Police departments in North America and Europe have started using social media as a new way to connect with the public. Through social media, the police are building trust and promotes openness.

By Vuk Velebit (BCSP Intern) / Photo: PCTech

Social media is becoming a primer source of information where each individual, institution or organization can set up a Twitter account or Facebook page. It is a platform to communicate publicly, to share information, photos, and videos, but also to build relationship and confidence.

Police departments in North America and Europe have started using social media as a new way to connect with the public. Through social media, the police are building trust and promotes openness. It is a tool to communicate with everyone.

This paper intention is to present aims of the communication of police services on Twitter:

  • To provide accurate information;
  • To increase trust in the police;
  • To engage the public in crime fighting;
  • To foster positive competition among police departments.

A Trusted Source Providing Accurate Information

In emergency situations, when panic dominates, social media proved to be an effective way to correct misinformation, so people tended to check their Twitter and Facebook pages first. Social media audience will not wait anymore to be informed through traditional media. Instead of press releases and press conferences, now you just put it on social media. If the police are not using social media, then someone else will shape the way the information is presented to the public. Except for terrorist attacks, it is a useful way of communication during other critical incidents, such as public disorder, acts of mass criminal or missing persons. Those are the situations when police forces are trying to obtain as much information as possible.

Police departments can choose if they want to be present on social media or not, but they cannot avoid being discussed by citizens and other users of social media. There are even some accounts that provide police-related information which sometimes can lead to rumors and speculations. Again, police have to decide if they will shape the information or someone else and how it will be presented.

In the case of missing people, friends usually start actions on their own using social media with a lack of professionalism so it becomes hard to divide trustworthy from non-trustworthy information. Police could play an important role using their own twitter accounts in search for missing persons. Another reason why police should be present on social media is that traditional media does not reach the target audience that police would like to reach. Those are younger people who use social media as the main source of information.

The use of social media by police was most visible and important during terrorist attacks that happened in the last years. The best example of communication between police and citizens via social media was during the Boston marathon bombing (2013) and Berlin attack last year. Twitter accounts were the main source of information both for citizens and media. Official accounts of police forces provided a lot of necessary information about the current situation, the number of injured and casualties, but also important safety instructions.

During the emergency situation in Boston, at every stage of the search for the suspect, police kept the public informed using the social media. That case demonstrated the level of trust and interaction that the police and community can attain online. BPD (Boston Police Department) did not only keep the public informed but also requested assistance and corrected mistaken information. Only 10 minutes after the attack as it is shown in paper Social Media and Police Leadership: Lessons From Boston, BPD commander called for the use of social media to provide the public with all necessary information. When talking about misinformation that is usually present in the emergency situation, BPD twitter account was the main corrector. During the marathon bombing investigation, traditional media made significant mistakes. CNN reported that arrest has been made, which was retweeted more than 5,000 times, but BPD shortly responded through twitter account that no arrest had been made and that tweet was 11,000 times retweeted. It shows us that social media has a huge role in correcting mistaken information.

Berlin police did a great job last year when informing about a terrorist attack and the developing situation. For example, they asked residents to send pictures and video of the attack. Twitter was used as the main source for sharing the information.

In the Police Foundation Briefing, engagement is specified as one of the most important ways how to build openness and relationship with the community. Using social media, police departments are able to build a relationship with the public that provides benefits for both sides. Except providing the information, police can also provide a forum to answer questions and publish tips. Social media provide the police with the power of publication and power of conversation or how the police and the community can work together in pursuit of their common interest. By using social media, police builds openness and transparent relations with the citizens and makes their lives easier. Police can also receive feedback about their work that can help facilitate further improvements.

Also, if you face police brutality or the police officers break the law and procedure, a citizen can post it directly on their Facebook page or mention them on Twitter. Public control leads to better police which strengthens the rule of law, not violates it. A study done by COMPOSITE (Comparative Police Studies in the EU) of the Twitter communication of the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) during the 2011 riots gives us an example how the interaction between police and citizens can become relevant during times of crisis. One user asked “@gmpolice is it true that chaos has started in town?” and GMP replied, “nothing at the moment, follow us and we will let you know if there is anything to report”.

Citizens can also give positive feedback and share stories about police work that will have a positive effect on future police actions. Officers will tend to act in a good manner so they get public recognition and achieve their own satisfaction. Traditional media often does not report on the day-to-day work of the police officers.  Social media is a tool to educate people about what your department is doing. Furthermore, Seattle police department is updating police reports online so everyone can see it and those reports are available up to 3 business days after the event. That may be the way of building transparency and openness.

Engage the Public in Identifying Suspects

Social media can be very useful when police need to obtain information about suspects. People would feel freer to share some information about suspects online, because they can do it easily and anonymously. It may produce potential negative effect if information is not valid, but it may happen always. Police needs to be able to analyze the information they receive quickly and effectively. There are even some apps like tap411 that allows residents to share information anonymously that can help police receive tips they otherwise may not have. Through that app you can also get crime alerts via text message or email about ongoing crimes in the neighborhood.

Seattle police department have made their own Twitter account Get your car back where they tweet plate number, color, year and model of stolen cars. It increases possibility of finding a stolen car because each user can report useful details for the investigation. More tools are in the hands of citizens which makes a coalition in fighting the crime.

Positive Competition among Police Departments

Another contribution of social media to police work is competition between departments. More than 2.800 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have social media accounts as it is presented in Social Media and Police Leadership: Lessons From Boston .People like to see some positive things and stories, not only crimes that happen each day. Through social media, police officers can be presented as real people by posting and tweeting stories about interactions between police and citizens. It is a way for departments to promote positive accomplishments. If there is a positive competition among police departments, they will tend to be better and more effective than the others and to get more positive feedback. Competition among departments also leads to greater confidence in police as a security system. If we look at police departments in the US, United Kingdom or Germany, we can notice that police department in each city has its own autonomy when using social media. Even some small cities use social media as a tool to promote transparency and to connect with public.

Alongside other challenges in the modern society, police forces have their focus set to remain the honest and reliable public servants, not used for any particular interest of either politics or other influential groups in the society. But at the same time, modern technologies open more channels in this two-way process. One of the ways to build trust, confidence and openness is by making relationship with citizens through social media. Social media cannot replace face to face communication, but it can contribute making a modern and transparent police that adopts new communication methods. Finally, the question is not how plentifully police use social media, but how efficaciously the police are making use of social media to improve the lives and interact with the people they serve.

TAGS: AnalysisMedia and PolicePolice ReformSocial MediaTransparencyTwitter