To help connect with the communities they serve, police departments around the country are crafting a presence on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Through these digital tools, officers can share information about issues of public safety and collect citizen feedback. The drawback to this kind of open exchange is that law enforcement cannot dictate its use.

People in proximity to local crimes and emergency situations may choose to share their experience, sometimes at great risk to themselves or the first responders on scene. Officers can make mistakes in what they choose to publish and how they interact with online criticism. Some departments are hopeful that training and community awareness campaigns will address these problems and allow law enforcement agents to focus on the benefits of social media.

At the heart of social media is community policing. Click To Tweet

Twitter is the new police scanner
Although police officers are typically wary of social media, engaging these networks can generate leads, expand witness pools and help residents prepare for potential emergencies.

At the annual GovSec conference last May, crime analyst Jamie Roush reported that two-thirds of survey respondents believe information obtained through social media can help solve investigations more quickly. According to Roush, social media content usually holds up in court when used as probable cause for a search warrant. He called Twitter the “new police scanner.”

Other digital platforms foster positive interactions, too. Departments from Virginia to California are effectively using Pinterest to solicit crime tips, reaching a different demographic than with Facebook or Twitter. Departments share a range of information from cold cases and community outreach. Pinned images include information about new drugs that teenagers are using, for example, helping moms to recognize warning signs in their children’s behavior.

At the heart of this is community policing,” said LAwS Communications founder Lauri Stevens. “Law enforcement can put up a mug shot and then three hours later have their guy literally drop right in their lap.”

Social media channels also make it possible to get ahead of misinformation as it spreads. When Kaysville Police in Utah had to shut down a street due to a bomb scare, for example, residents learned why it was happening in real time.

“We reached a lot of people that way and were able to educate them on what was going on quickly,” Kaysville Police Chief Sol Ober told the McClatchy News Service. “People feel better if they understand. They want to know what is going on in their community.”

New problems come with crowdsourcing public safety
It is common for citizens to use Twitter to post immediate reactions to live events, such as the Boston Marathon or Macy’s Christmas Parade. When emergencies arise from these events, however, the high-intensity response from officers involves significant strategic maneuvers to contain and capture suspects. When bystanders share what they see, criminals benefit from that knowledge more than law enforcement.

Law enforcement agencies in the state of Washington recently asked the public not to tweet during shootings and manhunts as a matter of safety. According to, the “TweetSmart” Campaign was started in July 2014 by a group of nine agencies, including the Washington State Patrol and the Seattle Police Department. Public reaction included charges of censorship, but officials say that the campaign is intended to remind citizens of the effects their smartphones and social networks can have on first responders.

“All members of the public may not understand the implications of tweeting out a picture of SWAT team activity,” said Nancy Korb, who runs the International Association of Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media. “It is a real safety issue, not only for officers but anyone in the vicinity.”

Some of the common-sense tips for citizens include letting friends and family know about the situation, calling 911 if they need immediate assistance and refraining from tweeting information about officer movements during a pursuit.

Social media can complicate the process of bringing a criminal to justice. Once a case gets to court, comments posted online by jurors can bias the trial and interfere with due process. Police use digital channels in detrimental ways as well. In 2012, LexisNexis researchers confirmed that 91 percent of agencies use Facebook for investigations, but they concluded that police are too comfortable using fake identities as an investigative technique, a violation of the platform’s terms of service.

Social media training reduces mistakes
While law enforcement academies teach officers proper techniques for disarming a suspect or defensive driving during high-speed chases, most police indicated they were self-taught and did not have formal policies governing social media use. That creates opportunities for visible mistakes for an organization as large as the New York Police Department.

A panel at IACP 2014 recently discussed how easy it is for small incidents to become viral news stories, often at the expense of authorities. Some of the key takeaways included recognizing the need to take control of a news story by being aware and responsive to misinformation. This could be in the form of a traditional press conference, or engagement through an online channel.

“The potential always exists for an event that can put your agency in the crosshairs,” said LA County Sheriff’s Department Captain Mike Parker, “but if you don’t have a social media account, your image will just be bitten without your knowledge.”

Establishing a presence is not enough. Missteps reinforce the need for police to participate in a dialog, a lesson learned from the controversy that arose last April when critics of the NYPD appropriated the hashtag #myNYPD to post negative pictures of alleged police brutality. The ongoing failure of that campaign had as much to do with ignoring criticism as it did the systemic gulf between an urban police department and its community.

As part of extending its use of social media, the NYPD now requires Twitter training for commanders and warns officers against using their smartphones while on duty unless authorized to do so. Engaging input from citizens in a professional and effective manner is becoming a critical skill.

“We have to respond with a smartphone almost as fast as we respond with a gun,” Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins told the Associated Press.

As more agencies train their officers to use online networks effectively, public perception of law enforcement and information sharing by citizens should improve. While everyone benefits from authentic and constructive behavior, a greater burden is placed on police departments to set an example for both transparency and attentiveness when communicating online.

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