Mark A. Marshall, Chief of Police, Smithfield Police Department, Smithfield, Virginia
ocial media has become a vital and ever-expanding component of society in countries around the world. From unrest in the Middle East to the disasters in Haiti and Japan, social media has played a significant role in recent world events. It has become commonplace for the first images and accounts of crimes and disasters to appear on social media platforms before first responders are on the scene or have been notified. For example, information about the hostage situation at the Discovery Channel’s headquarters in Maryland; the plane landing on the Hudson River in New York; and the Mumbai, India, terrorist attacks all broke on Twitter, a microblogging platform. Most recently, and unbeknownst to him at the time, Sohaib Athar, a Pakistani information technology consultant, provided real-time information via his Twitter account about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Of course, as is often the case, this rapidly changing technology presents both new challenges and new opportunities for the law enforcement profession.
People of all ages and organizations of all types are using these tools like never before. Social media has many uses for government agencies, including law enforcement agencies. The characteristics of community collaboration and interactive communication that are at the core of social media lend directly to the core of democratic culture and allow for positive community interaction and effective delivery of services. Community policing, investigations, and other strategic initiatives all can be enhanced with the effective use of social media. In fact, many law enforcement agencies have embraced the concept of connecting online with those they serve. A September 2010 IACP survey found that more than 80 percent of law enforcement agencies already use social media in some capacity.
Using these new communications tools often allows agencies to elevate community policing to a new level. This medium allows law enforcement leadership to humanize their work and their officers, disseminate information, and directly engage with citizens through the online communities in which they participate. Whether an agency is sending an Amber Alert, soliciting tips, or posting crime prevention information, this technology has become a powerful and instant tool to assist law enforcement agencies in their mission of protecting the public.
Of course, criminals also understand the value of social media; gangs and terrorist organizations are harnessing the power of social media to recruit members and coordinate activities. Additionally, cyberbullying and other crimes perpetrated through the Internet are growing. These developments challenge law enforcement’s investigative capabilities to keep pace with the increased use of technology.
As police chiefs, we must be aware of our communities’ interests in social media and also our officers’ personal use of social media, which can have wide ranging implications—compromising cases, jeopardizing safety, ending careers, and damaging reputations. The use of these tools has muddied the already complex issue of First Amendment rights for police officers; however, case law allows for limitations on officers’ speech. It is imperative that we establish policies to address the inappropriate use of social media and educate our employees about how to use these tools safely.
To that end, the IACP launched the Center for Social Media, in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, at the annual IACP conference in October 2010. The center’s goal is to build the capacity of law enforcement to use social media to prevent and solve crimes; strengthen police-community relations; and enhance services through the provision of no-cost resources, training, and technical assistance, including a model policy on social media. The center also has published a series of informative social media fact sheets on the following:
- Various social media platforms: Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Mobile, and You Tube
- Law Enforcement and Cyberbullying
- Law Enforcement Executives’ Social Media Top Ten
- Social Media and Crime Prevention
- Social Media for Recruitment
I encourage you to visit the center’s website at http://www.IACPsocialmedia.org and take advantage of the resources it provides. In addition, the IACP National Law Enforcement Model Policy Center has developed and released a model policy on social media and an accompanying concept and issues paper that set forth the various procedural and legal implications involved in departmental and employee use of social media.
It is clear that social media is here to stay; it has revolutionized the way in which citizens communicate with each other, communicate with police departments, and receive communication from department personnel. There is no single right way to use social media, and how an agency chooses to use it can be tailored to meet the specific needs of the agency and the community. It is my belief that the IACP Center for Social Media will provide you with the tools and resources you need to develop a solution that works best for your agency. ■
Please cite as:
Mark A. Marshall, "Social Media Solutions Specific to You," President's Message, The Police Chief 78 (June 2011): 6.