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Information sharing: “social” police work

In the flurry of discussion about “engaging our public,” “joining the conversation,” and “how do we keep our cops from getting in trouble on Facebook,” I sometimes think we miss the broader context of what social media means for law enforcement.

It's one thing to post surveillance video online and ask for public feedback, using the social space the same way you would traditional TV and print media. But it's another to share the same information with neighboring agencies.

A few items about law enforcement information sharing have caught my eye lately:

In Kentucky, a suspect in a string of bank robberies and assaults throughout five states was arrested because of sharing resources. By attending local detective meetings and using the website, FBI agents were able to pinpoint similarities in a number of separate incidents. The suspect's personal and vehicle descriptions matched video surveillance images, tying all the cases together.

In Oakland (Calif.), meanwhile, regular bimonthly meetings held among local, county, state, and federal police, along with school and housing officials and BART, are part of a plan to focus on the 100 deadliest blocks in the city. Already the meetings have led to increases in arrests, probation and parole searches, and other key performance indicators.

And in tiny Cal City, (Calif.), Police Chief Eric Hurtado told the Bakersfield Californian that “his department is small, but officers were able to get a bunch of resources and network with other agencies and businesses and compile a massive amount of information.” That information included loan files, escrow files, broker files and title files, as well as documented cases of identity theft. Victimized companies cooperated fully, as did the bureau of investigation for the Orange County District Attorney's office and the U. S. Postal Inspection Service.

All this activity is inherently “social.” And yet, most of the activity in the three cases above took place in person or through other traditional means. While you would not want detectives to talk openly via Twitter about their needs, two aspects of techno-information-sharing bear thought and discussion:

1. In a formal setting, social media use doesn't function the way we anticipate.

2. Weak ties can lead to strong ties.

Social media functionality vs. productivity

In Canada, a recent Calgary Herald article noted that the country's Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS), first implemented in the 1990s, took awhile to gain traction:

“Two months ago, the force distributed a survey to investigators across Canada to get their views on ViCLAS and results should be known later this year, [ViCLAS administrator RCMP Insp. Larry] Wilson said.

“Asked why it took so long for the RCMP to solicit feedback, Wilson said the early years were bogged down with getting investigators just to buy in to the program and submit case information to the database.

“Now, compliance is 90 per cent or better, which speaks to the value that investigators see in the system, he said.”

In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, Tammy Erickson detailed why this sort of thing happens. Professional social media use, she wrote, is vastly different from personal use:

“Personal applications are finely tuned to the activities individuals already perform or would like to perform and to the people with whom they want to interact. They exude (even when it's not really there) a sense of control and choice.

“In sharp contrast, corporations often approach collaborative technology by:

1. Investing in technology with no clear intent or use in mind.

2. Not customizing the technology to relevant work processes.

3. Expecting people to collaborate within old organizational models and practices.

4. Believing that people will use it because senior management told them to.

“These approaches lead to poor adoption or sub-optimal use of collaborative systems in business. People either won't use the system or, if they do, it won't have a significant impact on the outcomes that count: productivity, innovation, and engagement.”

Little wonder, then, that investigators often opt to share information in person, over the phone, or via email! And yet, the Redlands (Calif.) Police Department is experimenting with a Facebook-like interface, CopBook. The agency has been seeking to drive internal adoption by putting content like needed forms and documents on the system. Secure integration of public input is also a goal. And the agency hopes to expand the program outward to others.

Weak ties can lead to strong ties

This may be the least discussed of all aspects of professional social media use. Is it because those of us online take it for granted, or because those who don't use social tools don't see it?

I'm talking about the “little things,” the water-cooler talks you have at 10am or 2pm or 9pm with your friends and followers. From sports scores to opinions on legislation, the talk may tend shallow, but as in real life, it humanizes you to others—and vice versa.

As I've seen countless times at conferences, conversations in real life go so much more smoothly when you've already traded tweets and found things in common. No one needs to know that two investigators, one in Indiana and the other in Michigan, are trading information on similarities between cases they're working. But making that call, the first time and every time, becomes easier when you feel you're talking to a friend.

These kinds of ties can be especially important when politics, both real and perceived, complicate even the best of information-sharing intentions. Local control, personality conflicts, competing interests, and many other variables affect an agency's ability to collaborate towards crime-solving—especially with agencies outside one's jurisdiction.

Information sharing is becoming increasingly necessary, not just within the United States, but beyond our borders as well. The more investigators connect with one another, the easier they'll find it to connect with those abroad, and the more effective policing could become. Allowing the social ties to form in the first place will pave the way for tools to strengthen the bonds and lead to new connections.


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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