Rodney Brewer, Commissioner, Kentucky State Police; and Sherry Bray, Media Coordinator, Kentucky State Police
ince its humble transformation from a highway patrol in 1948, the Kentucky State Police (KSP) has always placed a high value on community policing. As a rural police agency that many citizens rely on as the sole law enforcement authority, local involvement and interaction became cornerstones of KSP’s mission. The reputation of trust and dependability that has evolved during the department’s historic journey has served it well in its mission of reducing crime and resolving issues of concerns to the communities it has sworn to protect. While traditional methodologies of community engagement are still practiced, KSP’s sphere of influence continues to expand through innovative social media practices.
Although the somewhat nostalgic sight of a trooper chatting with a local farmer at a fence line on a rural road still takes place, it became increasingly obvious that KSP needed to broaden its outreach. Approximately five years ago, the agency embarked on an aggressive path to bring its social media efforts to new levels. As the agency’s Facebook and Twitter accounts increased in popularity and followers, other supplemental outreach programs were taking place throughout the commonwealth. An annual Citizens Police Academy was launched at each of KSP’s 16 posts to give citizens a comprehensive and inside look at the workings of the agency. In addition to valuable alumni groups being created in many of the post areas, a large number of graduates became avid fans and followers of the KSP via its social media outlets.
The agency’s driving purpose behind the use of social media is not just to enhance KSP’s image. More importantly, the purpose is to improve the quality of life throughout the commonwealth by preventing crime, reducing traffic crashes, and enhancing intelligence-gathering initiatives. For example, the agency’s intelligence analysts have become adept at using social media to gather information on suspects’ associates, acquaintances, and hobbies, which are valuable to detectives in the creation of investigative matrices.
Arguably one of the earliest social media platforms employed as an outreach tool for organizations, Facebook continues to grow in popularity among those interested in the business of the KSP. This is evidenced by the fact that the department is currently listed as one of the top law enforcement agencies in the United States regarding the number of Facebook fans, which totals more than 82,000 followers.1 As is the case with many police agencies’ Facebook pages, KSP’s account is used to disseminate a wide variety of information such as wanted posters, Amber Alerts, and upcoming major events. The use of Facebook has already resulted in numerous success stories, such as the arrest of a hit-and-run suspect who was found via tips and messages following a KSP Facebook post with information and details about the incident (i.e., location, time, and vehicle type).
In another instance, after KSP posted a photo of a “most wanted” individual from Frankfort, Kentucky, the person in question contacted the Public Affairs Branch asking to have his photo removed from Facebook because he didn’t want his mother to see it. He was advised that when he turned himself in, the agency would take down the photo. Within hours, the wanted individual voluntarily turned himself in to be processed at the local jail. In addition to these examples, KSP continues to receive a wide array of information and tips concerning drugs, Internet crimes, and cyber bullying through its Facebook site.
Twitter is the hottest social media platform in the United States, with 560 million users averaging 5,700 tweets per second.2 KSP has nearly 12,000 Twitter followers, a large percentage of which belong to news media outlets. Twitter enables the agency to interact with news media and citizens in real time. For example, there have been instances where motorists are sitting in traffic on an interstate due to a crash that may be miles ahead of them. KSP is able to respond to their tweets about the traffic delays with information about the road blockage and possible detours they can use to bypass the incident. Specifically, after a tumultuous 2011 Kentucky Speedway experience where many NASCAR fans did not make it to the race because of traffic delays, KSP turned to social media to improve traffic strategy for the 2012 race. The agency sent tweets and Facebook messages out every 30 minutes with traffic updates, lane closures, detour routes, and gate closures. At one point, NASCAR driver Jimmy Johnson retweeted a KSP traffic message, and it went viral from there. Fans were tweeting information as well, such as when a car overheated and blocked an interstate exit ramp, which enabled the agency to expeditiously dispatch a wrecker to the site. The 2012 Speedway was a huge success due to the incorporation of social media into the strategic plan.
More recently, KSP was invited by the New Jersey State Police to tweet a common anti-drinking and driving message during the Super Bowl. The messages using the #SuperBowl #SoberBowl hashtags were sent on the same day, at the same time and had the same message. The tweets with the #SoberBowl hashtag reached 1.5 million people.
The KSP commissioner’s blog is a monthly posting that is often formatted as an informational piece that explains agency practices, programs, or initiatives. Somewhat philosophical in its approach, the writings occasionally focus on leadership challenges and agency viewpoints concerning current trends facing the commonwealth and the United States. Each KSP blog post averages 1,000 views reaching multiple countries.
In August 2012, KSP took to the airwaves on YouTube. KSP-TV is a monthly video posted on the agency’s YouTube channel that profiles many of the programs and initiatives in which the agency is involved. Not only does the program explain many of the internal workings of KSP, it also highlights traffic and criminal-related issues. For example, one episode was dedicated to the unsolved murder of Bardstown, Kentucky, Police Officer Jason Ellis that is being investigated by the agency’s detectives. This particular video has received more than 50,000 views. Many of the episodes end with a traffic or crime prevention message and are avidly watched by thousands of citizens across the commonwealth.
In early 2014, KSP added Instagram (IG) to its social media offerings as a way to reach out to a younger audience. Although Twitter has a diverse demographic and a high number of users from younger generations, more than 90 percent of IG users are under age 35. The agency uses Facebook and Twitter to disseminate news, traffic alerts, and case information, whereas IG allows KSP to show a more personal side of the agency. The IG account specifically includes photos of troopers and civilians that the public would not usually get to see. Some of the photos posted on IG include troopers reading to children, interacting with the community at local events, and participating in sporting events or extracurricular activities. The unique concept about IG is the ability to tell a story with a photo, providing the audience a visual imprint to remember the agency with. However, in doing so, caution must be used when posting photos. For example, KSP recently completed a photo shoot utilizing its canine units. The photographer thought a great shot would be a canine “attacking” the camera with a full set of teeth encompassing the shot. While that could be looked at as “awesome” or “cool,” it could immediately hinder the agency’s canine handlers who may have to appear in court on behalf of their canine’s behavior and manners. However, used in the correct context, KSP anticipates IG will boost recruitment efforts.
The global smartphone audience surpassed the one billion mark in 2012 and will total 1.75 billion in 2014.3 It is anticipated that mobile will overtake fixed Internet access in 2014, and ComScore data indicates that 82 percent of mobile phone usage is spent via a mobile app. With more than 100 billion apps downloaded in 2013, it’s not surprising that KSP is developing their own app to reach this rapidly growing audience.4
The KSP mobile app will include traffic and road conditions, weather reports, news, agency videos, traffic laws, recruiting information, current events, the state sex offender registry, and touch-key ability to report criminal activity. The KSP app is scheduled to be released in 2014 and will be free for users to download.
Developing sound policy that all members of the agency recognize and adhere to is extremely important when exploring the boundaries of a social media platform. The rapid advancements of technology make it difficult to stay ahead of the curve when developing sound procedures and training. Early on, KSP made the error of implementing certain social media initiatives that were not covered by policy. At the very least, these mistakes can lead to some embarrassing moments, including potential civil litigation and jeopardizing criminal cases. The agency’s current policy addresses trademark infringement, intellectual property protections, and social media guidelines for every employee of the agency. However, even with these guidelines in place, each posting should be scrutinized with a critical eye to ascertain any potential liability for the agency, confidentiality breaches, or possible negative perceptions on the part of the public. For example, certain photos might be restricted because of revealing training tactics or vehicle approaches during traffic stops. Excellent uniform and policy guidelines are available, including one through the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). However, policies should be tailored to suit the individual needs and mission of each agency and should be reviewed regularly as social media evolves.
Another hurdle when exploring social media options available to law enforcement is the realization that there are distinct generational differences regarding what is ”proper” and what is not. It is wise to have a centralized point in the organization that has the ultimate say as to whether an image, story, or tweet should be posted. Obviously, these boundaries would have to be expanded if officers are permitted to interact on an individual basis with citizens on their beat via social media. Regardless, it is important to note that each police chief must set the boundaries as to how restrictive his or her agency’s procedures should be. This decision is a difficult one but should be centered on the agency’s mission, information to be delivered, expectations of the program to be utilized, and a realistic assessment of risk versus rewards. This makes it all the more imperative that every person in the agency possesses a clear understanding of the department’s social media direction and purpose.
Technology and social media continue to evolve and change at a rapid rate. Although there is no crystal ball to predict future advancements, it is clear that new and more robust platforms will continue to be developed. As mentioned previously, it is imperative that agency policy continue to advance with the evolution of such technology. Even more important is taking the time to determine if a particular social media environment is useful and beneficial to the mission of the department. A common mantra in KSP asks the following question regarding the implementation of any new technology: “Does technology drive our mission or does our mission drive technology?” Although KSP realizes that its mission is not immune from change, the agency holds the belief that the technologies of today should enhance the agency’s mission and purpose, not detract from it. The litmus test for social media programs is no different. ?
1“U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies with the Most Facebook ‘Likes,’” IACP Center for Social Media, http://www.iacpsocialmedia.org/Directory/AgencyFacebookStatistics.aspx (accessed April 28, 2014).
2Melly Allen, “4 Twitter Facts That Can Boost Your Small Business Social Media Marketing Campaign,” Recess, February 26, 2014, http://recesslv.com/17836/4-twitter-facts-can-boost-small-business-social-media-marketing-campaign (accessed April 28, 2014).
3“Smartphone Users Worldwide Will Total 1.75 Billion in 2014,” eMarketer, January 16, 2014, http://www.emarketer.com/Article/Smartphone-Users-Worldwide-Will-Total-175-Billion-2014/1010536 (accessed April 28, 2014).
4ComScore was referenced as a source in the following article: Danyl Bosomworth, “Statistics on Mobile Usage and Adoption to Inform Your Mobile Marketing Strategy,” March 24, 2014, http://www.smartinsights.com/mobile-marketing/mobile-marketing-analytics/mobile-marketing-statistics (accessed April 28, 2014).
Please cite as:
Rodney Brewer and Sherry Bray, “Social Media: An Outreach Tool for Rural Communities,” The Police Chief 81 (June 2014): 34–37.