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Officer Radio Recap: Social Media & LE

A couple of weeks ago, Editor-in-Chief Frank Borelli graciously invited me on the radio show to talk social media. We covered a lot over that 45-minute discussion, on many different topics of interest to police. This month's column clarifies some of what I said.

Mobile, always-on communication

Talking about the history of social media, we discussed how texting from a mobile phone seemed to have been Twitter's foundation, an easier form of connecting with multiple friends

I said I thought Twitter had evolved as an “outreach” rather than as a “broadcast” tool. To send out information whose purpose is to solicit friends' responses is different from simply sending them information. And I think understanding this difference is key to how Twitter will work for police officers and their agencies.

In fact, a study released this past month showed that in the United Kingdom, police were having difficulties engaging with the public on Twitter, because most of their communication tended towards “broadcast.” This may be as much a function of constraints on time and personnel as it is of police comfort level.

Tried Twitter but never got the point? Ask what kind of information your community needs... that you want them to talk about, with you and/or amongst themselves. Toronto Police's @TrafficServices account built exactly this kind of community over two and a half years. It's a great lesson in how to build official two-way interactions, not just on Twitter but on other social sites.

Incidentally, the IACP also has more information about how police use social media available in its second annual Social Media Survey, from September 2011.

Solicit feedback, but have goals in mind

Frank mentioned a case in Wisconsin, in which police set up a Facebook page to find a missing person. The result: thousands of pieces of information, which became hard for police to sift through.

It's easy to say that social media can broaden a police department's reach far beyond the citizens in just its jurisdiction. But resources are a problem for almost everyone these days. Saying “We need as many leads as possible” means little if you can't follow them all up.

Therefore, set goals for your crowdsourcing. How many leads you solicit, via which channels, should depend on the case, its priority, whether it's of local or more widely spread interest, and so on. Then, think past the initial request for help.

What if it works? How many tips will you be able to follow up before you need help? Who will provide the help—do you have reserve officers or a volunteer corps, or a mutual aid or similar agreement with a neighbor agency to borrow their officers? What can you ask citizens to do, and what should remain in the police domain?

On the other hand, what if crowdsourcing doesn't work? Take all your channels into account and be willing to justify the cost of using a tool that is still, to many, unproven and risky. How many hours did your officers spend following up on leads gathered from social media, compared to the telephone or in-person contacts? How might this have affected activity levels?

Consumerization of IT

“IT consumerization” means that employees bring personal devices into the work environment with them. For police, personal devices mean making personal calls and texts without having to use agency-issued devices. They can also mean signing into personal social media accounts on duty, checking personal email, and taking pictures or playing games.

Businesses are struggling with this trend as much as government agencies are. Security, ethics, and legal concerns all surround employees using personal devices for work (or work devices for personal reasons).

Policies and training can help, but aren't foolproof. So if an employee goes against them and someone - another employee or a citizen - sues, the data on personal as well as work-issued devices are discoverable. Sometimes, even family members' devices are discoverable.

Easiest way to protect yourself? It's not ignoring social media altogether. My colleague Art Bowker wrote recently about cyber-impersonation, a form of harassment, and how an offender could use social media and the lack of an officer's online presence to target family and friends along with the officer.

Have accounts, and know what you're doing with them. Even if you're connecting mainly with family and friends, and you don't identify yourself as a police officer and/or your agency, keep your professionalism in the back of your mind. That means thinking about how social media use can advance your career.

It's not just about using LinkedIn to connect with other police officers and commanders. It's about things like blogging about your specialty or interest areas, tweeting with other members of the investigative community, asking and answering questions on resources like Quora, Help a Reporter Out (HARO) and “old-fashioned” listservs and forums.

(It goes without saying that these activities should be restricted to off-duty hours. As Frank and I discussed, what if something went down while you were texting or blogging on duty, and you didn't notice it, or were too distracted to respond with the appropriate mindset?)

I'm looking forward to the next show. If you didn't get a chance to listen, go to and click on the episode dated 11-17-11. And be sure to leave me a comment below if you have any questions!

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About The Author:

Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in law enforcement and digital forensics and can be reached at