Discussion about law enforcement use of social media seems to be all over the trade media these days. It's estimated that the vast majority of police departments in the United States use social media in some form, and success stories (along with epic failures) are many. Even the IACP has an entire microsite devoted to the topic.
You may have heard people say, “Social media isn't just Twitter and Facebook.” This is true. But by the same token, social media isn't just for public communication – and neither is it just something to investigate. It's both, and more.
A truly social police department sees its constituents not only as people they serve, but as equal partners responsible in public safety. A good partnership, of course, requires communication. Naturally, this must be within reason. But that's what the 4 P's are for.
The 1st P: People
Law enforcement is all about people: the citizens you serve, the officers who serve them, the command staff who keep it all running smoothly, the politicians who make the laws. How your agency approaches social media depends on all these people.
Some constituents may prefer to connect with you on Facebook rather than Twitter or your blog. Some may really like your blog, but prefer to email comments privately instead of leaving them publicly. Still others prefer to connect in person and/or via listserv at Neighborhood Watch groups. And many may only want to hear from police via reverse 911 or SMS (text) messaging during an emergency.
Within your agency, your PIO may be gifted at dealing with reporters, but lack his usual flair on Twitter. Your chief may have a gift for writing op-ed style blog posts, or delivering her message via video. Meanwhile, there are the officers who seem to have a knack for collecting intelligence from the web, even if they aren't assigned to Internet crimes against children or gang task forces.
Finally, command staff and politicians may follow one another on Twitter and Facebook, but only in name – while they (rightfully so) do most of their heavy lifting behind the scenes, in person or on the phone.
All (and more) are valid forms of connecting with one another. But always, people work with the communication mechanisms that make their interactions easier – not what's hip or cool at the time. The Twitter landscape is littered with the graves of unused or tried-once accounts, owned by people and police departments that never got the hang of it. And need we say more about Facebook overtaking MySpace?
The 2nd P: Policy
A law enforcement agency needs a policy that covers all the different aspects of its operations: public communications, investigation, and employees' personal use (as a function of human resources, which covers recruitment as well as internal issues).
Your policy should clearly communicate acceptable use of social media tools. (Tip: don't name the tools specifically; their popularity rises and falls over short periods of time, even when it comes to the ones making most of the news.) See the “resources” section at the end of this article for links to model policies.
The policy should separate official use from personal, off-duty use. There should also be a separate policy for online investigation. It should adapt traditional investigative issues (e.g. deconfliction and proactive operations) to the online world, and take into account unique issues as well.
Beyond what the agency establishes, individuals may choose to have their own personal policies, which set boundaries beyond which the agency is legally able to enforce. Many police department employees have “close friends and family only” rules for Facebook, for example, while they make professional-only connections on LinkedIn and/or Twitter. Employees should be encouraged to decide what makes sense for them.
The 3rd P: Plan