Serious uses of police and Social Media

A few weeks ago, we took a look at some funny ways that police departments were using Social Media.  The purpose of that blog entry was to entertain but also prove a point: Social Media has some fantastic uses when it comes to police departments, and we wanted to take a look at some of the more serious ways that police departments have used Social Media to make an impact on their community.

For one thing, look at this study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police:

 In a study conducted last year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), 81 percent of 728 departments surveyed said they used social networking. About two-thirds of the departments said they used Facebook. Social media adoption has been occurring especially quickly over the past year, says Nancy Kolb, senior program manager at the IACP’s Center on Social Media.

As early as 2010, criminals were getting themselves arrested because of stupid Facebook posts.  In an FBI law enforcement bulletin, the FBI noted some insane examples of cases solved because of Social Media:

For example, in 2011 Kentucky State Police investigators posted photos of jewelry, a tattoo, and a facial composite relating to an unknown body found 10 years earlier. The additional evidence provided in response to the post enabled investigators to identify the deceased person

How do police use Social Media to solve cases?  The above two examples are more obvious: criminals are frequently morons and post their activities on Facebook/Twitter, enabling police to arrest them and obtain evidence against them.  Police also have the opportunity to post wanted pictures, evidence, etc., that enables them to solve crimes.

In a major paper on the subject, the the U.S. Department of Justice notes that Social Media can also be used for crime prevention.  With a robust presence on Social Media, police can tweet out crime prevention tips (keep your lights on, lock your car doors, etc), bulletins about when crimes are happening on certain areas and information on what to do if you are the victim of a crime.  Police departments that are involved in this area tend to start slowly.  Check out the experience of the Toronto Police Department:

Constable Mills posted the first Crime Stoppers video on YouTube in April 2007,
launching a new way for Crime Stoppers to connect with the public. Chief Blair
admitted to having some reservations about using YouTube, but he agreed to
the initial posting, and the public response was overwhelmingly positive. The
number of tips coming in to TPS increased exponentially.6
Following the YouTube
campaign, Toronto Crime Stoppers created a Facebook page and a Twitter account

However, this isn’t to say that there aren’t real problems that come with police use of Social Media.  Police officers can make the same mistakes that political staffers do: identify themselves as law enforcement officials and make controversial comments that may reflect poorly on their employers.  From the FBI bulletin:

Officers posting information about how sleepy they are on duty can call into question their fitness for duty in the event of a deadly force situation or a serious traffic accident. Additionally, posting photos of themselves with seized drug evidence can be harmful to the ongoing prosecution of a case because prosecutors should be consulted before evidence is shared with the public. Though officers may face disciplinary proceedings if their actions are discovered, departments may rely on a “conduct unbecoming” regulation and not a specific policy regarding social media.

As always, each law enforcement agency must craft a policy that specifically lays out what officers can and cannot say while using Social Media, both on and off duty (personally, unless officially sanctioned and with very formal guidelines, I think it’s a bad idea for police to use personal Social Media while on duty).  For example, check out this policy given to Toronto Police Officers:

  • “Your accounts are yours but they represent us . You are free to comment and speak on matters that you have an expertise or working knowledge of, but you are not official spokespersons of the Service…”
  • “The Internet is forever . Search engines, screen capturing,…and other  technologies make it virtually impossible to take something back. Be sure of what you mean to say, and say what you mean.”
  • “Be sensitive to the privacy of others and the Service. Do not share any information of others including their photos without their permission….”
  • “Treat others as you want to be treated . Always be respectful and  patient with others.”

When it comes to the police, Social Media, of course, can be a tremendous boon and a double-edged sword.  However, just like any business or elected official, police and law enforcement must be where the people are – and in that case, that means Social Media.

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