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Is Social Media A Force Multiplier?

The term “force multiplier” is often more about potential than it is about reality. Vendors and the consultants who sell their products use it as a marketing buzzword, when they are trying to show you what a great fit their product is for police work. But what does it mean?

Take license plate readers. If a single patrol officer can run 100 plates in one hour as opposed to 10, the reader s/he uses is as good as having 10 patrol officers running plates. Multiply that by the number of officers on a shift and... well, you get the idea.

But that assumes several things:

  • The officer has the time during a shift to run enough plates to make a difference.
  • The officer is properly trained in the use of LPRs.
  • The agency has the resources to deal with the potential for increased arrests.

 

Force multipliers: only as good as the people using them

LPRs are a simple example. More complex are the “force multipliers” like in-car computers (more officers are out of the police building and on the street, but their attention to their surroundings is divided while they type reports).

Likewise social media. 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 efficiently.

At that point, social media can only be a force multiplier when you are comfortable with more officers than your PIO or CRO tweeting and blogging -- and with your citizens, and the media, helping transmit your message (and their perception of your message).

Put another way, saying that social media is a force multiplier assumes the following:

  • The officers have the time to put into it.
  • The officers have been properly trained, not just on the tools’ use, but also in online communication.
  • The agency has the resources to deal with more information coming in, and the expectation for more information coming out.

 

A social agency needs time

You want citizens to follow along, share your information amongst themselves, help you get your message out to the entire community. But there’s a trick to that: social sharing is about what people feel will benefit their networks. Information has to feel relevant to them.

From a police standpoint, relevant information is about issues that affect people’s immediate lives -- the traffic collision on their regular commuting route -- as well as their overall quality of life: graffiti in their neighborhood, speeding cars on their road, and so on.

The appropriate time commitment to social media means that the officers take pains to identify those issues. It means combining the tools of intelligence-led policing with in-depth input from citizens themselves (remember, their perception may not match your statistics.)

The officers must then be able to discuss the issues online in such a way that shows the community they are listening. That also means that the social effort has to back up efforts to solve the problems. Otherwise, there’s no point in being “social.”

A social agency provides training

The “media” in “social media” should be a clue: social media use is part and parcel of community relations. As such, it demands clear and consistent communication from the officers using it.

This isn’t just about how to squeeze information into a 140-character tweet, how to post pictures on Facebook or Flickr, or how to use video to your best advantage. It’s also about how to monitor conversations happening on each channel, how to respond to online criticism (or worse), how to deal with a crisis of any kind (including online communication after the Incident Command System kicks in).

Social media and real-time public relations (a term coined by PR guru David Meerman Scott) go hand-in-hand. To be true community leaders, officers using social tools need training -- media training, the kind that enables them to take questions and criticism without going “off message.”

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.”

But by getting specific and focusing on the people who can help solve the problem, police departments can do a lot more than simply multiply their force -- they’ll create partners who take an equal share of responsibility for public safety. That should be the true goal of any social effort.

 

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