Twitter for law enforcement: Agencies and officers

Like any law enforcement tool, whatever you put into Twitter has to be worth the time and effort.

In the three years since sworn officers first started exploring its microblogging service, Twitter has evolved from a domain for tech geeks to a major source for breaking news, new relationships, and even customer service.

It's also become an online space where rumors fly, careers end, and thieves take advantage. While many law enforcement agencies and officers use it nowadays, others remain skeptical that Twitter can do anything for them.

Like any law enforcement tool, whatever you put into Twitter has to be worth the time and effort. For instance, most people in the US have internet access, but this doesn't mean they're using social media (although Facebook may be the exception).

On the other hand, even if most of your citizens don't use Twitter, what if the news media were active there? Local politicians? What if you found out that gangs like Hood Starz or Gangster Disciples were trying to establish themselves in your area, and were actively using Twitter to recruit local schoolkids?

It's important to understand social media tools at the very least because you never know which ones will provide valuable evidence in a case... or which will become important during a major incident. What people share and how they communicate can affect both. Are you prepared? 

A few ground rules

First: if you've identified yourself as a police officer, especially one employed by a particular agency, never think you're tweeting off duty. Even if your agency has an open policy on social media, you're never a totally private citizen. Don't do anything you wouldn't want your mother or your chief finding out about—accidentally or on purpose.

Second: if you use Twitter personally, don't assume that representing your agency will be the same. There are similarities, but joining in an ongoing conversation is much different for a “brand” account than it is for a person.

Third: if you're using Twitter for investigative purposes, keep everything separate from whatever you do officially or as yourself. Different username and password; different mode of logging in; different device (if mobile); you may even want to go as far as using a proxy so that you can't be traced back to your police department.

Your Twitter bio: person and personality

A Twitter bio has both image and words. The “image” part can include either an officer's picture, or an agency symbol like a badge, patch or crest. Many official accounts have officers' in-uniform pictures, which both personalizes the officer and transmits the values of policing. Unofficial or personal accounts can use any image, as long as it's appropriate (see ground rule #1 above).

Some police departments have a “no social media pictures in uniform” policy. For those trying to avoid snapshots taken during a drunken binge, in the wee hours of the morning while escorting cute bartenders to their cars, or graphic crash or crime scene photos, this is reasonable.

However, think about the opposite effect. As emergency medical services blogger Greg Friese pointed out last month, “No uniform/no apparatus policy eliminates opportunities for photos and posts that reflect pride in work, colleagues, and equipment.”

The “words” part of a Twitter bio is only 160 characters long, so make the most of it. The “personality” you show in your Twitter bio communicates what a follower can expect. Your bio might be entirely professional, warm and inviting, or even a little bit humorous. But do fill it out. Left blank, a bio can leave a prospective follower guessing at the account’s purpose or even its legitimacy.

If you don't intend to monitor the account regularly, say so. Many official agency bios do include a disclaimer like “Not monitored 24/7; call 911 for immediate assistance.”

Your Twitter background image

Twitter provides several generic background images (the full-screen image behind your tweets), one or two of which—on dark blue or gray backgrounds—could work for law enforcement use. Some agencies upload city panoramas, or images of police buildings and cruisers.

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