Police Embrace Social Media
Print Issue: November 2011
POLICE DEPARTMENTS are increasingly embracing the idea of using social media sites, such as Facebook, for everything from soliciting crime tips to sharing safety-related information and improving community relations. The sites can give law enforcement an additional way to disseminate information quickly and to interact with the public.
Through Facebook, for example, police can easily share crime-related pictures and videos and give the public a relatively simple way to provide feedback and tips, says Dionne Waugh, a spokeswoman for the Richmond (Virginia) Police Department (RPD).
Another main benefit of Facebook and other sites has been the potential for strengthening community relations, she says. The department posts information about its “officer of the month,” for instance. Waugh and some other social media experts say Twitter can be an effective way to spread information in emergency situations.
More and more departments are establishing sites. 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.
To use such sites effectively and safely, experts say departments should craft strong social media policies. For example, departments should establish guidelines regarding what the public can post on their pages.
Before the RPD launched its Facebook page in January, some managers were concerned that the site would attract too many inappropriate comments and police criticism, Waugh says.
The department defined what qualified as acceptable commentary and discussion on its site. That way it cannot be accused of arbitrary censorship.
It has only had to remove about a dozen posts since its launch in January. Some concerned laws surrounding marijuana, Waugh says. One was an inappropriate comment about a homicide. Before removing posts, the department takes a screen shot and saves it for its records, she says.
The RPD also controls what types of information the department itself places on social media sites. For example, materials such as commentary, pictures, and videos usually need to go through the public affairs department.
Departments should also develop a policy about how employees use their private accounts, say some experts. In at least a handful of recent cases, officers have been dismissed or faced legal trouble due to postings on their private accounts. Yet departments also need to respect their employees’ freedom of expression, particularly when they’re off-duty.
The IACP’s Center for Social Media, which includes at least a few model policies on its Web site, generally encourages departments to forbid employees from representing the department on personal Web sites. At least one model policy forbids the use of department insignias, for example.
The IACP also suggests providing employees with information on how to protect their safety and privacy online. In some instances, officers may place themselves in danger by revealing too much information, says Kolb. Departments may want to include language describing how networking sites’ privacy policies can shift over time. Department policies might also state how certain officers, such as those working undercover, should take particularly strong steps to safeguard their online privacy.