As more police departments join social media networks it’s clear to observers like myself which ones really “get it” as a department. Many individual cops tweet and have Facebook pages. But, when a department is on social media and does it well, more often than not, the chief tweets and has a keen understanding at least, of the potential value of the tools. In order for the agency to gain the credibility it would need to achieve success, the top brass needs to not only buy in but also communicate their approval and encourage their officers to participate.

articleimage1In Oxnard, California, Assistant Chief of Police Scott Whitney led his department’s charge into the world of social networking. Whitney says a friend who plays poker and follows the game on Twitter, explained to him how it works and Whitney immediately saw the value to law enforcement. He’s optimistic about the value especially to his SRO, narcotics, crime prevention, and sex crimes units. Whitney got the Chief, his PIO, and his nine beat commanders to sign up, and he tweets too.

When the movement starts at the top, it’s more likely, although not necessarily a given, that the department has a plan for social media or some sort of vision. But, in some cases, it takes one or two progressively-minded officers to take things into their own hands to demonstrate to the command-types the value the new media offer. That’s what’s happening at Toronto Police Services.

Constable Scott Mills and Sergeant Tim Burrows are two very forward-thinking officers in Toronto. They each took to social media to further their separate professional causes. Mills is a CrimeStoppers and Youth Officer, while Burrows is responsible for communicating everything that’s traffic safety related for the entire city. Burrows says it didn’t take long for him to realize that traditional media was too big and too slow, “where with social media I can drive my message to so many people, so that was a really easy avenue for me to attack on.”

His efforts, as well as Mills’ haven’t gone unnoticed. They both have support from their commanders. As Burrows points out they’ve earned their supervisors’ trust, “we haven’t done anything controversial or outside the boundaries”. Their Public Information Office works closely with both officers. Meaghan Gray is the Assistant Director of the PIO. She says the department would probably be dealing with social networking even if Mills and Burrows didn’t lead the way, but it helps that they did. Gray says, “I think the Service recognizes what they’ve been doing, the benefits and positive responses, not just for their own programs but the benefits to the Service as a whole. Cleary what they do has an impact on the rest of the Service.” Gray adds that the Toronto Police Service is currently figuring out where social networking fits within its communication strategy and how to move forward. The Toronto CHief and his Command officers have expressed their support of its PIO to explore the ways in which the Service can use social networking tools for official police business.

However an agency gets into social networking, the sooner the commanders are on board, the better. Mills and Burrows are lucky, not to mention smart, and they were in the right positions to leverage the tools. They’ve managed to garner their commanders’ support through the backdoor.

Scott Whitney is sold on the value of social media. He’s ready to let all 238 sworn officers in Oxnard on Twitter. He said there isn’t one officer in Oxnard that he wouldn’t welcome on Twitter, to tweet on behalf of the department. He adds that his Chief would agree. Whitney says, “We trust our officers. We give them guns, tasers, batons, why wouldn’t we give them Twitter? We hire people of good character. Every now and then we might make a mistake, but we’ll correct it when and if we do.” The biggest mistake may be not participating at all.

On Twitter, Mills is @1800222tips, Burrows is @trafficservices, Whitney is @acwhitney