Using Social Media for Good

Despite what your Chief may believe social media is not automatically evil. Yes, the wrong quote or poorly edited video goes viral and his life is instantly turned upside down. But, what happens when your department controls what the public sees and hears? Could you turn social media into a tool for good? Yes, you can.

Every time the words “did you see your officer on (insert favorite social media network here)?” are whispered members of command staff cringe and begin to wonder if it is possible to turn off the internet citywide. To be honest, this is not a completely unreasonable reaction and not without its merit. Departments from coast to coast have suffered after one of their own made a less than perfect decision and had the misfortune of being captured on video do so. As we all know, no one misses an opportunity to witness others at their worst (especially cops and public figures), so of course, such videos or photos are soon shared worldwide. Plus, they never go away- living on to be resurrected every time your critics have a few spare minutes on their hands.

So how do you combat the social media warriors? Arguing with them never works, they usually have a lot more time available and rarely listen to reason or even fact. You can not stop them, right or wrong theirs is still protected speech. But you can beat them at their own game. Not only can you use social media to project your agency in a positive light, but it can also be used to solicit information concerning unsolved crimes and even to track criminal activity.

Investigations

This was probably the first use of social media for most law enforcement agencies, and it usually happened by accident. A crime occurred, a tip pointed to social media, and some detective found that only did the suspect’s page show proof of the crime being investigated but also linked him to several others. Thus, was born the agency’s cyber unit. Even though it is widely known that police use social media, and even fake profiles, to track criminals it does not appear to deter the criminals from continually posting incriminating photos, videos, and statements.

Public Announcements

Public announcement pages are the most frequent non-covert use of social media by both law enforcement and government agencies in general. The page contains simple, informative style posts, i.e., “2nd Street will be closed April 17th from noon – 6 pm due to parade” with no possibility for the public to comment, ask questions or otherwise interact with the department. The post can be made as often, or as little as needed and no real administrator is needed, just someone to decide when and what to post- which can be as simple as copying press releases.

Tip Lines

The next level of social media involvement is the tip line. Like the public announcement, these are non-covert accounts but are used to gather, rather than disseminate information. Posts generally concern a recent and unsolved case as well as pictures of the crime scene, the officer(s) involved or even department equipment on scene. The public is then provided with instructions on how to report potential evidence, which usually includes posting comments to the page directly. The accounts require a little bit more involvement than the public announcement version as someone needs to retrieve tips left by readers, but that would be limited to when a new case has been profiled rather than day to day.

Public Relations

The PR page is the grandest of all social media pages, and the version least utilized by law enforcement. With this type of account, you will post as many pictures, videos and testimonials depicting your officers in a positive light as possible. Of course, the page can also be utilized as a tip line and public announcement page as well, but its main purpose is public relations. Staffing this type of social media presence can be challenging, and you may find older command ready officers lost when it comes to the necessary technology. However, regardless of how it might upset the departmental balance, those in charge of such a unit must be those who utilize social media on a regular basis and better understand the trends and changes commonly experienced on the web.

Concerns

Jumping headfirst into the social media pool is not without its dangers and commanders must recognize these dangers ahead of time. Failure to do so may expose you and your agency to unnecessary, but usually successful, litigation.

1. Nothing is ever really private. If it is hooked to the web, then there is no way to ensure 100% privacy. This means that you must take extra care to ensure that your social media page does not accidentally provide a link to other, less public, information such as SSN#, inmate records or even personnel records.

2. There is no such thing as deleted. Even posts that are deleted immediately after posting may have already been saved, shared and out of your control. It is very important to keep this in mind when posting information or responding as a member of the command staff. Your words unveil your true thoughts, and if those thoughts are contrary to department policy, you can bet you will hear about it.

3. Set clear, easy to understand policies concerning what members will or will not be able to do. Will officers have the ability to post directly to account? Can they have individual professional pages which they control but where they are identified as members of your department? Who will respond to questions or comments from the public? Who will have the final say regarding what is posted? These are all question you will face sooner rather than later, so you might as well answer them up front.

4. You will also need to set clear, easy to understand boundaries for the public as well. Believe it or not, some of those who read, follow and respond to social media reports will not be fans. These individuals may eventually take it upon themselves to share their vast knowledge of your job with not only you but all other readers & followers. Although there is a degree of protected speech involved in managing a governmental social media page, there must also be limits- limits that were established prior to being needed to avoid the appearance of retaliation. This could be as simple as having a programmed list of unapproved language (swear words) that prevent a post from being made public, or a delay between posting and being visible which would then allow staff review.

Whether you recognize it or not the technology is not only here, it will not be going away. Social media is not a fad, in fact, it is one of the main sources of information for many Millennials. It is not a matter of IF your department embraces it, it is a question of when and how much damage is done until that day arrives. By recognizing the positive aspects of social media and that fact that so many citizens use it daily your department can quickly establish a new level of community relations and do so very cheaply. Remember, if you are not moving forward you risk falling behind.

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 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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