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For Social Media to Succeed in LE, Gotta Get Buy-in From the Top Cop(s)

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

Cops vs. Social Media

Chief Alexander is the Chief of Police in Boca Raton, Florida. Look for his regular posts on this thoughts about social media and policing here on this blog. He is @bocachief on Twitter.

Because social media provides us with a dynamic way to connect with a rich and diverse online community, I believe it has yet to be realized value for law enforcement.  There are, however, a number of factors working against cops as they look to use social media as an effective way to engage, educate and, yes, even entertain.  Here are the top five obstacles as I see it:

1. It’s fast, we’re not.  We have to take our time.

The allure of social media, particularly Twitter, is speed and efficiency. The Miracle on the Hudson demonstrated how quickly an item gets reported via social media and then spreads like wildfire.

How often do you hear the police public information line about how it is too premature to comment on an “ongoing investigation?”  We are not trying to stall for the sake of building drama.  We have to build an airtight case and we can’t release information which will jeopardize our investigation.  Oftentimes, we are working several different angles, including multiple interviews and the careful collection of evidence.

In this new media world order, no one has the patience for all of the facts to emerge. Cops are now struggling with telling the story quickly, in under 140 characters.

2. We creep people out.

A tweeter we followed received this ominous message: “Boca Raton Police (BocaPolice) is now following your tweets on Twitter.”  He said it kind of creeped him out at first.  Here’s another one: “I was alerted that @bocachief was following me. I hope I wasn’t speeding.”

There is truth in humor.  When I encounter strangers in uniform, someone will typically say, “I didn’t do it!”  Mothers point to me and warn their misbehaving children that I will put the kids in jail if they don’t straighten up. It’s not surprising that firefighters don’t get that kind of reaction.  You probably won’t hear, “Behave or that paramedic will stick you with a needle.”

People generally still trust us, but are naturally anxious about getting “social” with us.  They often have their first and only interaction with us on traffic stops. It just wouldn’t sound right to say, “Please sign the citation and be sure to follow us on Twitter.”   Not a great way to connect.

3. It’s personal, we’re not.

There are a number of reasons why cops seem to be impersonal at times.  We are programmed to always be on alert for an imminent attack.  Many of our customers are not willing participants and frequently they’re not happy to see us.  Because we build cases based on cold hard legal standards, cops often project a “just the facts, ma’am” image.

We also see the worst of the human condition, causing us to have a real hard time relating to most people in a meaningful way. If we do amass friends and followers online, they are typically a very select group of like-minded individuals.

Even in the subconscious, cops like to gather intelligence on who they are dealing with before we get comfortable.  The insanely wide open world of social networking doesn’t jive well with that cynical frame of reference.

4. We’re afraid of getting burned.

We represent authority, have been given a lot of power, and are held to a higher standard.  Right or wrong, cops are easy targets for many folks (politicians, lawyers, media, etc.) and no one cuts us any slack when we screw up.

The byproduct of using social media effectively is increased exposure.  While “transparency” is currently hip, it doesn’t make cops feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

5. We can’t handle the volume.

The police public information officer (PIO) is often the sole person responsible for handling social media for the agency.  The traditional PIO work was event-driven, involving organized communication, primarily with the media. 

Social Media is constant, ever-changing, and involves multiple points of contact. The PIO now has to develop content, update multiple sites, and be responsive to many customers in this brave new world.

I truly believe that the benefits of social media outweigh the costs.  I think there are ways to easily overcome these potential roadblocks, allowing us to leverage social media to take “community policing” to another level.  It will be exciting to see how this phenomenon will play out for policing.  Let me know what you think.

The Ingredients of a Solid Social Media Policy for Law Enforcement Agencies

A Social Media policy is essential for any agency because it can be used to encourage online participation among officers and staff as well as lay the foundation for how to get them started. By offering guidelines in the form of a social media policy, officers can know what’s expected and that it’s o.k. to get involved. One Chief of Police in Nebraska has embraced social media tools in his agency and recently created a social media policy for his department. Chief John Stacey says he wants a policy in place so his employees know that he encourages them to interact electronically “for the good of the department and citizens a long as they’re aware that common sense is warranted when online”. So he is taking a proactive approach to what he refers to as “overwhelming changes in communications”.

The Bellevue Police Department is committed to ensuring all portions of the community can contact, interact and consult with their police department. Newspapers, TV and radio do not reach the majority as assumed by many. By recognizing the potential of reaching a larger sector through all forms of media enables a higher degree of transparency and enhances our service capability.
~Chief John Stacey

LAwS Book Review-The Twitter Book

The Twitter Book

The Twitter Book
By Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein
ISBN 10: 0-596-80281-1 | ISBN 13: 9780596802813

The best thing about The Twitter Book is that it’s written for users. People who just want to know how to get started or people who want to gain some serious Twitter skills alike, can get a lot out of this book. It’s just 230 pages, any busy law enforcement officer can make time to read it. The book covers the very basics of how to get started, how to manage your tweets, finding and following other tweeters. It explains the jargon, gives advice on how to write interesting tweets and customizing your twitter account. Newcomers to Twitter will find this book to be immensely helpful, but even Twitter veterans could learn a great deal. It’s short and packed full of information like any good tweet should be. Cops who want to learn how to become Twitter power users in just a couple hours, and then get back to the business of being a cop, should read The Twitter book. It’s the only book they’ll need to read.

Community Crime Fighters Turn to Facebook

As originally published on the Facebook Blog on August 4th, 2009.

Constable Scott Mills has served as a police officer with the Toronto Police Service in Canada since 2002. His current role is Community Youth Officer for the Toronto Crime Stoppers program, where he works to build healthy relationships between young people, community members and the police department. We’ve asked Scott to share his experiences using Facebook to fight crime by connecting with the community.

There’s no doubt that Facebook has revolutionized the act of sharing and communicating with friends. Often overlooked, however, is the impact these tools can have on public safety. Because community engagement is critical to effective law enforcement, police officers must be where the people are, and these days, the people are on Facebook.

For the last two years, I have used my Facebook account, as well as Facebook groups, events and Pages, to inform Toronto residents about crimes in their area and encourage them to provide anonymous tips. Messages can be broadcast quickly and easily to wide audiences with immediate feedback. Outreach through Facebook has helped Toronto Crime Stoppers sniff out threats against local schools, bring much needed help to people at risk of committing suicide, warn the public about criminals on the loose and even locate missing persons.
In addition to enabling us to gather tips more efficiently and effectively, Facebook also has helped us build a stronger, more meaningful connection with the community we serve. My department runs programs aimed at keeping kids off the street and away from trouble. These programs include presentations at local schools, Bicycle Moto-Cross (BMX) camps, legal graffiti competitions and dance contests. Through photos, videos, and links, Facebook has allowed us to promote these programs to those who need them most and hopefully leading to fewer people getting involved with crime because of boredom or lack of options.

I’m proud of the work we’ve done and passionate about the potential for tools like Facebook to aid law enforcement. Policymakers and police officers from around the world still have a lot to learn about how to use social media to build connections to enlist the public in preventing and solving crimes, but police departments in cities around the world are starting to take notice. Last fall, at a conference hosted by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) in Johannesburg, South Africa, the group’s Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said:

People routinely use the Internet to find former classmates or individuals with similar interests…. there is no reason why law enforcement should not use this same resource to find fugitives or encourage members of the public to use social networking sites to report sightings of criminals.

Recently, police departments — in municipalities as large as Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada and as small as Brunswick, Maine in the U.S. — have created presences on Facebook to communicate more efficiently with the public. I’m happy to see this trend develop across Canada and around the world, including in the U.S. where the municipality of Boston is now using social media to track down stolen bikes. We’ll continue to work hard to make sure law enforcement is taking full advantage of today’s communication tools. All of us can do our part by using the Internet not just to keep up with friends but also to help keep our communities safe.

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