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Back to Archives | Back to February 2010 Contents 

Technology Talk

Social Media in Policing: Nine Steps for Success

By Lauri Stevens, Department Chair, Web Design & Interactive Media, The New England Institute of Art, Boston, Massachusetts; and Principal at LAwS Communications

ocial media tools offer police departments a way to listen to their citizens and hear what is being said about the department, crime, the quality of life, and events. They also offer the department the ability to shape the conversation. With a well-planned strategy for using social media tools, departments can actually increase control of their reputation.

Law enforcement agencies are gradually coming to use social media tools, but some still find it strange. Social media refers to the Internet-based tools that people use to interact with each other. Making sense of all the available Internet tools and methods can seem daunting, but with a little knowledge, a strategy, a department policy, and some determination, law enforcement agencies stand to gain significant benefits by putting their departments into the world of Web 2.0.

In London, England, during the G20 protests in April 2009, journalists used Twitter to report what was happening among the crowd. The British police learned from this experience. Later that year at an English Defence League protest in Birmingham, the police used Twitter to talk to protesters and point them to the department’s Web site and YouTube sites. Those sites featured officers telling the protesters the tactics the police would be using and also informing the protesters where they could peacefully protest.1

Implementing a social media plan has nine steps:

1. Have a Strategy

Plan which tools (Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, MySpace, YouTube, blogs, message boards, podcasts, Ning,, and so on) to use and how to use them. Each tool has its own attributes, advantages, and disadvantages, so use more than one.

Determine who will be responsible for managing these tools and how many hours to allot for the work. It is essential to plan how to use the tools to enhance the department’s message and how the tools will relate to each other. Establish measurements and benchmarks to measure achievement. Develop a timeline for rolling out the new media and have a plan for training all officers on the new media.

2. Create a Department Policy

A social media policy is essential, due to the legal risks and management concerns associated with participating in social media. To work, Web 2.0 must be interactive and, hence, will encounter some unexpected risks. For example, if an advertisement shows up on a department’s fan page, how does the department avoid the implied product endorsement? How should the department handle rude or libelous comments? Are friends or fans of the department’s sites online information subject to open-records laws?

Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have their own terms of use and when users—even police departments—sign up, they must agree to abide by those rules.

Some models are available to assist police departments. The state of Utah has a comprehensive set of guidelines for using its 27 blogs, over 100 Twitter accounts, and more than 860 online services.2 reports that the federal government has reached agreement with Facebook, YouTube, Flckr, Vimeo, and, resolving the federal agencies’ concerns about liability, endorsement, freedom of information, and governing laws.3 Also, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers is creating guidelines for governments.

Encourage officers to use department-sanctioned social media tools. It is important to issue guidelines describing what is acceptable on the department’s sites, as well as guidelines outlining how officers should behave on non-department-sanctioned social media applications.

3. Assign Staff

While these tools cost nothing to use, the cost of assigning personnel to manage and work with the tools remains. Despite the cost, the more individuals in the department working the media tools each day and posting interesting, relevant, and timely information, the better the results.

Someone has to maintain the content flow. Fans or followers need to know the department is serious about giving them useful information. At a minimum, one person overseeing the entire program needs to plan, depending on department size, one to four hours per day, spread over the day—including weekends—to monitor and manage the content going through the department’s social media program. That does not necessarily mean that person is the same one who creates all the content. Ideally, other officers at all levels will post content.

4. Technology Is Not the Answer

The site or tool must be about the content. The department should engage in social media only when it can regularly provide content. Until then, it is best to wait. Just being on any of these platforms is not enough. As cool as the technologies are, it always comes back to the content.

5. Abandon Fear

One of law enforcement’s biggest concerns about social media tools is that too much information about the department will get out. However, using social media tools allows the department’s voice to be heard, revealing the agency’s personality and culture from the inside. For example, the Bellevue, Nebraska, Police Department shares information via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites. The department encourages the school resource officers and detectives to keep up with the department’s networking sites. The officers know that functioning effectively means they must be able to communicate as fast as they can by whatever means possible. All 93 police officers in Bellevue can tweet. “It’s neat for citizens to see that their cop is actually human,” reports Chief John Stacey.4

In Ocean City, Maryland, the department’s community outreach includes e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and a blog. The department provides crime prevention information and community-related news in a matter of seconds. Press releases detail current police-involved incidents. The department blog has posts on Internet scams, and citizens are encouraged to add their comments and experiences. Since Ocean City is a beach community with a high number of summer visitors, other postings have addressed such beach-specific topics as heavy rain storms and hurricane season as well as many other topics including bicycle, moped, and scooter safety; sexual assault awareness; pedestrian safety; traffic safety tips; and public transportation.5 Social media not only allows the police to reach the public, but also allows the public to communicate with the police. Departments using social media report mostly positive feedback, and some negative feedback. Some people will say negative things about the police department, unsolicited and abusive feedback will occur, and the department’s intentions will be scrutinized. However, all that negative activity would happen whether the department is using the social media or not. By using social media, departments can at least see what people are saying—and have the opportunity to rebut criticisms and engage the community.

6. Do Not Abandon the Effort

If the department creates a social media presence and then walks away from it, the department loses credibility—making future attempts to create such a presence difficult. Be certain that the department’s plan is in place, the resources to make it work are available, and the knowledge required for maintaining the effort is ready before starting. The attitude of “build it, and they will come” does not work in an active social media network. Nothing will make the department look like an amateur more than a Facebook page that has not been updated since the day it was created.

7. Avoid Anonymity

All social media tools are meant to enhance communication between humans. Anonymity defeats the purpose of social media. If the department is trying to open communication with citizens, anonymity will backfire. Nothing says the department is unapproachable more than creating an online presence without a name on the content.

Setting up a Facebook page requires a face or faces on the page. Post an identified officer within the department with profile information, and make the page human. The content shared is only good when a real person is standing behind it. Again, the ideal is having several officers regularly participating and contributing.

8. Twitter Is Two-Way

Law enforcement agencies seem particularly prone to using Twitter as a one-way communication tool. If the department sets up an account and gets many followers (people who subscribe to receive the department’s updates), but never follows any back, then the department cannot have a conversation, nor can it tap into what others are saying. Once twittering begins, continue and follow others. Departments using Twitter have reported receiving good investigative leads from comments made in the social media universe.

9. Get Help if You Need It

Get advice from other law enforcement agencies or an expert who knows what tools will accomplish the department’s goals. Find somebody who can help plan, implement, and manage the social media program. Train the staff on how to use the tools effectively and encourage them to do so.

Social media tools do not replace anything being done now, especially with regard to any community outreach initiatives. What they do is tie all initiatives together, ensuring that the messages are saying the same thing and that each tool enhances the other. Creating a presence in these areas is just the beginning. It takes time to build a following. Keep focusing on providing stellar content, follow the plan, work it every day, and the rest will fall into place. ■


1Anna Leach, “Keeping It Virtual,” Jane’s Police Review, December 2009, IACP NET Document #6091414 (accessed January 8, 2010).
2“Utah Department of Technology Services,”; see also “Special Report: Great dot-gov Web Sites 2009,” Government Computer News, July 27, 2009, (accessed January 9, 2010).
3Tina Trenkner, “Is Social Media a Friend or Foe of Government?”, January 2010, IACP Net Document #609227 (accessed January 9, 2010).
4“IACP Net a Vital Resource for Progressive Nebraska Department,” Net Works Newsletter 26, no. 1 (Winter 2010), IACP Net Document #609357 (accessed January 9, 2010).
5Governor’s Crime Prevention Award for Outstanding Proactive Crime Prevention Programs in Maryland, “Community Outreach Email and Social Media Program,” Maryland Community Crime Prevention Institute, 2009, IACP Net Document #609033 (accessed January 9, 2010).

Lauri Stevens is Principal of LAwS Communications, and Department Chair, Web Design & Interactive Media, The New England Institute of Art, Boston, Massachusetts; “lawscomm” on Twitter and Facebook; blog at; e-mail

IACP Social Media Project

In partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the IACP has launched a new initiative to build the capacity of law enforcement to use social media to prevent and solve crimes, strengthen police-community relations, and enhance services. The IACP will be creating practical tools and resources to enable law enforcement personnel to develop or enhance their agency’s use of social media and integrate Web 2.0 tools into agency operations. For more information on the Web 2.0: Community Policing Online in the 21st Century project, please contact Nancy Kolb, Senior Program Manager, at 1-800-THE-IACP extension 813 or



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 2, February 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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