The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

Public Safety in the Age of Twitter
David J. Krajicek - 05/26/11

On May 18 the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, together with the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and American Police Beat magazine, sponsored a conference on “Public Safety and Crimefighting in the Age of Twitter.” Criminal justice reporter David J. Krajicek delivered the following paper at the conference.

 

In a growing number of American cities, the use of social media as a primary mode of communication by law enforcers is fundamentally changing the way police departments interact with the media and citizens.

Each local experience is unique, but a transformation is happening as police turn to sites like Facebook and Twitter for immediate, interactive communication. Nearly 1,300 U.S. police agencies now use Facebook, and more than 600 are on Twitter, says the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

These tools resonate across a wide swath of America, where nearly half the population, from tweens to retirees, have a Facebook page. And the ability to reach the public directly—rather than through the media’s prism—has empowered police and, at times, nettled journalists.

In Baltimore, the microblogging tool Twitter has replaced cop-media telephone “hotlines” as the principal link between police and reporters when news breaks.

Justin Fenton, a six-year police beat veteran for the Baltimore Sun, says timely notification via Twitter has been an improvement over the old system, where he would repeatedly call the police department’s public information office and ask, “What’s going on?”

Now, he gets a text tweet on his phone when a significant crime is committed in the city, usually within twenty minutes of the incident.

“It’s like I’m a member of the command staff,” Fenton says. He then retweets to his Twitter followers, often adding a detail or two. (http://twitter.com/#!/baltimorepolice, http://twitter.com/#!/justin_fenton)

Fenton says the system has limitations: tweets give only the barest of details, and the Twitter stream shuts down from midnight until 7 a.m. And he says that when he reaches out to police for more information, he now frequently hears, “What we tweeted is all we have.” All 140 characters of it.

Some reporters complain that police are using social media to throttle back the release of information, not open it up.

Eric Hartley, a reporter for the Capital in Annapolis, Maryland, says police there typically now refer citizens and reporters to Facebook and Twitter for information. Hartley wrote in a column that the sites offer “such sketchy information it’s impossible to tell what’s news and what isn’t.” He calls Facebook and Twitter “a façade of openness.” (http://www.hometownannapolis.com/news/top/2009/06/07–45?ne=1)

In an e-mail, he adds, “With the agencies we deal with, Twitter and FB, at best, regurgitate the same information police send out in e-mailed press releases. I’ve never once seen anyone from the agencies use either site to engage with reporters or residents. It’s an entirely one-way form of communication.”

As of early May, Annapolis police appeared to be using Twitter (@AnnapolisPD) for a single daily tweet (“APD Daily Report”) that linked to a Facebook post of one or two brief press releases.

 
The Subject of Tweets

Whether journalists like it or not, the use of social media in policing is here to stay.

Bill LePere, a police commander in Lakeland, a central Florida city of ninety-five thousand, was an early advocate of the use of social media in policing. He says police have an imperative to reach out directly to the public in a timely manner.

“We think the police department has an obligation to get information out to the community through whatever means or mechanisms we have at our disposal,” LePere told CNN. “Traditional media releases—expecting the local print media to pick it up and run it in the newspaper tomorrow—is twenty-four hours too late.” (http://www.lakelandgov.net/lpd/Home.aspx)

But an examination of a sample of police social media messages indicates that urgent e-missives about public safety are fairly rare. More typical are messages about upcoming police events, such as crime prevention seminars.

Many departments frequently use Twitter and Facebook to congratulate officers who win awards or help solve crimes—the sort of “good news” that law enforcers have traditionally accused the media of ignoring.

Baltimore police often add congratulations to tweets, like this one from May 3: “GUN ARREST: 1700 Blk Homestead, proactive patrol leads to recovery of a .40 cal handgun & 1 arrest. Great job Violent Crime Impact Section!”

Two days later, Milwaukee police used the department’s Facebook page to tout the website OnMilwaukee.com, which was described as an “excellent Milwaukee online news website . . . [that] loves to showcase good police work.”

Some agencies use social media to aggressively defend themselves against criticism, a strategy that the International Association of Chiefs of Police calls “reputation management.”

Milwaukee police have used Twitter and Facebook to tweak journalists who err. On April 24, Milwaukee police tweeted, “Some media misinformation out there on overnight homicide. Get the facts from the source on this & others news at . . .”

The tweet linked to this message on the department’s Facebook page:

Beware of media reporting using unnamed “sources” for info. Here are the facts: Milwaukee Police are investigating a homicide that occurred at 4 a.m. today in the 4600 block of N. 27th St. The victim is a female. The investigation is in its early stages and in order to not jeopardize that investigation, we are not releasing anything further at this time. (http://twitter.com/#!/milwaukeepolice)
 

“Dissolving the Media Filter”

After decades of complaining about the media filter on their messages, many police officials eagerly embrace the use of social media as an end-run around traditional journalism.

And in this era of financial austerity, the use of open-source software has an added benefit: it costs very little.

Many police departments now use Facebook “fan” pages as their primary venue for posting press releases and news bulletins. Some upload press conferences live to the Internet via Ustream. And the use of Twitter by both police agencies and individual officers is a burgeoning trend.

Most agencies spend little or nothing to adopt social media. Some might spend a few thousand dollars on staff training or consultant fees. But Nancy Kolb, a senior program manager with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), says most agencies use in-house staff familiar with the technology to create social media accounts.

“In theory, you could do it in fifteen minutes,” Kolb says. The IACP’s Center for Social Media, which Kolb oversees, offers free assistance to police agencies.

Some managers feared that the posting of social media updates would consume staff time, but that has not been much of an issue. Information specialists have rededicated their time, substituting an update for a fax blast or press conference.

A 2010 IACP survey of more than seven hundred public safety agencies indicated that 80 percent of the respondents spent fewer than five hours of staff time per week on social media work. Just 2 percent of respondents spent more than twenty hours a week at it. About two-thirds of the agencies used a public information officer, chief executive, or member of the command staff to update social media sites.

“Law enforcement is realizing that they don’t need the traditional media to get their message out anymore,” says Lauri Stevens, a Boston-based consultant on police use of social media. “You don’t ignore them. You can’t ever do that. But you don’t have to cater to them like you used to. . . . The dissolving of the media filter is definitely going on.”

Her firm, LAwS Communications (http://lawscommunications.com/), has created several technology-related initiatives for law enforcers, including Social Media In Law Enforcement (SMILE) and ConnectedCOPS.net.

In 2009 Stevens worked with the Bellevue (Nebraska) Police Department, which has become a leader among smaller agencies in its use of social media. (https://www.facebook.com/bellevuepolice#!/bellevuepolice?sk=wall)

It is part of the portfolio of Jayme Krueger, community policing coordinator for the hundred-officer force in the Omaha suburb of fifty thousand. She tweets for the department and encourages officers to do so, as well.

“I think it helps give us a voice to get some information out directly to the public,” she says. “It gives us a better way to communicate with the public—better for both officers and administration.”

Krueger, a former police officer in Lincoln, Nebraska, says the Bellevue department has had a cordial relationship with the local media. But she notes, “One of the first things I learned when I first became a police officer is that you should only believe half of what the media says.”

Violent crime is rare in Bellevue, and the typical tweets from officers there concern traffic issues. Krueger’s tweets and Facebook posts often concern charitable causes or programs that involve the community in law enforcement initiatives, such as a police academy for teens.

“The two work together,” Krueger says. “Twitter is good to get out short blurbs. Facebook is a great avenue to advertise things coming up and to communicate with the public back and forth. I think they work hand in hand.”

Krueger says she does not send press releases on many of her tweet subjects, yet the media is seeing them on Facebook and Twitter.

“You can get your news out the way you want to,” says consultant Stevens, “and the traditional media will find you.”

Like Baltimore Sun reporter Fenton, Bellevue’s Krueger says Twitter alerts seem an improvement over the old paradigm of reporters calling to ask, “Hey, anything going on?”

“I think it has definitely improved our relationship with the media because they don’t have to call us hunting for stories,” Krueger says. “And for us, it helps us to be able to say what we want to say.”

 

“Cops Lead, Reporters Follow”

Fenton says the Baltimore PD’s use of Twitter gave him the impetus to begin using social media in his work. He now has five thousand Twitter followers, about one-third as many as the Baltimore Police Department’s fifteen thousand.

“I give them a lot of credit for it,” he says.

Likewise, the managing editor of the weekly Bellevue Leader in Nebraska says her newspaper is responding to the inevitability of social media.

“In a nutshell, I’d say we haven’t been regular, consistent followers of the Bellevue Police Department’s social media outlets,” Carrie Kreisler says via e-mail, “but we are moving in that direction because we as a newspaper are using social media more.” She adds, “I would call myself a traditional journalist in that I would much prefer to get a press release from the police department if anything major happened in the city.” But she says press releases from the Bellevue police have been “hit and miss.”

Kreisler says the paper recently revamped its Facebook page from personal to official (formerly known as a “fan” page), which she says “will definitely get us a better following for breaking news, traffic crashes, crimes and other police-related situations.”

The continued expansion of social media in the business and professional realm is inevitable, of course. A recent poll by the Police Executive Research Forum indicated that eight out of ten large police departments are using social media. (http://www.policeforum.org/library/critical-issues-in-policing-series/perfpresentation.pdf)

Christa M. Miller, a former law enforcement trade journalist who runs a Greenville, South Carolina–based communications firm, says crime journalists today are not doing their job if they fail to connect with their police agencies via Twitter and Facebook. (http://christammiller.com/)

“Social media allow police to take a proactive approach to information, taking principles of crisis communication and using it for daily PR,” Miller says. She says the potential applications are just now developing. “I think at the moment most police departments are focused on using social media primarily as a device for timely notification of the press and the public. But there is so much more potential for relationship-building between police and individuals and groups in a community.”

The IACP, whose social media website includes voluminous materials on the subject, says there are countless applications for law enforcers. (http://www.iacpsocialmedia.org/) It says Facebook has proven to be a valuable investigative tool for missing persons, fugitives, online bullying and stalking, gang affiliations, and posted photo and video evidence. Hundreds of agencies use Twitter and Facebook to publicize time-sensitive road closures and weather emergencies. Facebook is used as a recruiting venue and for community outreach for such things as crime-solving tips, crime data, and crime prevention.

At a Washington, D.C., conference in April 2011, law enforcers said gang units, in particular, were gleaning valuable information from social media sites. Gang members often proudly display their gang tattoos or pose with stolen loot on Facebook pages. “They want to brag,” Greg Antonsen, a deputy inspector for the New York Police Department, told the conference attendees. “Never underestimate their desire to show off.”

At the same conference, consultant Stevens cautioned police officials that gang members and other criminals have begun to turn the tables on investigators, using Facebook and other sites to collect information on officers and their families. Many who work in law enforcement have grown more guarded about revealing details of their professional lives on personal Facebook pages. Stevens advises, “Don’t mix personal with professional.”

 

High-Tech Generation Gap

Both law enforcers and journalists have a rapidly growing technology IQ, but some see a generation gap in both professions.

Although he is a veteran of the police beat, the Baltimore Sun’s Fenton is just twenty-six. An older Sun crime reporter contacted for this research passed the query on to Fenton, who is more fluent in the subject.

Likewise, Kreisler, the Bellevue managing editor, says she has depended on younger, technology-savvy reporters when it comes to social media.

In Milwaukee, newly hired Journal Sentinel crime reporter Gitte Laasby, thirty-three, says she is comfortable with technology, though she worked for six years as a reporter in smaller cities where old-fashioned communications—phones, faxes and e-mailed press releases—were customary.

Technology is changing the police beat in both large and small ways.

Cops and scribes have always had a wary relationship, of course. And now that they have a social media soapbox, some law enforcement personnel can’t resist jabbing the press.

On the morning of May 2, 2011, after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, a Milwaukee police official posted this note on the department’s Facebook page:

A great teachable moment for media from the bin Laden operation on why law enforcement doesn’t always share what we know when we know it. Behind-the-scenes strategies don’t work when media report them beforehand. It applies to local media, as evidenced by barricaded suspect in Milwaukee Saturday. We ask media not to report certain details in order to protect our operations. This is why.

It seemed an odd time and place for a police representative (unidentified, by the way) to chime in with a vaguely antagonistic post with an age-old cop’s lament about nosy reporters.

But the Journal Sentinel’s Laasby says the ability of cops to have an unfiltered voice is one of the untidy beauties of social media. “It’s much more democratic in a way. Everyone gets to have their say,” she says. She adds later in the conversation, “I’m sure it must be empowering for them. It’s not quite so empowering for us.”

In general, Laasby says, she finds police postings on social media sites an efficient means of getting access to press releases. But that hasn’t diminished the police/reporter skirmishes over timely release of information.

In fact, the complaint has become even more acute in Milwaukee. In 2010, the police department there switched to the OpenSky digital radio system. The media no longer has free access to police radio transmissions—an unthinkable development for the generations of police reporters who lived with one ear to the scanner.

More than ever, Milwaukee reporters and photographers rely on timely notification from the police when newsworthy events happen.

 

Folksy Tweets Build Relationships

As noted, about 1,300 police agencies have a presence on Facebook. Among large city forces, Philadelphia police appear to be the national leader in Facebook popularity, with about thirty-four thousand “fans.” (https://www.facebook.com/FBI#!/phillypd) The Houston police Facebook page has twenty-three thousand fans; Chicago, twenty thousand; and New York, twelve thousand. A number of big cities, including Phoenix, San Antonio, San Jose, and San Diego, have meager profiles on Facebook, and far fewer fans.

The FBI apparently has the most popular Facebook page in American law enforcement, with more than 100,000 fans. (https://www.facebook.com/FBI)

Everyone agrees that use of social media by police is a top-down initiative. If a local chief is invested in its use, it becomes a priority. If not, it doesn’t.

In the fall of 2009, the “Three Tweeting Chiefs” became marquee panelists at a gathering of Twitter enthusiasts, the 140 Characters Conference in Los Angeles. Billed as “visionaries,” they were Chief Dan Alexander (@BocaChief) of Boca Raton, Florida; Chief John Stacey (@ChiefStacey) of Bellevue, Nebraska; and Assistant Chief Scott Whitney (@ACWhitney) of Oxnard, California.

Since 2009, Alexander has tweeted on a daily basis and updated his blog every couple of weeks. Stacey rarely tweets nowadays, and Whitney appears to have given it up.

But the tweeting chiefs helped convince other police executives to get their agencies involved in social media.

In Stacey’s city of Bellevue, Krueger, the department’s social media maven, says officers are encouraged to use Twitter. “I wish more would do it,” she says. “But officers either have a passion for it or they don’t. We definitely have a lot on either side of it. I truly think it’s great when individual officers get involved.”

About ten officers contribute regularly to the Bellevue PD Twitter stream—using their own smart phones. Most of the tweets concern seemingly mundane subjects. Two recent examples:

“Call to Walmart for a shoplifter. The suspect today was caught two days ago doing the same thing at the same Walmart.”—Officer Sean Vest, May 1
“This bothers me 2 no end. They don’t move to right 4 lights & siren, they just STOP in left lane.”—Lt. Robert Wood, April 30

But those sorts of tweets lead to exchanges with citizens—and the potential relationship building that consultant Miller cites.

Homicide detectives may get the glory on TV cop shows. But in the real world, one of the most followed police Twitter feeds in North America comes from a lowly traffic cop in Toronto, Sergeant Tim Burrows (@TrafficServices).

The Toronto Police Service uses social media broadly, with twelve thousand followers of its very active Twitter stream, which includes breaking news updates, tips on police-sponsored events, and homespun asides.

The folksy Sergeant Burrows has 8,500 followers. (That’s a big number for a noncelebrity, but it wouldn’t get him in the Twitter Top 1,000. Lady GaGa is the leader, with nearly ten million followers.)

Burrows has tweeted more than ten thousand times in the past two years, sometimes up to ten times an hour. His subjects often involve traffic conditions, music trivia, and the weather—or a combination of the three. Most offer cheerful advice like this: “Remember everyone, rain increases stopping distance and reduces visibility. Slow down, leave extra space and be alert!”

Burrows’s followers seem to adore him, and many tweet back with chirpy thanks. By contrast, the Baltimore police tweets about violent crime draw snarky replies like this: “A shooting in Baltimore? No way!”

 

Common-Sense Guidelines

Police agencies have been scrambling to create guidelines on the use of social media by sworn personnel.

Miller, the South Carolina–based communications consultant, says too many departments are “caught up in the fear factor of the potential legal ramifications.” She says Twitter stars like Toronto’s Burrows offer PR gold for police.

In Bellevue, Chief Stacey encourages employees to use social media to interact with the public “for the good the department and citizens.” He says those who post must accept personal responsibility for the content, must identify themselves, and must be factual and respectful. The Bellevue department created a Facebook template for officers to use that presents a uniform, professional look.

The IACP suggests that agencies make clear the differentiation between department-sanctioned and personal use of social media by officers.

Discretion is warranted. Law enforcement has seen dozens of examples of a trend affecting every profession: men and women who lose their jobs over racist, sexist, or simply stupid postings on social media. (These include a South Carolina officer who took a photo of bikini-clad strippers draped over his patrol car, then posted it on Facebook.)

Like Bellevue’s Stacey, the IACP suggests commonsense guidelines: that officers “conduct themselves at all times as representatives of the department and . . . adhere to all department standards of conduct and observe conventionally accepted protocols and proper decorum.”

Personal posting rules are more complex. The IACP suggests, “Department personnel are free to express themselves as private citizens on social media sites to the degree that their speech does not impair working relationships of this department for which loyalty and confidentiality are important, impede the performance of duties, impair discipline and harmony among coworkers, or negatively affect the public perception of the department.”

However, there are several provisos: that speech by a public employee may not necessarily be protected under the First Amendment; that for security purposes officers should not disclose their occupation; and that hateful or obscene speech is prohibited under most police departments’ code of conduct.

 

Can’t Replace a Handshake

In January 2011, when a Cape Cod town announced that it would begin using social media, a local newspaper scribe wrote, “The days have long passed since cops regularly walked the beat, tipping their hats to local shopkeepers and chatting up residents on street corners. The Yarmouth Police Department, however, believes new technology expands the definition of community, and social media can become the 21st-century version of the cop on the corner.”

But can Facebook and Twitter replace the cop on the corner?

Absolutely not, says consultant Miller, who spent years writing about technology for law enforcement trade publications.

There is no social media equivalent to “the human connection that comes from a handshake,” she says. “The long and short of it is that there is no replacement for face-to-face contact, and any chief or commander or PIO who thinks they can replace that with social media is making a grave mistake.”

Miller says the social media transformation in law enforcement is properly viewed as the leading edge of an arc dating to a century ago. Beat cops gave way to the increased mobility of radio cars. But officers cruising the streets behind a shroud of tinted window glass became isolated. That inaccessibility was targeted fifteen years ago with the proliferation of proactive community policing, which hearkened to the beat cop’s penchant for problem solving.

The careful, smart use of social media might be the next step in building relationships among the police, the public, and the media—probably in ways that no one has yet even imagined.

 
Resources
 

Sample Twitter Feeds

 

Sample Facebook Pages

David J. Krajicek is a founder of Criminal Justice Journalists, coeditor of Crime & Justice News, and a contributor to TheCrimeReport.org. He writes “The Justice Story” for the Sunday New York Daily News. His latest book is Murder, American Style: Fifty Unforgettable True Stories about Love Gone Wrong.

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