Commentary

Police Find Social Media Improves Community Relations

Law enforcement organizations in the U.S. and abroad have embraced social media for a variety of purposes, including as a source of information for investigations but also as an important channel for community outreach -- which can yield big benefits in areas like crime prevention and community assistance in solving crimes. In fact, over half of the U.S. law enforcement agencies surveyed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media said using social media resulted in significantly improved community relations.

Overall, the CSM surveyed 800 U.S. law enforcement agencies (most of them local municipal and state police forces) of which 88% reported using social media. Of the 800 agencies surveyed, 53.1% of the total reported the police-resident action was improved thanks to social media. Crunching the numbers, of the 704 agencies using social media, 425 or 60% reported improved relations.  

As noted, law enforcement organizations can use social media for a range of tasks, and information-gathering is one of the most popular. According to the CSM, 71.1% of the agencies surveyed said the use social media for criminal investigations; 56.6% for intelligence; 49.9% for notifying the public of crime problems; 47.2% for community outreach and engagement; 45.6% for crime prevention activities; 44.1% for notifying the public of emergency or disaster-related issues; 43.9% for vetting and checking background information of job candidates; 42.9% for community relations and reputation management; 40.1% for soliciting tips on crime; 32% for listening and monitoring; 25.9% for recruitment; and 9.4% for in-service training.

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Over the last couple years, I’ve written about a number of law enforcement initiatives using social media. For example earlier this year the New York Police Department formed a new unit to sift social media sites like Twitter and Facebook for clues, as well as early warning signs of trouble. The social media division is part of the juvenile justice unit and will monitor social media on the lookout for information about misbehavior ranging from out-of-control house parties to gang battles, with an eye to preventing mayhem before it starts. Likewise Colorado's Department of Public Safety is employing analysts at the Colorado Information Analysis Center to monitor sites like Twitter and Facebook with an eye to gleaning information about potentially disruptive events before they happen. And in March of this year the Philadelphia Police Department unveiled a new crime-fighting initiative using social media called "Video Villains" -- a "most wanted list" comprised of criminals caught in the act by video surveillance cameras (including both property and violent crimes).

No surprise, there’s also a punitive dimension to social media initiatives. Police departments in places including Evesham, N.J. and Huntington Beach, Calif. have begun posting mug shots on the police department's Facebook profile, in a move that is basically designed to publicly shame miscreants ranging from drunk drivers to car thieves and worse.

At the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security has been using social networks to ferret out fake "green card" marriages between U.S. citizens and immigrants for the purpose of obtaining residency or citizenship for the latter. Overseas, the Israeli military is using Facebook to catch female draft-dodgers who avoid military duty by pleading religious exemption. This includes photos or status updates showing them eating at non-kosher restaurants, dressing immodestly, or RSVP-ing for party invitations on Friday nights, during the Jewish Sabbath.

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