law enforcement officers.


Wiese said he updates his site while off duty because he enjoys the assignment.


Anzalone said police duties often take his attention away from the Elkhorn site but it can't be ignored for too long because of the benefits it gives to the department and the public.


"We use it as a tool to get information out, post updates on recent crimes or traffic enforcements or community events," Anzalone said. "We also look for tips from the public in recent investigations. The site increase community engagement with the police department as well as spread safety and public awareness."


Elkhorn is trying to surpass the 500 friends mark.


The police sites are open, meaning the public can post responses and suggestions. The sites also are free.


Wiese said public posts have been helpful and pleasant. If a questionable comment pops up on the Delavan site, Wiese can delete it almost instantaneously through the connection he has with the site to his cell phone.



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