Written by Zack Lloyd
In more ways than one, the current divide between law enforcement and the communities they police is very similar to the civil unrest that our country experienced in the 1960s. In both cases, the attention of the public has largely focused on the mistreatment of minorities and law enforcement’s use-of-force in those cases. While this is one thread that binds the two eras together, another is a bit more subtle.
In the 1960s, the rapid proliferation of television ownership enabled citizens to watch local and national news programming at an unprecedented rate. As a result, coverage of the racial tension and incidents between law enforcement and minorities garnered widespread attention. Citizens no longer had to wait until the following day to read the newspaper, they received vivid images of the day’s events each night. This shift in media consumption was a true watershed moment for how public opinion would be shaped moving forward.
A similar watershed moment has occurred in these past 10 years. With the rise in usage of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine and other social media outlets, news travels faster than ever and the public can become aware of a critical incident just moments after it has transpired. And now, unlike ever before, citizens can voice their opinion about what’s occurring in the world, in real time, and through mediums that have worldwide distribution. The viral nature of social media platforms has the potential to amplify those opinions, allowing everyday citizens a level of influence that has never been seen before.
It took the law enforcement profession a significant amount of time to adjust to the increased transparency and negative backlash that broadcast news coverage brought in the 1960s. Similarly, today’s police departments have been slow to adjust and respond to the widespread use of social media. Within the past few years, many departments have acknowledged social media’s far-reaching impact and made strategic adjustments to reduce the likelihood of a critical incident being videotaped and then broadcast for all the world to see. They've also harnessed the power of social media to help solve criminal investigations. However, the unprecedented levels of transparency and scrutiny social media outlets cast on law enforcement could cause departments to resent the mediums or limit their use as a communication tool due to all of the negative consequences that these outlets have caused.
But that would be me a huge mistake. Social media outlets are not a one-way street. While agencies may be more prone to seeing the negative effects, these tools can be pivotal communication vehicles for law enforcement to rebuild the divide between officers and their communities. Merely having an account on Facebook or Twitter is scratching the surface on the benefits these outlets can provide.
For some departments, crafting an aggressive social media strategy focused on enhancing communication efforts, engaging the community and building trust is starting to pay off. It’s a way for them to communicate with this new generation, one that is informed by 140-character snapshots or whatever rises to the surface of their Facebook timelines. More importantly, it’s a way for the department’s voice to be heard in times of calm, and not just times of crisis. The result can be a positive online reputation for the department, as being present, active and engaged in good times and bad.
For instance, just this week, an article from the Watertown Daily Times highlighted social media efforts from the Massena Police Department in New York to find individuals with outstanding warrants. The department began posting open warrant’s to its Facebook page and openly asked for the public’s assistance in finding suspects. The posts include a photo of the person, along with their name, description, last known location and location of the incident.
Their efforts have already paid off as one suspect was located and apprehended due to information they gained from the Facebook posts. Other suspects who were unaware they had warrants have contacted the department directly or turned themselves in. Perhaps just as importantly, the department is building a level of trust and collaboration with the community that was not possible prior to the increase in use of social media. And their leadership is quick to give credit.
“We want the public to know that their assistance has paid off,” Acting Police Chief Adam J. Love said according to the article. “…It’s a positive way for us to interact with the community. People respond to us either online or they send us a private message and we look into that. We really would like to thank the public for putting it out there and spreading the word so we can try to clean up warrants.”
Positive and collaborative interactions between law enforcement and the community such as this build a level of trust and credibility for the department in the social world. Those same citizens are more likely to come to the department’s defense should it find itself in crises, due to the good will and proactive nature the department has taken to engage the community.
Meanwhile, in Sioux Falls, the police department is making a concerted effort to train its officers’ on proper social media use so they can participate in the online conversation. As reported this week by Argus Leader, a daily newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., 12 officers recently completed formal social media training and have begun to produce content on Twitter.
“We know that our citizens get their news and information from social media and we want to meet them in that space,” Police Chief Matt Burns said in the article.
The department said it has not placed restrictions on what officers can post and has left it to their discretion. Each tweet from the department includes the badge number of the officer who posted it. The main goal is to communicate and engage with citizens of their communities, according to the department.
While Sioux Falls is certainly not the first department to conduct social media training with its officers, the department is making necessary changes to embrace the power of social media and open the lines of communication with the community.
In the past, rebuilding trust within a community required officers to become more active in the neighborhoods and become more visible on the streets. While that strategy is still vital, it may be just as important to meet them where they tweet.
Zack Lloyd is the Vice President of Marketing for UNIT Solutions and formerly led the social media efforts for Spectra Venue Management, a company that manages arenas, stadiums, theaters and convention centers across the world.