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Leadership in a Cyber World: Perspectives from Six Police Executives

Police executives are challenged every day with economic, social, professional and political influences that would cause many seasoned business executives to cash out and head for a tropical island. In most cases, one does not become a top cop without many years on the job, developing skills and knowledge in negotiation, diplomacy, and patience, as well as finding the right balance of ego versus humility.

Having ascended to such a position, why then do so many seasoned top law officers bristle when the subject turns to the proliferation of computer software applications that we’ve come to call “social media”? Perhaps it is because today’s police chiefs are finding themselves in the position where the new recruits have more knowledge than they do, on a topic that is increasingly affecting policing.

Chiefs today have been thrust into a world of the unknown like never before. Yet many chiefs around the world are in fact succeeding with the implementation of social media into their agency’s repertoire. Some are welcoming social media and all the challenges, risks, and opportunities that it brings to policing.

As a consultant who specializes in social media in policing, I have noticed that the police chiefs who are leading the way have much in common with each other, in terms of their leadership philosophy in a cyber world. They acknowledge the risks of social media, but they look for the rewards. They accept that mistakes will be made and that the social media landscape is a moving target, ever changing and testing their ability to remain nimble and yet steadfast in their adherence to high policing standards.

These chiefs also accept that they are not all-knowing. Regardless of whether they are young chiefs with just a year or so in their position, or are decades into the role, they are comfortable acquiescing to those among their ranks or even outside of policing who know more.

Perhaps most important, these chiefs understand and recognize that truly accepting social media into the profession of policing requires an acknowledgement that it runs counter to police culture as it has existed for many decades. Social media threatens the traditionally hierarchical, paramilitary structure of policing. It’s a bottom-up phenomenon that tends to flatten the law enforcement organizational structure. The police executives who truly understand social media and all it offers not only believe that to be true; they welcome it.


Six police chiefs from five countries were interviewed for this article and were asked to offer their thoughts. These chiefs were selected because they all are considered progressive and open-minded thinkers, and because they are all early-adopters of social media technologies in their agencies. They serve as mentors to their colleagues, and as examples of what is possible for those who understand that success in social media, as in other areas, comes down to old-fashioned principles of leading organizational change.

This article explores that leadership by illustrating several points made by the police chiefs:

  • Overcoming resistance and leading change is a process.
  • Leaders must be willing to understand the extent of what they do not know—and admit to it.
  • There are risks to using social media, and mistakes will be made.
  • Success requires trusting your people.
  • Policy has to be flexible, because social media is a moving target.
  • Social media is about people, not technology.

Gordon Scobbie | Peter Sloly | Craig Steckler

Gordon Scobbie is the Deputy Chief Constable of the Tayside, Scotland Police Force. He is also the social media leader for policing in the UK. For the past two years, Scobbie has focused on creating an environment in which his peers can be comfortable with identifying the outer limits of what they know, and striving to get an idea of what lies beyond those limits. “It’s been about chipping away. Social media are becoming much more visible on the world stage. Leaders are accepting that they need to be aware of it,” Scobbie said. In the UK, Scobbie and his colleagues feel that only recently they have been successful in creating a safe environment where fellow leaders are comfortable to admit they don’t know everything they need to know.

Social media stands to revolutionize policing if fully embraced. Peter Sloly is a Deputy Chief in the Toronto, Canada Police Service. Toronto is already widely known for doing a lot of things right with social media. Yet the force recently went through a complete reevaluation of its social media program on a department-wide basis. For Sloly, social media represents an opportunity to decentralize communication, and that runs directly counter to policing’s paramilitary culture of command and control. “Getting the police culture to understand this thing comes with some very, very strong admissions as to where the weaknesses of our culture lie,” he said. For Sloly, social media is about honesty, transparency, and the willingness to be one of many voices, as opposed to the voice. It’s also about recognizing that people want to engage with police in social media, because they feel they are capable of helping police and contributing to public safety. “In fact, many of them will say we’ve got this all wrong,” he said. “They don’t want to be talked to, they want to be talked with.”

It’s a point not lost on Scobbie, who values feedback from people who aren’t necessarily seen as strong supporters of the police. “Our critics sometimes give us disruptive feedback, which shifts our thinking,” he said. “We can get feedback from them that’s actually helpful.”

The collaborative opportunities with social networking tools increase an agency’s opportunities to put the interests of community first. For Craig Steckler, Chief of Police in Fremont, California, it’s about not being satisfied with the status quo. As the second longest serving chief in the state, he hasn’t gotten to where he is in his career by acting irrationally. Steckler said he has always embraced technology, but when it comes to the new media available today, he’s the first to say he’s “not the smartest guy on the block”. He added, “I probably understand policing better than a lot of the police officers in the department or even California for that matter. But I’m the first to acquiesce to others in areas where I’m not an expert. We hire people who want to be part of the department, and we tell them that they’re going to have a say in what they do and what we want them to do.”

Steckler acknowledges, as do all six chiefs interviewed, there are risks to endure with the use of social media. But he cautions that it’s important not to overreact when mistakes are made. If an officer does something in social media that compromises the department in some way, Steckler said it’s important not to turn that into a department-wide overreaction that will stifle progress. “I have no problem going up in front of the public and saying, ‘You know, what that officer did was not smart, and we will take corrective action. But this is new territory and mistakes are going to be made. So I’m sorry, and let’s move on.’ ”

Guus Auerbach | John Stacey | Roman Quaedvlieg


In the Netherlands, use of social media in policing has gone through a process of acceptance and growth. Inappropriate online posts by officers have resulted in discussion, but have not proved significant enough to stifle expansion. Guus Auerbach is the Chief of Digital Forensics at The Hague Police Service. His department has used social media for outreach for a couple years. He refers to opportunities as “chances” and added, “We’ve always focused on the chances, not the threats that social media brings to us. The chances are winning, and they are very diverse.”

The chiefs interviewed for this article understand that the inevitable mistakes that will occur in social media should not cause them to lose trust in their employees. John Stacey, Chief of Police in Bellevue, Nebraska, is a pioneer in the use of social media in policing. He formulated one of the first social media policies in early 2009. He was quick to recognize that while law enforcement policies are normally black and white, with social media you’re not dealing with an exact science. “You have to set boundaries, but these boundaries are going to be vague, because things are transpiring around you that have not really been built yet, and you don’t know where things are going to fall. They may have to be to the left or right of your boundary line, and you may have to move your boundary.” Coming to grips with the fact that social media management in policing isn’t as precise as most things in law enforcement is key to the process. Trust in the troops is imperative, Stacey added. “Trust should be unspoken. You should already be at that level if they’re working with you. If not, then you’ve got other problems that you need to deal with before you deal with social media,” he said.

In the final analysis, social media is about people, not technology – the people you serve, and the people you employ. It requires a major shift in thinking to resolve the tension between a “command and control” environment and one that is nimble and agile and dilutes control. Roman Quaedvlieg, the Chief of Police of the Capital Territory for the Australian Federal Police, spoke to the need for a more flattened policing structure. “It’s certainly not something that a lot of police leaders would have an appetite for, because it’s not something that’s ingrained within our DNA,” he said. “The more agile you make an institution, the more you increase its ability to respond to change, the more you dilute your control and increase that tension. I don’t know how to reconcile that yet.” Quaedvlieg said police leadership today requires the willingness to “shake off the shackles of 25 or 30 years of conservative institutional mentalities.” Resistance to social media in policing, as Quaedvlieg described it, is not assertive, but more passive. “It’s an ingrained lack of accommodation for innovation on an institutional basis.” he said.

All six police leaders admitted that they were once skeptics about social media. Seeing the benefits has been an ongoing process. These chiefs don’t all know each other; in fact, only a couple of them have met in person. But their views on social media’s impact on policing are starkly similar. They all have reached the same conclusion: that is that it’s no longer a question of whether social media has a place in modern policing. The questions instead are: When does it happen? and How well will it get done?

This article was previously published in the July/August issue of “Subject to Debate” the official newsletter of the Police Executive Research Forum.

Lauri Stevens, an interactive media professional with over 25 years of media experience, is the founder and principal consultant with LAwS Communications. She founded LAwS Communications in 2005 to assist the law enforcement profession with the implementation of interactive media technologies. Ms. Stevens created the ConnectedCOPS.net blog and The SMILE Conference (Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement). She is a regular speaker on the topic of law enforcement use of social media and, through LAwS Academy, conducts training all over North America. She is published regularly in law enforcement magazines and is the law enforcement columnist for The Social Media Monthly magazine. For additional information, go to http://lawscommunications.com/ or contact Ms. Stevens at lauri@lawscomm.net or 978-764-9887.

The first Twitterthon for South Yorkshire comes to Barnsley

For the first time in South Yorkshire, police in Barnsley will be adopting Twitter as an avenue of communication for the days policing demands. On Saturday, 10 September, from 7am police will be tweeting various information to convey to the public the mass demand police in Barnsley face for 12 hours.

During the day, similarly to the GMP24 Twitterthon, police will be releasing details of calls received, however, further to this; police will also be releasing information relating to incidents the response team gets called to and information relating to the custody suite.

The information being communicated through Twitter will raise awareness of the diverse and complex role of policing.

To add to this, the date of the Twitterthon, (Saturday, 10 September) will coincide with the Barnsley FC vs. Leicester FC football match, in which police assistance is paramount, therefore information relating to the policing of the football game will also be communicated via Twitter.

The day will include a mass of information being corresponded through Twitter and will hopefully enable the public to see how much time and resources officers spend policing Barnsley.

Chief Superintendent Andy Brooke of South Yorkshire Police said: “I appreciate that social media plays a key role in our society today and wish to embrace this through the Twitterthon experience. I am hopeful that if we are as transparent as possible, our public will have a clearer understanding of the complex role and demands faced by police.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for us to show the diversity in demand for police and the dedication from my staff to the community of Barnsley.”

To be involved in this innovative and exciting opportunity please follow the hash tag – #barnsley12 from 7am on Saturday, 10 September till 7pm, or alternatively, follow the live feed on the South Yorkshire Police website.
To find out more regarding the Twitterthon and to see which tweeting officers will be participating in the event please follow @SYPBarnsley.


Notes to Editor:

Media interviews are available with Chief Superintendent Andy Brooke on Monday, 5 September, between 12 – 4pm. To arrange an interview please contact the Communications Office on 01226 736021.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller graduated in Public Relations from Leeds Metropolitan University in July 2010. Shortly after finishing university she began working for South Yorkshire Police as a Communications, Engagement and Marketing Officer for the Barnsley area. Whilst at university she undertook a variety of placements, giving her the knowledge and experience in various sectors including a year with NHS Hampshire. She has a keen interest in online communication and social media. She has used her knowledge in this area to develop the Barnsley 12hr Twitterthon which will take place on September 10, 2011.

Social Media, Police and Riots

I decided to wait for a little while before writing a post to discuss the use of social media during the recent riots that took place across England. Over a period of two weeks we have seen a move away from the initial knee jerk calls for social media to be turned off during disorder to a much more sensible position, of the industry working with the authorities to start to understand the social media world better from both sides.

Over this period, I have seen the Police attacked for their lack of knowledge of and use of social media. Those of you who have read my previous blogs will know that I have been a fierce advocate of police use of social media for many years. I have used social media effectively during disturbances before, and posted about it in April 2010. There has been a group of early adopter forces and individual officers who have been trying to enhance the understanding and use of social media amongst UK policing over the past three years.

Those calling for social media to be turned off seem to me to have completely missed the point. I was on the streets of Wolverhampton during the riots that took place here. I saw first hand the use of mobile handsets, where offenders were clearly consulting their screens and then issuing instructions to others. I have no doubt at all that social media played a part in the organisation of riots in parts of the country. This does not however mean that we should be calling for it to be turned off. It does mean that we need to understand how it works, and get better at using it.

The organisation of protests and disorder has evolved significantly in recent years. It was not very long ago that to organise a protest, you needed a group of like minded people in a room together, agreeing on a theme for the protest, making placards and flyers, and spreading the message via posters and word of mouth. These days, protests can be arranged without any of the protesters even having to be in the same country as each other. Locations can be announced at the very last second. Police forces have not kept up with this change, and we have sometimes given the impression that we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred at every turn, thwarted by technology.

When protests were being organised in student union bars, our answer was not to try and close down every bar and pub where the meetings might happen. Instead we chose to overtly approach these meetings and speak to the organisers to help us plan. Where co-operation was not forthcoming, we used covert tactics to gain a better understanding. In my view we should be taking exactly the same approach to social media. Rather than risk alienating millions of social media users by trying to turn it off (which I’m not sure is even possible) surely the way to address social media is to better understand it, and look at ways to use it to our benefit.

During the disorder in Wolverhampton, I used Twitter throughout, to update communities in Wolverhampton with developments, and crucially to prevent the spread of misinformation and rumour. One thing that we have seen over and over again during emergency situations is that where there is no information coming from the authorities, the gap will be plugged by speculation. InWolverhamptonwe have worked hard to build a network of local social media users, so that there was a network in place to get our messages out. (For those who want more information on this, this blog sets out the story of how we used social media during the riots.)

I cannot overstate the positive feedback I have had following my use of social media during the riots. I have had hundreds of messages of support and thanks from people who followed me to get an accurate picture of what went on. The very clear message is that people were reassured by following my feed, and believed it rather than all of the rumours that were flying about on the day.Wolverhampton local authority have told me that they were following my feed and then broadcasting updates from it. Almost every tweet I put out updating the situation was retweeted by 100+ people (Twitter seems to stop counting at 100!) National TV channels were running banner headlines which were straight lifts from my tweets. I gained 5000 extra followers in the 24 hours after the riots started which gives you some idea of the amount of people who wanted to be kept up to date.

I don’t think that there is now any question about whether or not police should use social media. Forces cannot just bury their head in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist. UK policing must become better, and integrate modern communications into their day to day operations.

As somebody who has been using social media since the early days, the most important things that I have learnt are;

1) Use Social Media – this might sound blindingly obvious, but we must adopt much wider use of social media in UK policing, if we are to become adept at using it. It appears to me that some areas have started to think about social media the day before they start using it at an event. This doesn’t work, firstly because as a result they don’t know what they are doing, and secondly, they have no follower base, and so they are talking to themselves. If you use social media on a day to day basis, people start to trust your voice, and they are much more likely to turn to you for information in a crisis.

2) Be brave
– you will make mistakes when you use social media, and once they are out there you can’t retract them easily. I think police forces need to be relaxed about this, the benefits of using social media to talk to people far outweigh the potential pitfalls. When I have made mistakes, people have commented that it just makes the police appear human, nobody expects us to be perfect all the time, but they do like to be able to talk to us.

3) Reach out to current users – one of the benefits of social media is that there are already lots of networks out there just waiting to talk to us. I have spent some time since I arrived in Wolverhampton speaking to the influential social media groups here. On the day of the riots, WV11, which is a fantastic hyperlocal site were carrying all of my messages, allowing people to access my information from a local site they like and trust.

4) Be an individual – There are some great examples of corporate use of social media in policing. West Midlands Police and Greater Manchester Police have both got huge follower numbers, and are excellent tools for broadcasting messages. Both forces during the riots monitored their twitter feeds and answered questions they were asked, taking a step away from the one way traffic that has been the hallmark of Police twitter use. My view is that this is very important, but that alongside the corporate presence, forces ought to encourage individual officers to engage through social media. This allows local people to follow a local cop, asking them questions and talking to them about issues on their doorstep. In effect this adds another dimension to the concept of a local officer.

I am encouraged by the early signs. There is now a platform for the industry to work with the police to help us understand each others needs better. There is interest from the Home Office about how police use social media, we may be seeing a new dawn in police use of social media. Fingers crossed!

Mark Payne

Mark Payne is a Superintendent with the West Midlands Police. He is based at Wolverhampton, responsible for managing response to crime and operations in the city. Superintendent Payne will deliver a keynote address at the upcoming SMILE Conference in Dallas.

Invest in social networks when it isn’t an emergency

Almost 12 months ago Greater Manchester Police in England carried out a 24 hour ‘tweetathon’ to highlight what the police were faced with on a daily basis. At that time we didn’t realise how crucial that work was going to be to the future communication the Force carries out.

The work in October 2010 signified a change in the way the Force aimed to communicate and engage with communities. It was a move from paid for advertising to greater use of social media and traditional media relations.
When trouble started to erupt on the streets of Manchester and Salford in early August the 10 months of hard work to develop communication through social networks started to pay off. We had already managed to have a healthy 23,000 Twitter followers, and had 90 per cent of our neighbourhood policing teams Tweeting to their local communities. The photographic networking site Flickr also was attracting thousands of visitors.

From the start the communication plan was developed to ensure it was fully integrated from traditional through to social media management and this became a key element of the policing operation. The Force Twitter feed was used in the early stages to discount rumour and speculation when it could, and to encourage people to report any concerns they had. This wasn’t used just to push information out, we used it to start a conversation with the people living in Greater Manchester and they took the opportunity.

Once disturbances were taking place it was clear there was going to be a huge police investigation to identify those involved. Within six hours of the trouble starting, we had established a ‘most wanted’ Flickr site, Facebook page, were tweeting updates, had put press conferences on YouTube and all this was accessible through the Force Internet site.
The key was to provide people with an easy way of sending photographs and footage in to the Force of the disturbances which would be able to help the investigation team. But also to be able to quickly push out images of those involved circulate them to the local media and also highlight them through social networks. Essential to make all this happen was integrating all the elements of social media that we used.

We had tremendous feedback with overwhelming support from people both for the policing response and for the conversations we were having through social networks. These messages were circulated through our internal Intranet and had a huge boost on morale of officers and staff working long hours. After just a few days we had reached 101,000 followers on Twitter, had more than 7,000 friends on the Facebook page and the ‘most wanted’ Flickr site had well over 1m hits.

Using social networks was critical to being able to support the investigation and gauge the mood of communities. The conversations were essential to the development of our communication and the feedback people gave us will help refine our use of social networks. All the hard work and effort to use social networks to engage with people really was and is essential. The key to all law enforcement agencies is to learn about social networks and what they can do when you have time and streets are not burning. You can’t hope to start to learn about social networks when the bullets are flying.

Amanda has more than 10 years experience in senior communications roles within the police service and is currently responsible for the Corporate Communications function at Greater Manchester Police.

Initially, trained as a journalist Amanda worked on local newspapers throughout the North
West of England before moving into public relations working for a number of public sector organisations.

She has led the communication team at Greater Manchester Police during some challenging times including the death of the former Chief Constable and numerous counter terrorism investigations. Amanda has been part of the Force’s work to improve community engagement and communication. She was also responsible for the development of the GMP Twitter Day activity in October 2010 where the Force published details of all calls received in a 24 hour period.

How bloggers and police countered riot rumours in Wolverhampton

This is a follow-up to a post I wrote about the riots a few days ago – where I tried to highlight some of the good things to come from the use of social media at the time. One of the examples I cited was Superintendent Mark Payne‘s tweeting to counter the wildly inaccurate rumours about what was happening in Wolverhampton. As commenters on the post pointed out (including Mel Potter of Wolverhampton City Council), the WV11 blog (which, as it happens, we’d highlighted in a report commissioned by Wolverhampton City Council and West Midlands Police as a great example of civic use of social media) had been using its Facebook page to also battle against the misinformation. There have been calls from some politicians and a few police to suspend Twitter and Facebook during similar events in the future, in the belief that this would stop rumours that end up wasting police time from quickly spreading. So I’m hoping this is a timely piece – even if it is a very long one!!! Monday 8th of August, 2011 Following riots over the weekend in London, there were reports of trouble spreading to other cities across England on Monday including nearby Birmingham. In Wolverhampton, at this time Mark Payne said that nothing was happening – despite many rumours to the contrary. If you look at his Twitter stream from that day, you can see what he did to counter these rumours. He took time to carefully answer questions and clear up some of the confusion, as well as reporting from other officers around the West Midlands. At the same time, Steph from the WV11 blog told us that she was seeing similar rumours circulating on Facebook. That evening, she and partner James started to update their Facebook page to set people straight:- Tuesday 9th of August, 2011 On Tuesday morning, Mark tweeted that there was some minor damage to shops in Wolves overnight, but this was nothing in comparison to the problems elsewhere. At middday, he tweeted: “Huge amount of resources available to quell any trouble in Wolverhampton and the West Mids. Hope common sense prevails.” Later that day, Mark was on the ground when trouble did flare up: “I was in amongst the rioters five minutes before it kicked off,” he told me. “And I was able to use twitter to tell people what was actually happening – and what wasn’t.” Mark said, too, that he knew when and why there would be trouble. “I know a lot of the criminals [in Wolverhampton] and I saw people in amongst that crowd who were criminals. It was clear that was where the disorder was coming from,” he said. “It became really hostile and really volatile, really quickly.” Because Mark’s updates were coming from a verifiable, official source they proved helpful to other people in Wolverhampton trying to make sense of what was going on. Steph Jennings of the WV11 blog said: “When we set up WV11 we made a decision that we’d only ever report things if we knew were fact, so getting updates from Mark and other police officers was really valuable.” Steph and James relayed Mark’s updates regularly to their Facebook page and blog – pouring cold water on myths that there had disturbances at the Bentley Bridge shopping centre in Wednesfield (which, by the way, is WV11). The work they did appears to have had an invaluable effect. “After a while, people were coming onto the Facebook page and correcting what other people were saying [when they were rumours]. People were saying things like: ‘I think you should just listen to what the guys running the site are saying.'” Of course, Mark’s tweets weren’t just being followed by the WV11 blog – but by more traditional news sources, too. At one point, Mark says, the content of an update found its way on to Sky News – perhaps more proof if it was needed of the value and timeliness of the information he was providing. Wednesday 10th of August, 2011 On the day following the trouble, both Mark and WV11 were quick to report on the aftermath – both the damage to shops and the efforts to clean up the centre. Mark also made sure people knew about what the police had done to track down the troublemakers. WV11 posted photographs in the afternoon – showing how people were out on the streets tidying up. They took care, Steph said, to not just capture shops that were damaged, but those that were not. “We took the photos to help to stop the rumours,” Steph said. “That’s one thing about WV11. It’s always been about saying: ‘It’s not all bad, despite what some people think.'” The ill-founded rumours on Twitter and Facebook continued on the Wednesday, but claims there’d be more trouble never materialised. Mark even cracked a joke about it, as you can see below… What’s happened since Both WV11, Mark and others at West Midlands Police continued their work that night and for the next few days. Mark, who has emphasised time and again the really hard work officers on the ground did during the disorder, evidently feels that Twitter had a positive impact as well. But he points out that it takes time to build your authority in social m
edia – and other constabularies won’t get instant results. “You can’t just pop up from the ground and expect people to trust what you say, because for them there is no point of reference,” he said. “It’s because I’ve used [Twitter] for three or four years and people know who I am and they’ve seen me tweet from policing events before.” Mark is now followed by more than 7,000 people on Twitter – greater in number than some police forces enjoy. He told me it is a ‘vital tool for modern policing’. “Given the level of interest you try and try to use this well. Wherever I go I find that people love the police. This is an absolutely open goal.” Update: You can now read Mark’s thoughts about all of this on his blog here. The WV11 blog has also enjoyed a huge surge in interest as a result of its work during the riots. Steph said: “We want to capitalise on it while we can. Of course we know we can’t hope to sustain the levels we’ve seen but it’s an opportunity to start to engage with more people.” The blog has been talking to the police about a regular blog post from a police officer being published on the site – and Steph and James have already provided a live blog from a PACT meeting. So what does all this mean? Steph and James love where they live – that’s why they do what they do. So – quite evidently – does Mark. It’s natural that they should work together, indeed it’s a principle enshrined in the way this country has always been policed. Using social media can evidently help these kinds of relationships to blossom quickly and at times without any (or very much) formal management. Of course, these same advantages can be used for bad – but the vast majority of people are more like Steph, James and Mark than they are like the looters – as a few minutes spent looking at the WV11 Facebook Page will prove. Both the guys from WV11 and Mark Payne agree that it’s important for the police and government to make better use of social networking tools. I hope their experiences will convince a few more people to take the plunge.

You can read another version of this piece over at the Public-i blog here.

Andrew is the online communities manager for Public-i, helping public organisations, including police forces, with social media and community management. For more than eight years before that he was a journalist – in London and then in Dubai. More recently he has worked with Podnosh.com back in the UK, and studied online journalism at Birmingham City University. You can read more about Andrew’s work over at Public-i’s blog.

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