Government Technology

How Social Media Is Changing Law Enforcement

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December 2, 2011 By

About This Report

This report is based on the activities of the Digital Communities program, a network of public- and private-sector IT professionals who are working to improve local governments’ delivery of public service through the use of digital technology. The program — a partnership between Government Technology and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government — consists of task forces that meet online and in person to exchange information on important issues local government IT professionals face.

More than 1,000 government and industry members participate in Digital Communities task forces focused on digital infrastructure, law enforcement and big city/county leadership. The Digital Communities program also conducts the annual Digital Cities and Digital Counties surveys, which track technology trends and identify and promote best practices in local government.

Digital Communities quarterly reports appear in Government Technology magazine in March, June, September and December.


There’s a scene in the 1990 movie Dances With Wolves in which Kevin Costner’s character Lt. Dunbar is traveling with a teamster by horse and wagon to his new post on the Western frontier. They come across a skeleton lying in the grass — an arrow sticking up through its ribs — and the teamster says, “Somebody back East is sayin’ ‘why don’t he write?’”

Today, public safety is a bit more sophisticated, and methods of communication much faster. Law enforcement tools have evolved from wanted posters to police radio, patrol cars and social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Community policing today has also expanded through social networking to locate missing children, alert neighbors of suspicious activity and even inform the public about crimes committed in their neighborhoods.

But social networking is a tool that cuts both ways. Flash mobs organized online in Philadelphia swarmed stores to shoplift and attack pedestrians; pedophiles use social networking platforms to share photos and video; and terrorists recruit members and plan attacks via these tools.

Even the courts have been affected. Jurors have disregarded instructions and have conducted online research, shared their opinions on Twitter from the jury box, and even posted biased comments on their Facebook pages.

In Albuquerque, N.M., a police officer discredited both himself and his department by listing his occupation on Facebook as “human waste disposal.” And in a number of high-profile cases, officers have found their actions posted on YouTube and the subject of hundreds or even thousands of negative comments.

From a 140-character tweet to a 56 MB video clip, social networking is a force that cannot be denied or ignored. We hope this special section will assist law enforcement in embracing and understanding this phenomenon.

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Carter F Smith    |    Commented December 2, 2011

The response thus far by law enforcement seems to be the monitoring of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). This may be the best and only way to know what’s going on in these instances. Of course the questions remain whether this will ultimately be constitutional and what do, how does law enforcement respond with this information that they have. Does this call for a dedicated team like a digital SWAT Team? Is the problem that police are not trained to respond to groups? Police are generally equipped to respond to individual for interaction, arrest, and prosecution, but throughout the criminal justice system there has been little training regarding organizational behavior.

Brett Hicks    |    Commented December 18, 2011

Check out my new book on Social Media and Public Safety Communications:

Stephen H. Haliczer    |    Commented January 3, 2012

This is an excellent article. I have already discussed the Dunwoody GA. initiatives in my blog which is dedicated to understanding the interface between digital media and government especially on a city, county and state level.

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