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.