The Role of Social Media in Modern Policing

Intro

The use of social media as an effective, versatile tool for law enforcement agencies was investigated to determine the validity of it having a positive impact on criminal investigations, community oriented policing techniques, background investigations, and relationship building between the general public and police agencies. The positive effects and negative pitfalls of using social media was examined by the review of industry specific publications, mostly written by individuals with hands on experience using and evaluating the use of social media as a law enforcement tool. The results of these are abundantly clear that the benefits associated with the using social media by law enforcement greatly outweigh the minimal inherent risks that are present with most technology.

Duality of Technology

Throughout history, technology has been both a gift and a curse depending upon its use and application. Social media is no different than any other type of technology, in that it has two faces that are at time at odds with each other. Depending upon its use by society and organizations, it can be a benefit, such as a vehicle to enact positive social change, or a detriment, such as a dark tool wielded by online sexual predators or cyber-bullies. Even with some inherent danger present in the use of social media outlets, its use by law enforcement agencies and organizations can easily been seen more as a benefit and positive tool as opposed to being a curse or problem. The possibilities on the near horizon in regards to social media being used by police are virtually limitless.

Communication is the Key

Communication is the cornerstone and key to any relationship and social media is a viable and effective vehicle to establish and improve open communication and transparency between law enforcement agencies and the citizens they serve, as well as being pivotal in the dissemination of information from agencies to the community and being utilized as a powerful analytical tool for criminal investigations. Facebook alone boasts 845 million monthly subscribers and it can serve as the tool to disseminate positive news about the department that other media outlets may overlook 1). Any form of technology will offer downsides and negative results if placed in the wrong hands or if used in a manner contrary to its original design. In the case of social media being explored and used by law enforcement agencies as not only a community oriented policing tool, but as an investigative tool, a public information tool, and a background investigation tool, the benefits can easily be argued to far outweigh the few possible negative results and affects generated by the misuse of this formidable technology by agencies or individual officers.

The Right Tool for the Job

Social media has developed to a point that it has become an efficient and effective vehicle to promote and instill positive community relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Social media outlets have experienced an explosion of usage across social, economic, and age groups and have become such an ingrained part of American society that the transition into using it as a tool for law enforcement is obvious. As previously mentioned, the social networking site, Facebook, is just one of a multitude of social media sites and it has reached a user base of over 845 million people per month 2). There are a vast amount of social media outlets available to be implemented by police agencies, such as Twitter, Nixle, Facebook, Myspace, and Linkd. These outlets differ in interfaces and features and allow for extreme flexibility and the opportunity for agencies to custom fit them for their uses 3). As a tool for community relations, Chief Bryan Norwood and his staff member, Dionne Waugh, co-authored Telling a Story Through Social Media and were able to show how social media has benefited their department on a daily basis as a tool to disseminate information to citizens 4). For example, they were able to make sure that weather and traffic safety concerns were made available on the department Facebook account, as well as listing community events and crime prevention tips 5). In turn, they were able to receive feedback from the community on topics of concern and review that were left by citizens on the various agency social media sites. This usage of social media leads directly to the additional use of social media as a tool to be used by the public information division of any agency.

Getting Your Word Out

Public information divisions will benefit from the numerous applications available in the social media world. The goal of public information officers is to ensure that a fair, unbiased account of any police situation reaches the public. These divisions can utilize social media to ensure that balanced and fair news is generated for the department when dealing with traditional local and national news media (Stevens, 2011). It also allows for smaller stories of particular importance to the department to reach citizens when they may not be picked up by conventional media sources. Social media can also be used to ensure that the department’s target audiences are being reached. This is shown by Davis’s article, The Public Information Officer and Today’s Digital News Environment, where he specifically mentions the use of blogs and RSS feeds to ensure that information is relayed to as small or as large a group as desired by the department 6). Additionally, these blogs and feeds can be filtered to make sure specific groups or demographics are reached. Getting the right information to the right people is a key concern for law enforcement administration. The power of the information contained within social media can also be used for another concern of police and that is criminal investigations.

As an Investigative Tool

Criminal investigation can use social media to develop leads, generate public interest in cases, and monitor criminal elements within the community. With many investigative cases, the down fall for detectives is a lack of leads or physical evidence. Social media can be used to develop these much needed leads. Current or ongoing investigations that have stagnated can be revitalized by publishing information on social media sites, such as Nixle or Twitter, asking for crime tips from the community. Look-outs or alerts for suspects of serial crimes can be listed in an attempt to identify unknown perpetrators of these crimes. One of the most powerful uses of social media can be seen by the actions of the Virginia investigative officials documented in Jeremy Nedelka’s piece, Digital Field Operations 7). Here investigators were able to locate and identify undetected crimes and criminal elements within their jurisdiction. By monitoring sites such as Craigslist and Facebook, unknown crimes and criminal were located and identified, thus preventing crimes 8). Additionally, these investigators from Virginia were able to stay current with emerging crime trends and criminal associations due to the social media being not only easy to learn, but producing almost immediate, measurable returns 9). These are definitely positive aspects that social media can be used to assist law enforcement, but a darker side to social media exist and within that side are dangers and negative results as well.

The Downside

Social media contains potential negative effects for both the individual officer ant he agency as a whole. With all the benefits being seen with the use of social media, at times the negative side effects can be ignored or overlooked by agencies before they actually implement the usage of these sites. One of the negative situations of social media is individual officers facing potential threats and safety concerns when using social media in their personal and professional lives. This was illustrated in the Officer.com article, Is Your Social Content Building Relationships or Barriers?, when the possibility of an officer’s personal information may be accidentally divulged by the officers or agencies and then being obtained by criminals and used as tool of blackmail or revenge. Other threats to individual officer safety can be seen by the use of GPS detection tagging used by some picture programs to locate an officer’s house or second job, or the personal information from social media site’s profile pages being published by accident or by the officer’s carelessness 10). Officers are not the only potential victim of the problems that can be associated with the use of social media. The agency as a whole can be adversely affected by using social media outlets. Sensitive information may inadvertently be made available to the general public if strict policies and guidelines are not followed by the agency and the officers entrusted with the maintenance of agency social media sties 11). Another possible pitfall associated with agency use of social media is getting the opposite effect of what is intended for the social media sites. The main focus of most agencies when developing social media sites is to build stronger, lasting relationships between the community and the agency. In some cases, if extreme care is not placed on the topics and wordings of entries into social media sites, then a barrier or wedge could be driven between the public and the agency instead of a bond. Even with the possible negative effects, it is clear that the benefits far outweigh the pitfalls of using social media by a department. It is imperative that guidelines and policies are developed to ensure that negative effects or accidents are kept to the strictest minimum possible.

Summary

Technology is an ever changing environment, with epiphanies and breakthroughs literally occurring on a daily basis. History has shown that technology has a way of moving forward at a pace akin to a runaway train. As a general rule, law enforcement has been in the habit of playing catch up instead of playing the role of embracer and innovator in regards to technology. Social media is becoming such a commonplace tool in everyday life, that law enforcement agencies, administrators, and individual officers would be remiss if they miss the opportunity to meet the challenge of technology head on, embracing the possibilities and potential social media can offer law enforcement on various levels. Based on the research and real world feedback available, it is a logical conclusion for law enforcement to utilize social media as a tool to disseminate vital information to the public, to develop rich and lasting relationships between the community and agencies, to produce more complete and accurate background investigations, and to combat the eternal battle against crime. The few negatives found are more than manageable with the proper policies and practices in place and enforced. There is no argument that society and criminals are going to use social media, the question is will law enforcement meet the challenge and add this potentially game changing tool to its arsenal?


Social Media | Law | Crime

1) , 2) , 3) , 4) , 5) , 11)
Norwood, B. T., & Waugh, D. (2012, June). Telling a Story through Social Media. (K. A. Sullivan, Ed.) The Police Chief, 79(6), pp. 30-34.
6)
Davis, P. (2010, July). The public information officer and today's digital news environment. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 79(7), 1+. Retrieved July 31, 2012 from http://go.galegroup.com.
7) , 8) , 9)
Nedelka, J. (2011, November-December). Digital Field Operations. StateWays, 41(6), 6. Retrieved July 31, 2012 from http://go.galegroup.com.
10)
Stevens, L. (2011). Social media. Sheriff, 63(3), 6-8. Retrieved July 31, 2012 from http://search.proquest.com.

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