Interactive Social Media
The Value for Law Enforcement
By Timothy J. Henton
The increase in use of interactive social media in the last 5 years has changed how people live their lives. Individuals use smart phones to post photos, identify their location, and advise what they are doing. If law enforcement agencies fully engage the public by using social media, the department and the community benefit by increasing collaboration and enhancing investigative capabilities. With well-planned implementation, the use of social media can impact community issues, and police departments and citizens can work together to solve crimes.
Many law enforcement agencies have expanded their involvement in social media, using platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Nixle, to deliver information to their communities. One benefit is that departments can send data directly to the public. Law enforcement organizations can use these sites to inform people of upcoming activities and current investigations where they need public assistance.
In summer 2010 the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Police Department launched its official Facebook page. Today, over 38,000 people follow this page. The department links all articles from the news section of its Web site, Phillypolice.com, to its Facebook page to ensure that information immediately reaches the public, independent of the news media.1
Social media is the primary means of communication for many people. Regarding the use of Twitter, the Hillsborough, New Jersey, police chief stated that “This is the way our society is now, especially with our younger generation—they want immediate notification.”2 An article in the Cape Cod Times in Massachusetts noted that 48 percent of people 12 years of age or older have profiles on social networking sites. This number includes 51 percent of 35- to 44-year-old Americans, double the number from 2 years earlier. Social networking sites, such as Twitter, allow departments to disseminate information immediately to the public.3 Nearly one-half of the teenage and adult populations in the United States participate in social media, and this number continues to grow. Police departments must develop plans to implement the use of interactive social media within their communities.
Lieutenant Henton serves with the El Cajon, California, Police Department.
Soon after the beginning of the modern era of policing in the 1820s, citizens and police officers realized the importance of developing a method to communicate with each other. All new constables received a detailed book of instructions, published in 1840, that outlined appropriate conduct. This book advised them to warn citizens in a loud voice in case of emergencies. It instructed night watchmen to grow a beard that would cover their throats to keep their air tubes warm, thus, enabling them to alert the public of problems.4
As technology progressed, law enforcement communications advanced. The first real breakthrough came with the invention of the telephone. Near the end of the 19th century, police call boxes came into use in the United States. Soon after their invention, police telephone boxes and posts populated the routes walked by law enforcement officers in every state.5 Officers walking a beat used these boxes to contact their stations; citizens also used them to call for help. In the 1960s communities phased out the call boxes as the number of police radios increased. Most people had telephones in their homes, and this became the primary method of communication between the public and the police. This remains the predominant method people use to contact law enforcement.
The social media movement began growing substantially in 2006 when Facebook became available to the general public.6 Since that time social media has changed the way society communicates. Many law enforcement agencies use the Internet to distribute information to the public. They use department Web sites; online reporting; and Facebook, often as a community billboard to inform citizens of activities and programs.
During an interview with the author, the El Cajon, California, information services manager expressed concerns that a communication gap could deter some people from sharing valuable information with the police. Law enforcement agencies must understand that individuals who expect immediate communication do not want to wait longer than 20 seconds to relay a message.7
Technology expands the realm of community as social media becomes the 21st-century version of the “cop on the corner.”8 Law enforcement officials can solicit input from the public to examine how their communities view participation in social media. Departments must use available technology to communicate with society. While social networking sends and gathers data instantaneously, it also fosters relationships and trust and encourages users to share important information—engagement with these platforms helps show the public that the organization is listening.9
The founder of Social Media in Law Enforcement (SMILE) stated that “we are in the early stages” of social media use by law enforcement agencies.10 An official of the International Association of Chiefs of Police echoed this comment and added that “social media is not a fad, and it will continue to evolve.”11
Law enforcement managers could use their virtual capacity to engage members of the community by conducting forums via Skype or Facebook. The public could receive important information, ask questions, and hear concerns from other community members. These discussions would be the same as any traditional meeting, but with individuals participating from the comfort of their own homes. These virtual forums could increase interaction between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Departments could learn of concerns that otherwise might not be revealed.
In August 2011 a panel of police and community leaders in El Cajon, California, convened and discussed future scenarios related to law enforcement and social media. One potential future event identified by participants was the elimination of traditional media. As the popularity of social media increases, the number of bloggers and other grass roots media rises.
Traditionally law enforcement agencies disseminated information to the public through the press. By using social media, departments can eliminate this intermediary and go directly to community members. Concern over news reporters selecting which portion of a press release to use or adding commentary would decrease. Law enforcement personnel could conduct daily Web briefings to inform the community of current events. Officers could share data on significant service calls, wanted suspects, or information needed for investigations. The information that officers could share in these discussions is limitless.
One of the first law enforcement agencies to use Twitter was the New Jersey State Police. Only the press had access to the Twitter account until the director of communications realized that it made sense to share this public information with the community. The site now has 6,500 followers who get information quickly and directly without having it filtered by the press. A state police official said, “There is obviously a public safety benefit to asking the community for input, whether it’s an Amber Alert…or information on a car involved in a hit-and-run.”12
“Law enforcement officials can solicit input from the public to examine how their communities view participation in social media.”
Law enforcement’s use of interactive social media is effective. The Philadelphia Police Department is a leader in the use of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The department uses these sites to gather information from the public to help close cases. Since the launch of their YouTube site in 2010, there have been more than 1 million hits, resulting in an unprecedented 25 percent case clearance rate.13
Based on the 24-hour availability of social media, some agencies’ communications centers monitor the sites. Some departments assign the public information officer, and others give the responsibility to watch commanders. Department heads must assess their organizations to see where the program will fit best. Use of social media helps agencies engage members of the community who otherwise may not interact with law enforcement and, in turn, builds public trust and improves relationships with the public.
“One benefit is that departments can send data directly to the public.”