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Web Cops?

Right then, it appears we have caused a bit of a stir by saying that we are thinking about having somebody in post to try and expand our use of social media. The interview, given by Assistant Chief Constable Scobbie, has been widely reported as West Midlands Police employing a ‘Cyber Cop’ type person.

The media seem to be under the impression that somebody is going to explode out of an unsuspecting critic’s laptop, cuffs in hand to march the offender off to the station. I can fully understand the concerns people have expressed if that actually was our intention, but as I was the officer who came up with the idea, I can say categorically, that it wasn’t.

People may occasionally doubt the intellectual capacity of police officers, but I can safely say that if we were planning to launch a spy in cyber space, we wouldn’t put out a press release and conduct interviews about it!

The idea is really very simple. Police are often criticised for being difficult to get hold of, or not listening to what local people are saying. We try all kinds of ways to communicate with the public, meetings, newsletters, traditional media, talking to people we meet and anything else we can think of. There is clearly a huge amount of conversation taking place online and, where people are talking about policing or crime issues, we want to be part of the conversation.

Until recently, our officers were prevented from accessing the internet at work. We have recognised that situation is a bit ridiculous in the modern world, and now all our officers have access.

The role that we are thinking about will not be a police officer. It will be somebody who understands the world of social media, and who can help us develop the ideas that we have, and make our officers more accessible to people.

I can say with absolute certainty that this is not about jumping on people who are criticising us. We sometimes get things wrong, even when we are trying to do the right thing. Policing is a hugely complex business, and it is inevitable, that we will upset some people. If this is the case, we want to hear about it, warts and all. At least if we know, we will have opportunity to put it right, or do better next time.

I have been actively engaged in the social media world for a while now, as a police officer. I have been warmly welcomed by most, some have queried what I am doing there, but many people have responded really positively. I firmly believe that if we go ahead and employ somebody to help us engage with people online, it will help us to get closer to people, and it is the right thing to do.

I would welcome your thoughts………

Lawbreakers' worlds shrink with social media and web technology

c'est moi, @lawscomm

I’ve done a few interviews recently on my favorite topic of social media use by law enforcement. In each interview I’ve been asked what affect social media will have in the world of crime in the future. While it felt a bit audacious to say, in each case I answered that I truly believe social media will have a direct affect on lowering crime. It sounds utopian perhaps, but social media is shrinking our world. We’re learning more and more from and about people all over the planet. Part of what we’re learning more about is what crimes people are committing and exactly WHO is committing them. As we learn that, and as the people likely to commit them learn that the “jig is up”, doesn’t it stand to reason that they may smarten up? That there will develop an overall awareness that we really all are in “this” together and that our actions are seen by many (and many many more all the time). Am I delusional? Some people think so. The programs described in this article are far from perfect. But the fine law enforcement professionals who are brave enough to carry them out are true visionaries and I believe much good will result.

It’s always bigger in Texas

In Montgomery County Texas, DWI is a huge problem, they say like everything in Texas, bigger than in most parts of the country. In fact, according to the District Attorney’s office, it’s the number #1 most committed crime in the county. If someone suffers a violent death in Montgomery County, the DA’s office says it is most likely caused by an intoxicated driver. “You are three times more likely to be killed by an impaired or reckless driver in this county than you are by all other weapons combined”, according to Warren DiePraam, the Assistant DA and Chief of Vehicular Crimes. The DA’s office wants to send a message. DiePraam said, “what we want people to know is that Montgomery County takes DWI seriously. If you commit that crime here, it’s going to be costly for you.” And these days, it’s costing offenders a lot – its costing them their privacy.

Get busted for DWI in Montgomery County during specific “heavy drinking” holidays, and your name is blasted out to the DA’s 675 followers on Twitter. The Twitter account @MontgomeryTXDAO bears the name and photo of DA Brett Ligon, but it’s DiePraam’s brainchild and it’s he who tweets from it.

Here are some recent relevant tweets from the account.

It probably isn’t a surprise, the program has met with a fair amount criticism from legal professionals and citizens alike. Most pointing out that until someone is proven guilty, they shouldn’t be treated as though they are and to them, tweeting the offenders’ names amounts to being punished before being convicted. But the DA’s office says arrests are public information and the arrestees’ names are also published on several websites. The difference of course, is that Twitter messages get delivered to consumers without their having to put forth effort to see them.

DiePraam says they’ve received a fair amount of congratulations and appreciation for their efforts as well. The feedback that came via Twitter has been mixed:

Many critics are asking if the DAO will tweet when someone is found not-guilty of the DWI offense. DiePraam said he’s not opposed to that and thinks it’s a good idea and stated he would consider doing so. He added that 95% of people arrested for DUI in the county get convicted. They have a 100% conviction rate for arrests made with a blood search warrant.

It’s less about legalities and more about social media norms

So, what’s the big deal? It’s legal to publish the names of people convicted of a crime. Just because it’s Twitter, is that why it’s more controversial? Is it because a law enforcement agency is doing it? Perhaps it has something to do with the newness of the idea? The issue has less to do with it being legal, I would suggest, and more to do with it being a new idea and perhaps some of the things the DA is doing are counter to currently accepted social media practices.

Jeremy Lipschultz, Professor of Communications at the University of Nebraska in Omaha has spent the better part of his career at the intersection of communications and technology. He’s worked as a police reporter, radio News Director and college educator. Lipschultz spoke to the newness of the idea of news being posted on Twitter. “I think it goes back to a cultural tradition. When we reporters were the conduit to this, we only picked the most important stories and so people are used to that. There’s a feeling that there’s a threshold through which information passes before we citizens find out about it.” (*See footnote)

But social media is also about transparency, about openness, about laying ALL your cards on the table. If the DA is going to publish DUI arrests only during specific holidays, is it fair then if the person arrested on a non-holiday does NOT get their name published? Is that really being fully transparent? I suggest not.

“Once you make a decision to stop for a period of time, you’ve placed yourself in an editorial position at that point, and I don’t think that’s where public agencies ought to be.”
~ Jeremy Lipschultz

Currently the Montgomery DA office plans to follow a plan to publish during what they call “no refusal holidays” which includes St Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Lipschultz is concerned about that, “Once you make a decision to stop for a period of time, you’ve placed yourself in an editorial position at that point, and I don’t think that’s where public agencies ought to be.” I think he’s right and I shared this opinion with DiePraam. He listened and seemed to appreciate the input.

Other law enforcement agencies are undertaking similar initiatives. In Honolulu for example, the PD posts every Wednesday, for 24 hours, the names and mugshots of people who had been arrested for OVUII (Operating a Vehicle Under the Influence of an Intoxicant) on its website, a program they started November 25th, 2009.

Major Thomas Nitta of the HPD Traffic Division says reaction has been mixed but is mostly positive and the public has been surprised to learn just how many arrests they make for OVUII. He said “If asked most people would feel that in a week on Oahu maybe 30-40 people would be arrested for OVUII, when the actual numbers from 2008 averaged between 80-90 persons per week.” As posted on Wednesday, January 13th, 53 people had been arrested the week prior.

Nitta added the program is also intended to educate people that the persons arrested are usually friends, relatives, co-workers who are violating the law. Nitta told me that since the mugshots are taken down after 24 hours, it’s not a problem if someone wins their case in court because the information has been removed.

If this program is successful, acts as a deterrent or increases awareness to the problem of driving while intoxicated, Nitta said they may add similar initiatives to include domestic violence, prostitution or narcotics, “depending on the interest”. The department does not use social media tools and has no immediate plans to do so, bummer. 🙁

Other departments tweet their arrest reports regularly, but some are adding more information to what they publish via Twitter. The Schenectedy Police Department, for example, is one PD tweeting its daily arrest reports which include a link that takes anyone who clicks to a pdf file of mugshots, names and other information.

The Montgomery County DA will continue to list suspected offenders’ names on Twitter during stepped-up DWI enforcement on major holiday weeks. DiePraam said, “It’s not going to be the magic solution, but very recently we got a letter from a citizen who lost the use of her legs as a result of getting hit by a drunk driver. That makes it worth it, when you get a good person who’s a victim saying thank-you”.

(See Chief Dan Alexander’s article about the dissolving of the media “filter” as well as his Public Information Manager, Mark Economou’s article about cops as journalists, both here on ConnectedCOPS. Both articles addressing the ability of law enforcement to publish their own “news.”).

Watch what you post

Social networking sites are great for meeting new people and having some fun, but don’t let that fun kill your career.

Dean Scoville is Associate Editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service. This article was previously published at policemag.com.

Cops, like any other members of a high-stress profession, like to joke around about what happens at work. Many of these jokes would be considered crude or insensitive, perhaps even slanderous, by people who don’t work as police officers. But as long as the public doesn’t hear these jokes then the attitude of most administrators is no harm, no foul.

Unfortunately, such cop jokes are now being voiced in public. A generation ago, when cops wanted to blow off steam, they met some place private, had a few beers, and nobody outside the circle knew what was said or done.

Today’s cops may still gather over a case of cold beer, but they also gather online using social networking tools such as MySpace and Facebook. Which is a problem for agencies and officers because what many users of social networks don’t realize before its too late is that anything they do or say or write on these sites is done so in full view of the public. Other officers may be aware that they are speaking in public, but they apparently don’t care.

The Cromer Case

Perhaps the most widely known example of an officer coming to grief because of something that he or she wrote on a social networking site happened three years ago in Kentucky.

In 2006 Officer Joshua Cromer of the Lexington Police Department made a traffic stop. The driver was country singing star John Michael Montgomery who lives nearby. Cromer arrested Montgomery and the singer was later charged with driving under the influence, possessing a controlled drug, and two counts of carrying a concealed deadly weapon. Montgomery later pleaded out on the drunken-driving charge. That should have been the end of the matter.

Unfortunately for Cromer, that traffic stop was just the beginning of a long nightmare. The arrest became fodder for Cromer’s MySpace page. Friends, mostly fellow cops, congratulated him on the bust and poked fun at Montgomery by posting a doctored photo that showed Cromer as an adoring fan.

Complaints about Cromer’s site led to the brass checking out a number of their officers’ MySpace pages. What they found made them really angry. There were comments about the department, comments about the people of Lexington, comments about gays, and comments about the mentally disabled. And a very brown and very smelly storm gathered over the heads of Cromer and several other Lexington PD officers.

Cromer was dismissed from the Lexington PD on grounds of misconduct, inefficiency, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming a police officer. He later sued for back pay and reinstatement. He lost. As for the other members of Cromer’s MySpace circle of friends, five of them were suspended. They were later allowed to return to duty.

Chief Concerns

The Cromer case is a clear example of an employer’s ability to monitor an employee’s online social network activity even away from the job. It also illustrates the power that an agency has over its officers’ ability to exercise free speech.

For law enforcement officers, other public officials, and even private employees, caution should be the byword when posting material on a social networking site. And make no mistake, many agencies are monitoring what their officers do online.

These agencies know there is a potential for an employee’s Website comment to become instrumental in a civil or even criminal case. Defense attorneys and civil rights attorneys are monitoring what you write on your private pages the same way that police investigators monitor the sites of criminals. So use your brain. If you don’t want your comments read in public, don’t post them in public.

And whatever you do, don’t maintain your Facebook page on the job. An Indiana State Trooper found himself under investigation for his online activity both off and on the job.

A born multitasker, this trooper allegedly bragged about his heavy drinking, posted a picture of his cruiser with collision damage and the caption “Oops! Where did my front end go?” and uploaded an image of a gun being pointed at his head. On the same Facebook page, he reportedly characterized himself as a “garbage man,” saying, “I pick up trash for a living.” Statements reflecting dissatisfaction with weather and working conditions were also allegedly posted during times that the trooper was supposed to be at work.

When a TV news report revealed the evidence to state patrol brass, they launched an internal investigation. At presstime, the findings of that inquiry have not been released.

With Friends Like These

The nature of social networking sites, which link users to hundreds-even thousands-of online friends, can also make them particularly hazardous for your career. Just ask Officer John Nohejl of the New Port Richey (Fla.) Police Department.

By all accounts, Nohejl accomplished great things during his three years as a school resource officer, turning a D school around into an A school in one year. Well liked by the kids and school staff, Nohejl came up with the idea of setting up a MySpace page to communicate with students. School leaders, parents, and the police department were enthusiastic about the idea. In a relatively short period of time, Nohejl was not only able to share safety tips with students via the new “Officer John” site but also obtain tips that expedited investigations and resulted in arrests.

But then he found himself in a peck of trouble.

An anonymous complainant advised the department that one of Nohejl’s MySpace “friends” offered a link that included photos of nude women. Another offered obscene comments about oral sex and large breasts, among other objectionable content-all of which could be easily navigated to by 11- to 14-year-old students visiting Nohejl’s page.

Now the links are gone, but the sting of the experience still lingers for Nohejl.

“I tried to do a good thing for kids,” Nohejl reflects. “But I got blind-sided. I’d checked out this person’s profile and it seemed OK, so I allowed him on as a friend. But once I did that, he went back onto MySpace and maliciously changed his profile so that in a matter of three clicks from my page, kids could be exposed to this pornography. I was railroaded-not by the department, but by the person who orchestrated this mess.”

The Florida attorney general’s cybercrime task force investigated the Nohejl case. Nohejl was cleared of any wrong-doing. Unfortunately, a collateral casualty was the Officer John MySpace account. “The moment this problem was brought to light, they immediately removed it,” Nohejl says.

Back on patrol these days, Nohejl hopes that others learn from his experience. “It’s a good lesson for cops. You can be held responsible for things that are beyond your control,” Nohejl says. “Who can possibly go through the profiles of hundreds of MySpace friends every day to make sure that someone’s not going to do the same thing again?”

Etiquette and Policy

Concerns about such sites go beyond objectionable material or technological access by hackers. By piecing together information about companies through their employees’ social network entries, identity thieves and others have been able to trick people into allowing confidential information beyond intended audiences.

Consequently, many agencies feel under pressure to establish some form of social networking etiquette or protocol for their employees. As a result, some agencies are just telling their employees to stay off Facebook and similar sites.

Former police officer, academy instructor, and network security author Deb Shinder suspects that until some new legal precedent dictates otherwise, agencies may have the upper hand in this equation.

“Unless there is state law or a union contract that says otherwise, [police departments] can be pretty much as stringent as they want to, as long as the policies are applied equally and without discrimination,” Shinder says.

But can your employer really tell you what you can and can’t do with your own computer on your own time?

Maybe. “Off-duty activities on one’s own computer are more of an issue of contention,” explains Shinder. “But even if the agency doesn’t have a policy specifically addressing online behavior, certain online activities–especially if the person’s profile and social networking posts are open to the public–could probably be construed to fall under general ‘conduct unbecoming’ regulations.”

Nonetheless, Shinder believes that agencies would be ill advised to prohibit their officers from enjoying the benefits of social networking online. “Young people who grow up with social networking as part of their lives aren’t going to take well to being told they can’t do it anymore, and law enforcement will lose way too many potential good cops if they take a hard line on that,” she explains.

Given that social networking is here to stay and young cops believe they have a fundamental right to use these sites, smart agencies are going to have to find a way to regulate what officers do online without being too restrictive.

“I think it makes more sense to cautiously embrace the technology, to set policies that are reasonable, and to educate officers about what does and doesn’t constitute professional online behavior and more importantly, why their online behavior matters, why it’s in their own best interest, not just that of the agency, for them to project a public image that they won’t cringe over a few years down the line when they’re trying to move up the career ladder,” says Shinder.

Some agencies are adding online social network regulations to their policy manuals.

For example, the Indiana State Police is in the process of drafting standard operating procedure for its staff regarding posting information on personal Web pages such as Facebook. And in Salt Lake City, Sgt. Robin Snyder, a public relations officer with the city police, is currently researching laws and other department policies toward formulating a policy for her department.

Others have already set their policies. The Minneapolis Police Department adopted a policy in October that prohibits its police officers from identifying themselves as such on social networking sites.

Officer Reaction

The implementation of such policies has taken some cops aback.

“Cops are not only being held to higher standards,” notes one Massachusetts police officer, “but in some cases, unreasonable standards.”

Many officers say the “do as I say, not as I do” posture of some agencies is especially annoying, as their employers and commanders see themselves uniquely capable of maintaining professional online content. Others say they don’t appreciate the interference in their personal lives.

“It’s like freedom of speech, apparently there are some who think you should be able to tell a cop to go expletive himself without repercussion and yet they also believe that a cop should be disciplined for using any profanity (called command presence when I write my report or testify in court). Shouldn’t then a social network profile be freedom of speech?” asked one officer.

And while many officers understand the impetus for anti-social networking policies, they still resent them.

“It’s all about liability. We have enough of that stuff already as cops, I’m not giving anyone another weapon to try and take my job away.”

Use Common Sense Online

Salt Lake City PD’s Snyder can only shake her head when she contemplates some of the trouble cops have gotten themselves in behind social networks.

“It seems that police officers have more common sense when it comes to using their gun in the field if they have to,” Snyder notes. “When they go into a restaurant, they know to sit with their back to the wall, they know if something happens where their escape routes are. But they never think about if they post something on Facebook. Are they going to offend somebody racially or by sexual orientation? They never think about that kind of stuff. Officers should know better than to post certain things on Facebook.”

To this end, Snyder tries to pick up the slack.

“I teach a media relations class to the recruits,” Snyder says. “I’ve added social media to tell them that they’re no longer anonymous. I ask how many people have Facebook accounts, and I tell them they have to think about if they post something and their local news media picks it up. There’s no official social networking training, but I see it coming within the next year.”

Shinder offers the following pointers when engaging in social networking: “Don’t post pictures of yourself doing something embarrassing or illegal. Don’t make derogatory comments about any race or group. Don’t post comments that could be construed as sexually harassing, especially if you have co-workers or subordinates of the opposite gender as ‘friends.’ It’s also probably a good idea not to get into passionate diatribes about agency politics.”

It is also important to point out that your friends not only see what you post on your site, but also what your other friends post there. “That’s another reason to separate your professional and personal lives by having more than one Facebook or MySpace account,” asserts Shinder.

Most sites do let you set options regarding which of your friends can see what types of posts, and it’s a good idea to become very well acquainted with how these tools work and use them.

Sam Walker, a retired professor and a former member of the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union, suggests that a simple disclaimer by the employee may protect many officers from earning the ire of their departments.

In the absence of policies developed to specifically address social networks, many agencies have and will probably continue to flag their personnel under some generic catch-all: Conduct unbecoming a peace officer. But they will address it.

Curiously, none will come near to invoking the caveat most invoked in matters of law enforcement concern: Use common sense.

For in matters of social intercourse, there is little commonly agreed upon and what may be acceptable to one person or group may well be unacceptable, even offensive, to another.

In the meantime, it would appear that some agencies are hoping that by adopting more rigid postures, they might wear their employees down so that they’ll take a note from the Gershwin song when it comes to posting to social networks and just call the whole thing off.

Seven emergency notification system resolutions for 2010

Mike Ellis

Mike Ellis is an emergency management professional with an acute appreciation for, and knowledge of the use of social media for communicating during emergencies. Currently, he is the Customer Relationship Manager for Emergency Communications Network (ECN). Ellis has been with ECN for 10 years. Prior to ECN, Ellis was a Promotion and Marketing Director for 18 years in the radio industry.

The New Year is a time of renewal, regrouping, and reflection. It is also, for many people, a time to make resolutions. In fact, 44% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Alas, they are easy to make but often just as easy to break.

“A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.” ~ Author Unknown

While 71% of those who make New Year’s resolutions keep them after two weeks that number drops to 64% after a month and only 50% percent after three months. Could the collapse be connected to the fact that most resolutions are unrealistic? Resolutions such as “eating less sugar”, “spending more time at the gym” or “watching less television” are not only challenging but also typical. As Monty Python said, and now for something completely different… here’s a list of resolutions specifically designed to help you take a fresh look at Emergency Notification for 2010.

1. Tell everyone you have a system

Be sure to inform your staff about the purchase of your high-speed outbound notification system. By simply informing other departments, an opportunity will be granted to share ideas about how the system can be used. The confidence level of all departments will increase when everyone knows that a reliable, robust, easy to use system is available when an emergency strikes.

“As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.”~ Benjamin Disraeli

2. Train all departments

Along with informing all departments and personnel, training is essential. Each department should have at least one representative who knows how to use the system. Your high-speed notification vendor should be willing to train, assist and educate all people and departments that will be using the system.

“It all has to do with the training: You can do a lot if you’re properly trained.”~ Elizabeth II

3. Test your system

Make sure once you’ve procured an outbound 911 system that you don’t then forget about it until your first emergency occurs. Test your system regularly and consider using it for routine purposes such as keeping your staff informed about meetings, employee recognition or other internal communications tasks.

“Once the races begin it’s more difficult and there is never that much time for testing.” ~ Valentino Rossi

4. Use your system

Encourage your staff to use the system so they feel comfortable with it. When an emergency situation arises, your staff will be ready to use your outbound 911 system with confidence and without hesitation.

“When I learn something new – and it happens every day – I feel a little more comfortable in this universe.” ~ Bill Moyers

5. Communicate with your vendor

Use your high-speed notification vendor as a resource. Your vendor can give you a variety of suggested system uses and real life anecdotes from other clients.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

6. Demand excellent service

Demand excellent customer service from your high-speed notification provider. Emergencies don’t always happen during business hours, the company that provides your service should be available to assist you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with live, knowledgeable and pleasant customer service representatives.

“The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best, but legendary.” ~ Sam Walton

7. Don’t procrastinate

If you don’t have a system, make it a priority to research getting one in 2010. Don’t put your community in jeopardy by waiting until you’re waist high in flood water, or up to your roof in snow, or even trapped by wildfires, or torn up by tornadoes before you get an outbound 911 system.

“The best way to get something done is to begin.” ~ Author Unknown

This post was created by Emergency Communications Network (ECN). ECN has developed affordable notification services capable of reaching millions of citizens in minutes. ECN has been in the critical communications business for over a decade, pioneering technology that has delivered more than a billion calls.

My take on why public safety technology lags

Mike Bostic

Mike Bostic was with the LAPD for 34 years. He held every significant command up to Assistant Chief. Mr. Bostic is currently working in communications technology/public safety at Raytheon. He is also a confirmed speaker at the LAwS created SMILE (Social Media In Law Enforcement) conference in April.

We live in an era of rapid communication and instant data sharing capability, yet many emergency police and fire personnel still rely on outdated systems. You don’t have to look any further than your cell phone to get a picture of the kind of innovation that’s missing in the public safety arena.

Your cell phone can probably handle a multitude of functions – from capturing data, to offering GPS navigation, to running an application to update your Twitter feed or Facebook status. Meanwhile, the radios used by our police and fire personnel have barely changed a wink from those I used more than three decades ago when I first joined the LAPD.

There is no technological barrier holding police radios back from being every bit as capable as their cell phone counterparts. It just comes down to a matter of user demand.

Cell phones work on a worldwide set of standards, published and committed to by the industry to allow application development and worldwide use. Consumers continually demand innovation and, as we see with latest iPhone applications and other advances, the market delivers.

However, we in law enforcement have not demanded similar development of our own emergency communications equipment. The military uses advanced command and control, interoperable communications, video and data systems – and many of these could have a direct application to public safety. Yet we have continued to stick with the manufacturers and systems we know. For some reason, we seem to relish the status quo when it comes to adopting new technology.

That’s why Requests for Proposals soliciting the same old technology continue to be issued and many law enforcement agencies balk at having a social media presence. This is slowly starting to change, but will require a unified shift to get the entire law enforcement community up to speed.

So, I beseech you: Learn about new technologies and platforms and how they can benefit you. Talk with others in the community about the technological advancements, services and vendors that could improve your capabilities. Avoid choices that lock you into technology that won’t adapt. Demand what you need to do your job well.

There will always be a natural resistance to change in favor of the “tried and true.” But as we usher in a new era of technological development, it’s our duty to make sure law enforcement is not left behind.

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