August 6, 2012 By Indrajit Basu
Picking up a tip or two from tech-savvy children is not unusual these days for parents living in an increasingly connected world. For Newberry County, S.C., Sheriff James Lee Foster, however, a tip from his children not only helped his department solve crimes more quickly, it also helps him stay plugged into his community like never before.
Following a tip from his children, Foster put his department on social media and has been getting daily tips on county crime information. He said that the community has taken up the idea so well that he had to open multiple pages in Facebook to beat the social network’s built-in friend limit.
Newberry County is one example among many places where social media is changing how police work is done. “The exponential growth and popularity of social media and its effectiveness of communicating with a community is helping law enforcement departments across the U.S. to redefine what community policing is,” said Nancy Kolb, senior program manager, at the Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Center for Social Media.
“Social media is not only helping community policing rise to a new level, it is also helping the police to directly engage citizens,” Kolb said.
While some law enforcement agencies have already experienced “tremendous success” with the adoption of social media, many more are coming on board.
According to IACP’s latest social media survey, 40 percent of agencies in the U.S. are already using platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like to solicit tips. Most others -- 80 percent according to the IACP survey -- use social media in some capacity.
The fact is that the advent of social media is having a huge positive impact on local police efforts.
Hubbard, Ohio, city police, for example,adopted social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, and began receiving important information from the public.
According to Sgt. Howard Haynie, who helps monitor the department’s Facebook and Twitter pages, tips and information gathered from these two social sites helped the department to solve two different crimes within a two-week span.
It’s a lot of help for a small department like Hubbard city police, said Sgt. Haynie, who believes that social media is emerging as a force multiplier for the department.
It's not all about crime solving, though. Mark A. Marshall, president of IACP, is enamored by social media’s engagement power. “It allows law enforcement leadership to humanize their work and their officers, disseminate information, and directly engage with citizens through the online communities in which they participate,” Marshall said.
“Social media’s biggest benefit [for law enforcement] has been the daily interaction between the department and the citizens. It has allowed the department to provide more of a personal approach to its services,” said Lynn Hightower, communications director of the Boise, Idaho, Police Department (BPD).
BPD began utilizing social media tools as part of its communication strategy around 2009, when -- driven by the explosive popularity of social media -- officials saw an opportunity to communicate with a larger and more diverse demographic.
Hightower said after thorough research she decided upon the most popular and growing sites where they could get “the most bang for their buck.”
The Boise PD started with Facebook, and has included Twitter, Nixle, and YouTube in its social media strategy as well.
“Obviously social media does not always help us in solving crimes. But it has helped us improve relationships, help build partnerships that make the department more effective in the primary mission,” Hightower said.
“A few days ago I put out a tweet on proper fitting of car seats for children. Unexpectedly this simple post escalated into a major discussion involving 45 conversations with 6 people -- and eventually it turned into a discussion that impacted a citizen’s safety,” she said. “Without that tweet our residents would never had the opportunity for reach out to the Police Department for an answer to that issue.”
The Boca Raton, Fla., Police Department (BRPD) has taken the application of social media for law enforcement a step further.
Realizing that the perks of using social media channels are often much bigger than only relaying crime reports, crime tips, and traffic updates, BRPD now uses the medium mainly for disseminating information.
”The media doesn’t cover the local communities like they used to. It has to be a bigger story for press , so the residents do not get to know about the little stories about crime, and what’s being done about it,” said Mark Economou, public information manager for the BRPD.
“A lot of information passes through the social media before it reaches other channels, and we realized that it is imperative for police departments to have a presence there,” Economou said.
Economou added that the BRPD social media (Facebook and Twitter) is a two-way channel for discussing and sharing crime info between the public and its Police Department. Additionally it also uses social media (Nixle) to provide immediate information via text or e-mail during an emergency situation.
It’s all about serving citizens, said the police department representative interviewed for this story.
“The prerequisite to a successful and effective police department is public confidence and trust. Social media helps a (police) department to earn that trust,” said Hightower.
Clearly then, social media is here to stay. It has revolutionized the way citizens communicate with public safety agencies as well as each other.
While there is no single right way to use social media, Hightower’s most important tip for an effective social media practice is; “be useful, be relational and be reliable.”