By Sergeant Dave Norris
A key tenet of modern policing models reinforced by law enforcement leaders worldwide is the need to leverage community engagement to help us stop and solve crime.
If communities and neighborhoods are engaged, and take a sense of ownership of their own community, they will be more likely to assist the police in protecting their neighborhood.
I have seen this dimension of the “broken windows” theory, and it has lowered crime in areas within my own jurisdiction. Neighborhood interaction can take many forms, from crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) to Neighborhood or Business Watch, to Police Activities League.
So if interaction is engagement, and engagement is community policing … should we not be embracing and using the most prevalent form of interaction currently on this planet? Social media is growing so fast that whatever words we do use to describe it are obsolete within minutes. It is more powerful than slapping down a soap-box down on your busiest street and shouting from a megaphone.
Engagement is the key to building trust within the community, and trust is the avenue through which we can partner with our neighborhoods. I have heard this consistently over the last few years from law enforcement leaders, police chiefs and their equivalents from all over the world.
I recognize and reinforce that social media could never replace the face to face contact we have within the community, and the power of a small gesture …
Social media is coming – for all of us. In 2011 several Bay Area agencies recognized this coming trend and formed the Bay Area Law Enforcement Social Media Group, (BALESMG). We quickly realized that not only were there several agencies (SMPD, Fremont PD, Redwood City PD, Mountain View PD, and Palo Alto PD to name a few) who were up and running, and comfortable with social media, there were dozens of Bay Area agencies who were experimenting, slowly edging in, or jumping in with both feet. The assistance provided by BALESMG (numbering over 50 agencies and growing), and particularly the availability of the quickly growing number of experienced PIOs, Tweeters, Nixlers, Web-masters and “One-Cop Shops” make even the newest of our group members feel well-advised and supported.
Let there be no doubt – the added dimension of social media adds an entire new set of workload for many PIOs or Community Outreach Specialists who are already stretched thin, but BALESMG is ready to quickly drop what we are doing and provide “virtual mutual aid” to those in need of help with their social media strategy.
Social media allows us to:
Be Transparent … Be Quick … Be Accurate
I will admit, I am the kind of cop who idealizes never leaving a public contact with a bad taste in their mouth (yes, even including those we arrest!). I am a firm believer that as soon as we can after the dust settles, we should take that five minutes (if they will listen) and explain why we do things. In my experience and on my watch as a supervisor, “because we are the police” is an unacceptable answer that has the potential to make matters worse. We are professionals, and we have a great answer to why we do things 99.9% of the time. Even if the media is not asking, we can provide an explanation proactively through social media.
The conventional media can often take what we say in interview or press release, and splice and dice it to the purpose of their own angle and story. However, the Police can write their own news articles through the use of social media. As my chief likes to say – we can get the accurate information out there quickly before the news can get it wrong. Not that the news seeks to get details wrong, but they are in a rush to beat everyone with social media access, tending to “report first, then correct if necessary”.
Bring Safety Messages to the Public
Social media provides us with an avenue to present our message and engage the public at the same time. It is as close as there is to a perfect venue for the delivery of news with a safety message. How often do we send the safety message in our press releases or interviews, only to have it left by the conventional media on the cutting room floor? Social media removes that problem. If we want to remind the community “you are our eyes and ears – call us on any suspicious activity,” that reminder goes directly to our followers.
Some Final Thoughts…
Proofread. Then Proofread Again!
Typos, grammatical errors, etc. – it will ALL be under scrutiny. Make sure what you’re sending is what you intend to send. Also, double check your sending source – mobile devices are very capable of sending social media blasts from multiple sources from a single device. Make sure you are not sending public agency stuff from your personal site, and certainly NOT sending personal stuff with your public agency profile. (Believe me, after the first time you send a shout-out to your favorite little league team from your agency’s twitter account, or an email blast with specific editing instructions from your boss still at the top, you will remember to double-check every time!)
Everything is a “Press Release”
Remember that every tweet, “like”, photo, and comment that you make in the name of your agency is a press release. That INCLUDES any “targeted” Community Alert emails to e-notify subscribers, Neighborhood Watch Block Captains, etc. There are media folks everywhere – many of them monitor Twitter and Facebook for up-to-date news. They are therefore privy to EVERYTHING that you put out through social media and email blast. Be prepared to pick up the PIO phone on anything you put into cyberspace.
HAVE FUN…But be Professional
Everything that you put out should have some type of purpose, whether it is a brief definition or lesson (I posted a pic of some motor units for #PiDay, and added that Traffic Cops use math to hold bad drivers accountable), or a link to a press release or safety tips. Remember, use of social media is a force multiplier for your public safety message.
Be Professional … But HAVE FUN !
You will get more notice to your Twitter and Facebook entries if you add photos. Be professional and make sure they are in good taste, and that they don’t compromise liability. Otherwise cops in action, dogs, motorcycles, and horses are sure to drive up your “views”. I have even noticed that the photos do not have to be LE related to be popular – (two of my most popular have been the Superbowl Trophy in anticipation of post game trouble and DUIs, and a generic “Happy New Year” pic with a safety message). Post some creative stuff – and draw in your audience for when you have to deliver that critical safety message.
Sergeant Dave Norris has been with the San Mateo, California, Police Department (SMPD) since 1993. After serving as a Detective, FTO, and Patrol Sergeant, he is currently assigned to Community and Media Relations. The position manages SMPD’s relationship with the community, including Neighborhood Watch, civilian volunteers, CPTED review, and SROs. He also handles public information and social media, having expanded SMPD’s community alert outreach to over 17,000 direct subscribers across a number of social media platforms. Dave serves on the planning committee for the Bay Area Law Enforcement Social Media Group, a training and resource collaborative spanning over 50 agencies and six San Francisco Bay Area Counties.