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.