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Candid police chief's comments spur viral Facebook page

By Matthew Casey, CNN
updated 2:26 PM EDT, Thu June 20, 2013
Police Chief David Oliver sees social media as way to engage the community.
Police Chief David Oliver sees social media as way to engage the community.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Brimfield Facebook page is the third most liked police page in the United States
  • Chief David Oliver isn't shy about having little patience for "mopes," or criminals
  • Criminal justice and sociological experts say his approach could have mixed results

(CNN) -- Brimfield Township Police Chief David Oliver keeps a picture of John Wayne in his office, but admits it's hard to know what the Duke would say about a self-described old-school cop using Facebook to sound off about enforcing the law in a small Ohio town.

"I'd like to think he'd appreciate that we're communicating effectively with people," Oliver said. "But have a low tolerance for nonsense."

The police chief has earned national headlines for poking fun at so-called mopes, or suspected criminals, on his department's Facebook page.

Oliver's candid comments have made it the third most viewed police department page in the United States, according to Nancy Kolb, senior program manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

With more than 64,000 likes, it trails only the New York City Police Department and the Boston Police Department.

"Up and at 'em. It's 65 degrees outside of the Center for Mope Studies," Oliver wrote in a typical post this week.

The chair of Brimfield's board of trustees says Oliver's teasing of criminals is in good fun, while criminal justice experts say it falls in a gray area between traditional practices and the unethical.

Oliver launched the Facebook page in 2010, after viewing a couple police department pages and deciding one would fit into his management philosophy, which is to try to run the department like a business and serve the community from within.

He and his staff of 16 full-time officers say they want social media to work for those they serve.

"If our customers are on Facebook and Twitter, we have to be there engaging them," said Oliver, who spoke by phone from Brimfield. "The more we communicate, the more we inform, the less people are suspicious of us."

'It takes away the moral high ground'

Brimfield Township is a suburb of Kent, Ohio, with a population of more than 10,000 that is growing rapidly again after being hit hard by years of economic downturn, said Mike Kostensky, the chairman of its board of trustees.

He has known Oliver for 12 years.

"Dave has such a way with words," Kostensky said. "He makes people comfortable. His office is open to anybody. I guess it's a little bit of how small town America used to be."

But not everyone sees productive humor in Oliver's Facebook discussions.

Steven Lab, a professor of criminal justice and chairman of the Department of Human Services at Bowling Green State University, says Oliver's posts only deepen the divide between authorities and people who are suspicious of the system, but are often the most in need of its help.

"It takes away the moral high ground of whoever is supposed to be in charge," Lab said. "It's going to raise more disrespect."

Oliver disagrees.

He got the term "mope" from the 1970s police show "Kojak," and stresses his teasing of suspects is just a part of what he posts.

"A mope is a person who leeches off us and usually is engaged in criminal activity," Oliver wrote recently. "We do not believe everyone who has ever committed a crime is a mope. People change."

On June 20, the police chief likened the Brimfield police station to a ship in the U.S. Navy.

"It's 54 degrees outside of Mope-us Interruptus," he wrote in a post that also thanked World War II veterans, wished singer Lionel Richie happy birthday and quoted comedian Jay Leno.

Sometimes, Oliver details calls to police and their response.

"I think that as a society we have become desensitized," he said. "I'm trying to keep a lot of the criminal element in plain view, so we can address some of the causes and the results of the crime."

'I just don't get along well with criminals'

Lab, who doesn't use Facebook and had not viewed the Brimfield page, said now that it has gone viral, it no longer serves its intended purpose because the majority of its audience is in no way connected with Brimfield.

"It's titillating," he said of the page's surge in popularity. "It's morbid voyeurism by people in general."

Molly Merryman, associate chair of sociology in the Criminology and Justice Studies program at Kent State University, which is about 15 minutes from Brimfield, says social media plays an increased role in informing communities like Brimfield that are not connected to a major media market.

"He's been a chief for a long time and knows his community very well," she said. If the Facebook page is "an extension of the police department and has the community's blessing, then it certainly can be appropriate."

Merryman said the U.S. criminal justice system has a long history of public shaming that can be traced to the Puritans. Shaming is still commonly used in the juvenile justice system, where the goal is to make the violator recognize society's expectation for proper behavior, she said.

Oliver said that while what he posts about alleged criminals is public record, he never uses names, pictures or exact locations when discussing suspects' purported actions.

"I don't want anybody humiliated," he said. "I'm very sensitive to collateral damage by people who commit crimes and I don't want a family member suffering."

According to the FBI, in 2011, approximately one crime was reported for every 36 people living in Brimfield Township. Almost 96% of reported crimes were property crimes, of which larceny and theft made up 80%. Brimfield Township reported no murders or homicides in 2011, and a total of 12 violent crimes, half of which were rape.

A native of nearby Akron, Ohio, Oliver has spent his entire 19 years as a police officer working in Brimfield, the last nine as chief.

"I'm an inner-city kid," he said. "I did my share of running the streets. ... I don't see color. I don't see sex. I have friends of all persuasions. I just don't get along well with criminals."

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