After nearly 30 years in law enforcement, Harlem Department of Public Safety Chief Gary Jones knows the most powerful tool in an officer’s arsenal isn’t a weapon or a vehicle – it’s social media.
The 52-year-old lawman has worked everywhere from small-town agencies to county sheriff’s offices, even serving a brief stint as the interim director of the Regional Youth Detention Center in Augusta. With experience at different levels of law enforcement, Jones said, he has learned the secret to success.
“I certainly have pulled and learned and gathered expertise from all different angles,” he said. “To be successful in all of them, I think you have to have open communications with the public. You have to be transparent, and you certainly have to be able to recruit and retain quality folks.”
Jones, who was named Harlem’s interim chief following the departure of David Sward in mid-April, was hired as the city’s director of public safety in August. Since then, Jones said he has been perfecting his use of social media through the department’s Facebook page.
“When I started the Facebook page for Harlem, it started slowly,” he said. “When I began to disseminate information, it was quite obvious that people were enjoying having that information and having insight on what is happening with the department. That’s something that we’re continuing to do today.”
The department’s page is updated by Jones almost daily, creating a constant line of communication between the agency and its more than 2,100 followers.
Jones uses the page to post things from tips on crime prevention to news on recent arrests to general public service announcements that might benefit Harlem residents. When a snow storm threatened the area earlier this week, Jones said he made sure to continually update the page to reassure Harlem residents that the department was well equipped to handle the winter weather.
“It reaches so many people in such a short amount of time,” said Lt. Kelvin Hartwell on the department’s Facebook page. “It’s very, very good tool for us.”
But despite the page receiving positive responses “99.9 percent of the time,” Jones said he learned early on that mixing law enforcement and social media can have a downside.
Jones said he drew some criticism in late 2013 for posting messages on the department’s Facebook page with religious undertones.
In November, Jones received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization that promotes separation of church and state, urging him to stop using the department’s Facebook page as an outlet for his religious beliefs.
After consulting with city officials, and though he felt most of Harlem supported his religious-based posts, Jones said it was decided that the department’s page should be used for law enforcement related posts only.
Since then, Jones said, the department’s dedication to social media has been met with praise.
“I think anyone in any area, no matter if it’s a city or a county, appreciates having that information firsthand instead of hearing about it on the news,” he said. “You also have people who appreciate open government and that they have folks who are holding themselves accountable and that they can rely on those people to be informed.”
With a focus on social media, the department has transformed into a far more open and progressive agency, Jones said.
“I think a lot of agencies, for whatever reason, have been reluctant to get involved in it,” he said. “I just think that it’s something that’s crucial now, especially for the future of law enforcement, to stay ahead of the curve. I think we’re all going to have to get involved with social media.”
Jones said he hopes to bring a Twitter account into the fold soon.