The Google-owned Web site YouTube (www.youtube.com) has grown astronomically popular throughout the world, wherever accessible. The site allows any user to upload videos deemed worthy for the world to view. Today, videos can range from the serious to the silly. Examples include segments of political debates, a high school student expressing feelings on a popular celebrity personality and last night's crazy happenings on a television reality show. Every time a viewer clicks play, that video's "hit" counter adds one. At an undetermined amount of hits, the video becomes "viral," escalating its popularity to the stars.
Everyday, millions of people "tune in" to the Web site and check out what new video has climbed that day's popularity charts. Many videos, however, go almost unnoticed compared to the millions and millions of hits the clips of mindless entertainment and personal rants receive. With this in mind, it is an impressive feat when law enforcement apprehends the opportunity to reach millions of viewers.
"I'm always looking for ways to use available technology to further our mission in law enforcement," says Patrolman Brian Johnson of the Franklin (Massachusetts) Police Department.
Acting as another tool for law enforcement, the popularity and accessibility of YouTube can be adapted to attract leads from fellow law enforcement officers and tips from viewers to pry open the communication gap between public safety and its public.
"If your agency's goal is to have your message get out to as many people as possible, YouTube is a valuable tool to achieve your objective," says Elliot Cohen, director of media relations for the Broward County (Florida) Sheriff's Office. "The site is obviously a place where a public safety agency can get a lot of eyeballs on their material."
Johnson's YouTube experiences began while investigating some stolen credit cards. The victim notified his credit card companies and discovered the cards had been used at a nearby store. Johnson's investigation supplied him with video of two suspects paying for merchandise. He had their faces but no identification. Local searches kept the case unsolved until Johnson, with the "go ahead" from supervisors, posted the video on YouTube. Soon, with coverage from a Boston-based media outlet, the video's hits rose, and a detective from a nearby town called Johnson with knowledge of exactly who the two suspects were.
However, law enforcement shouldn't be limited to only using YouTube to ask viewers for suspect identifications. Apart from YouTube, the Franklin PD also has used other Internet-based communications to interact with their community, such as posting video on the agency's homepage, mailing lists, broadcasts and produced podcasts, says Johnson. The Franklin PD's podcasts consist of messages and department officers speaking about their jobs.
For more than a year, the Broward County Sheriff's Office has utilized the YouTube site as a marketing tool to reach their community. Its promotion is coupled with a written monthly message from the department — printed material handed out to various districts, communities, schools, and homeowner's and community meetings.
"Each campaign is centered around the same theme with the central element being the YouTube public service announcement," says Cohen.
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Without a mainstream, accessible and cost-effective method of communicating, a public message, be it an investigative plea or public service announcement, may go unnoticed.
"Most of the community just sees the black-and-white cars driving around," notes Johnson. "They don't realize there is a lot going on behind the scenes that they don't see or simply don't know about."
While YouTube allows law enforcement to reach out to the masses, being able to reach out to the nation's law enforcement is a different challenge.
Currently the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) supplies law enforcement an index of criminal justice information such as criminal record history, fugitives, stolen properties and missing persons. This one technology, however, cannot meet every need officers face in investigations. Being text-based, the NCIC does not allow video to be uploaded and shared with law enforcement nationwide.
"As long as I've been with the police department, the system hasn't changed," notes Johnson. "It doesn't have the ability to handle an officer wanting to upload a video file."
Seeing this need, a police officer from Massachusetts created the Web site, www.massmostwanted.com, for regional officers to post and view video, comments Johnson.
"While there is a lot of law enforcement activity on the site with different departments identifying suspects, the program was only intended for the Massachusetts area," he adds.
Getting eyeballs on it
Without a federal video exchange, the popular, no-cost and public domain technology of YouTube has prompted law enforcement to utilize the site for their own unique purposes.
The Broward County Sheriff's Office received vast amounts of success with its public service announcement, "Gone in 4 seconds." The video, according to Cohen, has had nearly 7 million viewer hits and has been accredited with the second most viewed and linked to video of all time in YouTube's News and Politics category.
The success of "Gone in 4 seconds" is a testament to the site's popularity and potential to reach an agency's community and the public nationwide. YouTube's usefulness begins from its own nature. Its free access and quick resolution are obvious advantages to law enforcement's investigative and budgetary concerns.
"We're putting our message out there in a timely basis," says Johnson. "If it happens tonight, it can be on the Web tonight, and I can start to get the word out.
"Plus, we're not putting up billboards costing a lot of money," adds Johnson.
YouTube's free access and speed would amount to nothing if its viewership wasn't as vast as it is. Anyone with capable computer access can view the "non-adult" videos available, thus the potential for a great number of public and law enforcement viewers.
"A lot of good information is going to come from other law enforcement officers … but I never would want to exclude a group just because I didn't want to reach out to them," says Johnson. "You never know where that good tip is going to come from."
YouTube's no-cost characteristic allows itself into the budgets of deep and shallow pockets alike.
"This tool is for large and small agencies and departments," mentions Cohen. "If you are a public service agency or serve the public in any aspect, then I suggest using whatever avenue available to reach the public you want to serve, no matter how big or small you are."
Using YouTube as another communication tool isn't only for technologically savvy police officers. The International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC), in partnership with YouTube and the Find Madeleine Campaign, set up the channel "Don't You Forget About Me," www.youtube.com/dontyouforgetaboutme. This YouTube channel posts videos of missing children, child safety and educational materials in several languages, as well as public service announcements and messages from dignitaries and celebrities.
"Every year hundreds of thousands of children go missing, creating unique challenges for law enforcement and family members searching for them," says Ernie Allen, president and CEO of ICMEC in a August 10 press release.
He continues, "This new resource will provide unprecedented exposure for missing children, reaching potentially millions of viewers every day and increasing the opportunity that someone has seen them."
At the time of this writing, there are 44 total videos included in the channel. Viewers can respond by posting a comment for that video or by contacting the appropriate police department.
"Ideally, what we want is for the viewer who has information to contact the law enforcement unit responsible for the investigation directly," says Jessica Sarra, director of operations of ICMEC.
All comments submitted are reviewed prior to posting. Tips to information about a particular case will be forwarded on to the relevant law enforcement agency and are not posted online.
Uploading any video online doesn't mean the public will navigate to it just because it is the most recent posting. The message must be relevant and compelling to steer the public's attention to it and continue to attract visitors.
Videos posted to the ICMEC's YouTube channel must follow a set of requirements. First, they must be sent in by a parent or legal guardian of the missing child. "We also work with our sister organization, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to verify the information that comes in," says Sarra.
The centre cooperates with the missing child's law enforcement agency to ensure videos are actual cases with accurate images. "If it is critical to not post the video for purposes of the investigation, we will not," says Sarra. "But, we have yet to come across this scenario or circumstance."
Previously, local media blanketed law enforcement's YouTube videos — pushing the videos as the latest "must see" event on YouTube.
"You're not going to get media coverage every time a department posts something online," warns Johnson. "You get it once. You get your 15 minutes of fame, and then it's time to make the technology work for you."
The message, be it asking for suspect identification, public service announcements or a missing child montage, must be compelling and relative to the public. But, it isn't necessary to have a Hollywood director's cut or a celebrity personality make a cameo appearance.
For instance, the Broward County Sheriff's Office produces their own video announcements. They tailor their safety messages, warnings and public service announcements to topics and issues relevant to the people they serve. "If you come up with a message relevant to people's lives, they'll pay attention," says Cohen.
He offers advice to agencies looking to start their own video propaganda. "Produce a quality message you think is going to be important to the intended audience," says Cohen. "The message will sell itself. If you've got something people think is important, they will pay attention to it."
Because of the popularity and the dynamic technology, online video is a new way to reach a very different and global audience, says Sarra. "The potential for viewership is absolutely incredible. It is a really great way to get these videos in front of millions," she adds.
The potential of YouTube for law enforcement use does not end the struggle to reach the community. In the end, it's just another tool, reminds Johnson. "The site isn't the be-all end-all. YouTube is widely popular today, but what is popular today might not be popular tomorrow."
He continues, "As a law enforcement agency, you've got to stay with the times, know that the demographic is shifting. If you want the public's help, you have to go where they are, because you might not be able to bring them to you."
Each successful message sent to the public brings its own marketing capability. Videos, paper mailings and handouts, broadcasts, and podcasts all play a part in creating contagious communications.