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Police in west Iowa weigh quick information release

Published: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 12:00 p.m. CDT

SIOUX CENTER (AP) — Area police departments are caught in a balancing act as they take advantage of high-tech tools in solving crimes.

The ability to instantly share news and seek the public’s help through Nixle, a text-message alert system, as well as such popular social media sites as Facebook and Twitter is tempered by knowing certain information can do more harm than good in a public forum.

“You have to have a balance between public safety and getting information (out) and causing undue alarm,” said Sioux County Sheriff’s Sgt. Nate Huizenga.

The issue was highlighted in September, when children in several Northwest Iowa counties — including Lyon, Clay, Dickinson and Sioux — reported being harassed by a man in a light-colored vehicle.

Deputies in Sioux County, who use Nixle, Facebook and Twitter to relay information to residents, had to try to distinguish false reports from important information citizens needed to know.

“You just looked at the circumstances and the information you’ve got,” Huizenga said. “And if it was credible and it seemed logical, it was something that we put out.”

More than 1,000 people subscribe to the Sioux County Sheriff’s Office’s Nixle account. The Nixle service enables the county’s police dispatchers to send emails and text messages to subscribers about events as they happen. Nearly all of the messages are simultaneously posted on the department’s Facebook page and Twitter account, Huizenga said.

Many area police departments have Facebook pages, but few post as much information as the Sioux County Sheriff’s Office and the South Sioux City Police Department.

South Sioux City police post news releases about crimes in their city, release video and photo surveillance footage and pass along information from other police departments on their department’s Facebook page.

Both agencies post information about potentially hazardous weather conditions and current scams.

In the case of the reports about a man harassing children, Sioux County deputies didn’t pass along every report they received. Deputies examined calls closely, Huizenga said, separating the credible reports from those that were less convincing.

At one point, children in several Northwest Iowa counties and cities reported variations of the same story of a man following or harassing them. In Sergeant Bluff, two kindergarten students reported seeing a man holding a dollar bill out the window of a vehicle shortly after a drawing depicting a similar scene was used during a safety presentation by local police.

Much to the relief of their parents, police determined the Sergeant Bluff reports were unfounded and said they thought the safety training might have sparked the children’s imaginations. Law enforcement did not post those reports online.

South Sioux City police were monitoring the ongoing suspicious vehicle situation closely, however. They posted information about one of the incidents, in Tilden, Neb., on the department’s web page.

“We try to post as much information out to the public on safety issues involving children,” said South Sioux City police Lt. Chuck Carson. “We certainly don’t want to panic the public, but we want them to be aware of their surroundings.”

Police always need to carefully consider what kind of information to release to the public, said Don Dorn, a police science instructor at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City.

“If there’s a current investigation under way, we certainly don’t want to release anything that would give any indication of what we’re thinking of to a suspect or potential clues that could lead potential suspects to cover their tracks if they heard that information,” Dorn said.

Deputies and officers are careful about how much detail they put into public statements, Huizenga and Carson said, often withholding key details in order to determine whether leads generated from Nixle or Facebook posts are legitimate or suspect.

All in all, Nixle and social media has been helpful to the department, Huizenga said. In one case, someone found a missing child thanks to information in a Nixle alert.

“We’ve already had a few cases that have been positively impacted by people who see things on Nixle,” he said.

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