Law enforcement agencies worldwide watch as the Toronto Police Service kicks it up a notch.

For two months last winter, I had the honor of working side-by-side with members of the Toronto Police Service (TPS) onsite at the headquarters in Toronto, to develop the Service’s social media strategy. Since turning in my proposed strategy and recommendations at the first of the year, the TPS has continued to move forward by affirming the recommendations in the report, communicating in a final report and presentation to the senior commanders, working with in-house talent on web-site redesign, creation of other design elements and finalizing policy/procedure through the various stages of approval. They have arrived at a point in time where they’re implementing the strategy and the rest of the world gets to see what they’ve been up to all these months. This Wednesday, July 27th, the TPS will officially launch its social media program.

When it comes to social media use in policing, the Toronto Police Service is already highly regarded as one of the most forward-thinking law enforcement agency users of interactive digital tools in the world, especially for community engagement, but also crime prevention and investigation. The TPS named its first social media officer in April of 2010 with the appointment of Constable Scott Mills to that role. Mills had come off of years of experience promoting Crime Stoppers and legal graffiti art in social media. Coupled with the talents of Sgt Tim Burrows in traffic, the TPS was well on its way to earning the respect of law enforcement worldwide.

Deputy Chief Peter Sloly

Then, a little over a year ago, Peter Sloly was named Deputy Chief. Sloly was hearing more about social media and was well versed on what Mills and Burrows were doing, and he started to pay even closer attention. “First of all, front line cops bought into it so it must make sense. It’s bottom up, not top down. Here two cops with different approaches had found the same levels of usability for the platforms,” stated Sloly and added, “Scott was in the deep end going deeper. Tim came in later and took a year or two. But around the same time Scott became a super user, they arrived at the same point. It was then that things began to crystallize for me.”

Sloly and about five of what he called his “most risk-averse” people attended the first SMILE Conference in Washington. That was April, 2010. After the conference, he gave those same risk averse people a chance to convince both himself and Chief Bill Blair that social media was a world in which the TPS should not go. But that didn’t happen. Instead they too began to come around to seeing that there are benefits to using social media and they said so, to the Chief.

Deputy Sloly realized then that the TPS’ social media program wasn’t so much a program, but rather the very successful efforts of a handful of people. He wanted it to make it bigger and he wanted to add structure and governance. After a thorough RFP process, LAwS Communications was fortunate to be selected. At the kick-off meeting in his office, Sloly said to me, “we’ve been well served by our in-house experts, but I need you to back us up and get the entire service on the same foundation.” He gave me a team of about 10 people from across the Service and gave us nine big goals and ten short weeks to get it all done.

The nine goals:

  • To establish an external social media strategy for Corporate Communications;
  • To make suggestions on website redesign;
  • To create and make recommendations for using social media to improve internal communications;
  • To identify other areas of the Service that would benefit from leveraging social media;
  • To create a training module;
  • To create an ongoing support system for officers engaged in the use of SM;
  • To evaluate and create a social media communications policy/procedure in order to ensure sound governance is employed;
  • To create a plan to measure the Service’s effectiveness at using social media;
  • To develop a marketing campaign that would highlight the Service’s social media strategy.

The Launch

On July 27th, the TPS will hold a media event to announce the launch of the social media program. On that day, the first group of TPS members to have been trained will have completed their course and will be set up with corporately branded social media profiles and be given the go ahead to represent the TPS to the public on social media. Much of the first class consists of corporate communications personnel so the numerical increase in profiles will be small given that most of them were already on-line. But seven more training sessions to follow will be completed by November 5th, culminating with the vetting of a total of 177 members from 27 Units, including 17 divisions and 9 community consultative groups, all representing Canada’s largest Metropolitan police service. Every profile will adhere to strict guidelines prescribing the look and design of the profile as well as profile content. In early 2012, a whole new set of training will commence to bring even more members on board.

The TPS will also begin to unveil its new website. Using all in-house talent the TPS has begun to create a new site architecture that will be more intuitive to the end user. In the beginning we’ll see the new design and the TPS social media profiles will be highly visible. Meaghan Gray is the Information & Issues Manager in the Corporate Communications Office at the TPS and has spearheaded the social media effort for the past year. She explained, “Another significant change that people will notice is that we will feed of all our social media on the website. Once people get up and running they’ll all be fed through the main page of the Internet site… the latest video, latest Facebook postings, everything. As opposed to now where it’s just the icons.”

A big part of the training each member will undergo covers the TPS social media policy. The TPS’ in-house term for policy is “procedure”. The creation of the procedure was a complex process in and of itself. It had to be inline with all other corporate procedures as well as national and provincial law officer codes of ethics. Deputy Sloly was adamant throughout the process that without proper governance the project would never win the approval of Chief Blair and other executive staff.

The TPS team also created a procedure for investigative use of social media. While in the beginning it was made clear that investigations was not part of the project, it soon became clear to key players that it was essential to address that part of the operations as well because its intertwined with communication activities, so investigations was added. The final report also recommended the creation of a cyber-vetting policy to govern the investigation of new members. The IACP commissioned PERSEREC report on “Creating a Cyber-Vetting Strategy” was supplied as an appendix and proved immensely useful to Gray. “I literally went home and highlighted each piece I thought we could use and it went together into a procedure just that easily”, she said.
To support the procedures, the Corporate Communications office will be the primary office to conduct ongoing informal monitoring of all TPS-branded social media profiles. Gray explained, “we’ll have a library of all social media profiles and will watch them for inappropriate or incorrect content or any that’s riddled with spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. It’s not going to be a big brother is watching approach, it’s meant to identify the need for ongoing training and mentoring from our office.”

The Discovery and Design Process

With team members selected from across the TPS, each bringing to the table a unique perspective, weekly (on average) team meetings were held to achieve the various goals. Team member Christine Mercier is a Legal Clerk in the Legal Services Department. She pointed to the importance of having all areas of the TPS represented, “These different perspectives, though they made the process lengthy, were very insightful. I feel that is was important to be as inclusive when developing a strategy for an organization with diverse needs and concerns.” The team conducted 7 weeks of discovery with members across the service, including in-person interviews, surveys, focus groups, environmental scans, continuously gathering input and creating an atmosphere of open-dialog, transparency and resulted in a great deal of buy-in from within.

TPS Video Services Producer Martin Blake said it was truly a team effort, “Through this transformative process of engagement, we have no only invited the public to engage us, but have also enhanced our own internal processes, roles, and functions. We now have more productive and meaningful interactions with the communities and individuals we serve, and have also increased our self-awareness as an agency, enhanced our service delivery, and increased our efficiency.” Blake is also serving on an internal communications improvement committee that had some overlap with the social media project.

In the end, we designed a strategy that called for a three-phased rollout, potentially occurring over 18 months and eventually including every Unit in the Service, even homicide and sex crimes will be included. The recommendations were all accepted but modifications were made to some and the schedule as originally designed has been altered for some aspects of the program. For example, a total of six blogs across the TPS were suggested. For technical (platform) reasons, the blogs have been delayed. The first we are likely to see is the transfer of the TPS newspaper, The Badge to a blog. The Traffic Services blog, which already exists, will likely be expanded to include the 17 traffic officers from the divisions and we may one day even enjoy a TPS Crime Blog with contributions from every area and every type of crime, among other blogs.

Success is inevitable

The signs all seem to indicate that the TPS will be highly successful in its efforts to integrate the use of social media. The key reasons I believe it will achieve success are that it has strong leadership and buy-in at top levels, it has provided for strong governance, as well as change management integration within the project and the TPS has realistic expectations.

The man at the helm is a realist. He’s a leader with a vision and he possesses the willingness to question the way things have been and look ahead at how they could be. And, like many Chiefs, he’s a risk-taker.

But most importantly Deputy Chief Sloly understands that social media isn’t the utopian answer to cure what ails policing. He does however, understand that it can have a serious impact, if employed strategically, on issues like the fallout from cuts in staffing and/or public trust issues, for examples. As he likes to say, it’s no silver bullet, “But we’re going to have this incredible array of tools that give us far more options to deal with public safety and public trust. Social media enables us to do old business in newer ways. We still have to do old business.” Sloly is also keenly aware that citizens want to engage with police in social media and they want to be talked with rather than at, which is something of a culture change for the thin blue line, “Getting police culture to understand this thing comes with the necessity for some very very strong admissions as to where the weaknesses of our [police] culture lie,” he added.

The TPS process has also allowed for the change management that is necessary to be part of the process. Early in the discovery phase, we held a one-day retreat with a professional facilitator including between 25-30 members of the Service to talk about the potential of social media use within the TPS. Similar to what he did with the “risk-averse” group mentioned above, Deputy Sloly gave the people gathered there permission to reject the entire notion at the end of the day. Instead, we created greater buy-in. The two-month long discovery phase served to create even greater buy-in as we had dialog with the stakeholders. So much so, that in the months since, upon hearing of the project, others have asked to be included if they hadn’t been, according to Gray.

Constable Mills, who is well known to become frustrated when others don’t move at his pace, called the process “painstakingly in slow motion” but acknowledged that the time taken to educate everyone involved has paid off, “This is a significant accomplishment, and has been called a ‘cultural revolution’ by some of those involved. The payoff and potential for increased community safety in Toronto and worldwide is well worth the time and effort,” he said.

Strength of governance is key and the TPS has all the pieces in place ie: three procedures (communications, investigations, cyber-vetting) to give guidance to the practitioners and a monitoring process as well as an open-minded culture of encouragement rather than discouragement.

The TPS team members in charge of the project from the Deputy Chief on down also understand that flexibility is paramount to success. Anybody who uses social media to any degree has learned that change is inevitable and one must be ready. The fact that, with few exceptions, they are all using the tools themselves speaks volumes to their ability to embrace this notion. But they know too that there will be bumps in the road and that the program will need tweaks along the way. They’ve faced several hurdles already and have overcome them, such as having to abandon the original intention to furnish their people with smartphones due to budget constraints. But they didn’t let that or any other issue kill the project. Their expectations are soundly grounded in reality.

Law enforcement around the world has taken note of the Toronto Police Service’s social media successes and now more than ever will be watching the TPS as they continue to break new ground for law enforcement, all in the name of accountability, transparency and customer service. Dozens if not hundreds of agencies across the globe are doing a good job with social media. But the TPS is kicking it up a notch or two by applying a practical yet pioneering strategy and thereby adding real substance to the words “to serve and protect”.

If you want to check out the launch of the TPS social media project, follow #TPSSMLaunch or log in to one of two video streams. The event will be streamed on the Toronto Police Ustream account as well as on on the Toronto Police LiveStream account on July 27 from 2:00-3:00 p.m. for a live video stream of the event and the opportunity to ask Deputy Sloly a question about the project.