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Taking Back Union Hill, Tweet by Tweet

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Fed up with drug dealing in the neighborhood, some Union Hill residents are taking their frustration to Twitter.

Through @unionhillrva, neighbors anonymously post sightings of alleged drug dealers and buyers. Serious but not without levity — posters refer to the Hamsterdam of "The Wire" and opine on buyers' fashion choices — the account is an attempt to draw police attention. A growing number of law enforcement agencies are using social media to inform residents and elicit tips, but this appears to be Richmond's first neighborhood-originated anti-crime campaign on social media.

While law enforcement authorities say social media are useful, important tools in informing the public and obtaining leads, the anonymous-yet-public nature of such an institution presents its own challenges for reporting crime. Users on @unionhillrva are anonymous, for instance, because neighbors fear retribution from dealers.

Detective Adrian Otero, a coordinator of Crime Solvers of Chesterfield-Colonial Heights, says the public nature of Twitter and Facebook may limit the sites' utility as sources of tips. Posting even anonymously in a public forum is more than some people feel safe doing, he says.

That's why he doesn't see tips from social media accounts supplanting traditional crime-tip reporting methods. "There's still fear ... amongst people," Otero says. "Anonymity is so important."

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