Is Social Media A Force Multiplier?

A public information or community relations officer may find that during the course of a workday -- in among the usual tasks -- the amount of information coming at them via real-time status updates is overwhelming, even with a plan to filter and manage it...

A social agency has resources

When a law enforcement agency opens up a new channel of communication, people expect to be able to use it to the fullest extent possible. This is why some agencies are experimenting with Text-a-Tip programs that allow multimedia messaging (MMS), rather than simple short messaging (SMS) -- citizens want to be able to send images of the collision or the robbery in progress, as they should: that’s incredibly valuable information for first responders to have.

However, even the most forward-thinking agencies struggle with infrastructure requirements. A local contact of mine, a ranking officer in his agency, told me that his department had been one of the first in the state to adopt mobile data terminals for its cruisers. But at $8000 apiece, those 200 computers are difficult to replace nowadays. They’ve become obsolete along with the communication infrastructure, and that makes it harder to share high-quality information.

Social media may be free, but if an agency cannot afford the laptops, smartphones, video equipment, or other technology to make it easy to use, it will be that much harder to meet the community on the level at which private citizens are using the tools.

It goes without saying, too, that “resources” include people -- enough (quantity) of the right (quality) people, the ones who will respond to training and understand how to develop -- and receive -- good information.

The true potential of a multiplied force

All that said, let’s go back to the beginning -- the idea that force multipliers are all about potential. Each day agencies commit time and money to train officers on LPRs and other force-multiplying technology, so the chiefs and officers who believe they can accomplish something with social media should not hesitate to pursue that.

The key, when your agency doesn’t meet one or more of the above criteria: start small, and start specific.

For example: in May, the New York Times reported on two Los Angeles police officers who were taking time to interview people who had cause police standoffs. They sought to understand these civilians’ mindsets, so that police could reconsider how they -- particularly first responders -- approach potentially volatile situations.

What they found: in many cases, the civilians had escalated their situations because they were frightened. The outcomes could have been very different had responders approached differently. And so by committing these officers’ time up front, by listening and then training and finally implementing, the LAPD stands to save costs associated with response, medical care and maybe even litigation. Naturally, the new approach could save lives.

You would not want these particular, deeply personal conversations to happen online. But you do want to take the principles from this outreach, and see where social media can help. How might you integrate social tools in your ongoing education efforts about:

  • Elder abuse
  • Cyberbullying and stalking
  • Traffic safety
  • Small business concerns
  • Domestic violence


Have an officer giving talks to people in elder care facilities, schools, chambers of commerce, and so on? Put that officer (or a partner) online and allow them to continue the conversation far beyond those one-hour sessions. Reach out not just to the people in the sessions, but also the people in their circles: adult children who are caregivers, parents of schoolkids and teen drivers, customers of your downtown stores.

This is where true force multiplication takes place. Beat officers know they can forge not just relationships, but actual partnerships, with community members who want to work with them to make the neighborhood a better place. Social media is simply an extension of that.

If police social programs get anything wrong, it may just be that they are too broad and too generic. That leaves the agency open to criticism; at the very least, PIOs may put social tools on the back burner -- not exactly “force multiplying.”

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