Social Media Warnings: CALL 911 IN EMERGENCY

A growing number of law enforcement agencies are embracing social media. It is no longer seen as an evil extension of media-bias or a platform from which haters gather to bash the department. Instead, it is now accepted as a legitimate means of communication with the citizens we serve. But, there is a phenomenon that has raised its head during recent crises that need to be addressed – victims posting requests for police services to social media rather than calling 911. If you and your department are using social media, you need to be prepared for this to happen.

Only a few short years ago social media was seen as an evil that police administrators couldn’t stop but could at least ignore. Before long, it became obvious that not only couldn’t it be ignored but, that if instead utilized correctly, it could be of great benefit. If your department chooses to use social media as a productive, positive means of communicating with the public you would be able to reach an otherwise unheard population. Many younger citizens do not watch the news or surf agency websites, but they spend a great deal of time on various social media outlets. By engaging this growing population, you have the opportunity to interact prior to professional contact, build a relationship, and even give them a voice.

But social media is not a replacement for one-on-one contact in time of need, nor is it an appropriate avenue for reporting criminal activity or requesting police assistance. Yet, during last year’s tragic hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, responding agencies reported a continued problem with just those types of activity. Everyday citizens were sending instant messages or posting comments requesting assistance, some even claiming to need evacuation due to rising water or medical conditions. Far too often hours would pass without a response from the hosting agency, all the while those citizens were waiting and updating posts questioning when help would arrive.

Do not get me wrong, I am not faulting the agencies that host these social media platforms. It is not a viable use of limited resources to monitor social media during a major disaster. Nor is it possible to obtain all the information needed for the response from a simple Twitter post. But that does not erase the fact that it many, many citizens resorted to doing so, especially when phone lines were overloaded or unavailable. It is the responsibility of the hosting agencies to have a plan in place that directs users to the appropriate emergency contacts.

So, what can you do? Almost every agency involved in the recent disasters made repeated pleas for citizens to contact 911, yet the posts to social media continued.

A. First, I would suggest changing the settings to prevent posts from being made. This will allow information to flow out to the citizens but not permit responses or comments from them to you.

B. If this is not enough you can temporarily suspend your account, although this will prevent any traffic – incoming or outgoing- and that could be dangerous when you need to get information out as fast and widespread as possible.

C. A third option is to post a single message containing instructions on reporting calls for assistance, listing a dedicated website for condition updates and then locking the account.

D. Depending on your carrier and social media platform used you may even be able to automatically forward visitors to the dedicated website.

The exact options available to you will depend on how extensively you use social media, the specific platforms used, and your department’s IT capacity. But rest assured from here on out every emergency will require you include a new specialized unit, team or person – one that specializes in social media and its use by law enforcement.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell
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