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Police agencies embrace technology, social media to reach more residents
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Police agencies embrace technology, social media to reach more residents

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The basic goal of police work -- "to serve and protect" -- hasn't changed and likely won't change, said the top cops in Porter County's three largest departments.

"It's not what we do, it is going to be how we do it that changes," said Porter County Sheriff Dave Reynolds.

"I don't see a cultural change or a change in our philosophy," said Valparaiso Police Chief Mike Brickner. "I see a greater use of technology and use of social media and a greater use of community policing efforts."

Brickner said his department is in contact with some 5,000 people through social media, which led to 150 tips last year and many of those tips leading to significant arrests or prevention of crimes.

"We want to be communicative with our community. We do that through our Facebook page, and residents have been very responsive to us," said Portage Police Chief Troy Williams, adding when the department posts surveillance photos of someone they need to identify, the public usually responds within minutes.

Reynolds said his department recently contracted with a company to update its website. The new website not only will allow people greater accessibility to information such as police and accident reports, it also will allow them to take social media to a different level.

As part of the update, a free app will be created for smart phones, Reynolds said. Residents who want to download the app will have access to information in real time from weather alerts to traffic accidents through push alerts.

In addition to the outreach efforts social media is permitting the departments, the chiefs also said they want to continue other programs in their communities that improve interaction with the community.

Williams said they are going to resurrect the Citizens Police Academy, look at a police explorer program for early high school-age students and continue to make contacts through schools and youth sports.

"If the public sees us as approachable, it is a win for both of us," Williams said.

All three chiefs said they see their departments and others working on better communications with the public, more interaction. They also see greater collaboration among departments within the county and outside agencies.

Reynolds pointed to the recent formation of a countywide heroin-response team as an example of how departments in the county are working more closely together.

"We are trying to work on building stronger relationships with other departments. Sometimes there is a disconnect because of a lack of communication," Reynolds said.

"Partnerships is a big thing. We'll work with anyone," Williams said, adding they already work with various task forces and the U.S. Marshal's office.

Brickner said his department is looking at other technological advances as well. Officers were recently issued computer tablets, which will allow them more flexibility to access records and take information.

"That's pretty much how we do business now," he said. "Technology is always evolving and it's a matter of knowing what's going to work in Valparaiso."

Brickner also foresees his department getting body cameras for officers. That's something neither Reynolds nor Williams is sure will be used in their departments in the near future.

"I've been researching body cameras. There are a whole bunch of issues, from costs to privacy issues," said Williams, adding he'll continue to analyze their value before deciding if they are right for the Portage department.

Reynolds, while saying departments are moving in that direction, said there is also the challenge of collecting and storing all the data that body cameras and other devices will bring in to the department.

"We have to decide what we are going to do with all that data," he said.

They all also said, like the essence of police work itself, there are other things that won't change, such as working within the governmental budget to continue to provide services.

"We have to look at how to maximize our manpower and resources. We depend on data. We are data-driven," Brickner said, adding it sometimes comes down to creative scheduling to put the people where they're most needed.

Williams agreed that looking at the budget and determining what you can do with what you have tends to make a chief creative.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.

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