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Back to Archives | Back to July 2011 Contents 

Engaging the Public and Protecting Agencies and Personnel on Facebook and Beyond

By Tim Jones, Deputy Chief of Police, Roanoke, Virginia, Police Department; and Aisha Johnson, Crime Prevention and Community Involvement Specialist, Roanoke, Virginia, Police Department

On March 1, 2011, the Roanoke, Virginia, Police Department launched a new initiative that included changes to its Facebook page as part of the department’s effort to evolve its traditional community policing philosophy to include a cyber–community policing philosophy.

n November 2009, the Roanoke, Virginia, Police Department launched a Facebook page as part of a crime prevention initiative known as the Safer City Roanoke campaign. The goal was to decrease incidents of property crime by educating citizens about how they could best protect their possessions. In its infancy, the Facebook page was used to post crime prevention information and surveillance pictures and videos of suspects. This approach was effective for about a year, but in that time the police department realized that Facebook was rapidly evolving, and the department needed to keep up with the ever-changing technology if it wanted to maintain open communication with its citizens.

As a result, a three-phase plan was developed to support traditional community policing with cyber–community policing. Phase one began in February 2011, with an increase in the frequency of posts to Facebook and an expansion in the types of posts to include photographs of officers at community events and crime analysis information. At this time, the department challenged those who clicked that they “liked” the page to encourage their Facebook friends to also “like” the page. In addition, the department held its first ever social media community meeting, designed to teach citizens how to set up their own Facebook pages and protect their identities while online. A focus was placed on educating elderly and homebound citizens who often cannot easily attend community meetings.

Phase two kicked off with a media blitz. A press conference showcased changes made to the department’s Facebook page. These changes included the first in a series of monthly videos profiling the officers’ careers, an interview with a Major Crimes detective who urged the public to come forward with new leads to a 2010 homicide, a virtual tour of the Roanoke Police Training Academy, and an interactive crime scene investigation tool that allows citizens to take a virtual tour of a staged crime scene and locate evidence. In addition to holding the press conference, the police department also harnessed the social media efforts of WSLS, the NBC affiliate in Roanoke. This station airs a live, interactive show nightly during which citizens can communicate with the news anchor via social media. Roanoke Deputy Chief Tim Jones joined the show’s chat room to answer questions about the department’s use of technology to bring community integration to a new level.

During phase two, department personnel posted a picture on the agency’s Facebook page of a runaway dog that made a temporary home in a lieutenant’s patrol car. That post received 47 “likes” and 18 comments, including a comment from a citizen who offered to adopt the dog if its owner was not located. Four days later, the dog’s owner came forward and all 47 Facebook fans of the dog—Max—responded to his safe return home.

Aside from lighter stories such as this, the department’s Facebook page also receives attention from the community during critical incidents. A report of a man walking through the mall with a gun forced the evacuation of shoppers and a thorough sweep of the facility by the tactical response teams of the Roanoke Police Department and assisting agencies. Citizens looked to Facebook for updates during this incident, which ended without the individual being found. A debate was sparked as to what the man was actually carrying when surveillance pictures were released on Facebook the next day in an effort to learn his identity. The Roanoke Police Department’s partnership with the media also drew more Facebook users to the site. One local news affiliate linked to the department’s Facebook page from its website when the surveillance pictures were posted, and the visitors to the police department’s Facebook page increased from 791 visitors on the previous day to 1,557 visitors. Dozens posted their opinions of whether the object was a firearm or an umbrella. In the end, the man came forward and detectives learned that he was carrying an umbrella, but the experience once again showed the power of social media as a form of communication.

Phase three is still in the planning stages but includes the department becoming more interactive with the community by creating a blogging conversation with citizens, streaming live video, and making real-time crime data available to citizens. Another focus of phase three will be to increase crime prevention efforts through social media. This will allow Roanoke crime prevention specialists the opportunity to reach members of the community through videos focused on citizens decreasing their chances of becoming victims.

The department continues to reach out to citizens through traditional means such as publicizing stories through the media, attending community meetings, and conducting community walks. However, there is now a more concerted effort to remain in contact with those in the community who use the Internet as their main mode of communication. Most citizens have used the Roanoke Police Department’s Facebook page for its intended purpose, and the department allows citizens to post comments that are neither inappropriate nor offensive. In fact, the department has a welcome page that informs Facebook users that inappropriate or offensive comments will be removed. Roanoke police understand that they will and do receive criticism from citizens, which is available for all to read. When questions are posted, they are answered. When inaccurate information is posted by citizens, it is addressed by the department. Sometimes, Facebook users post humorous comments or simply vent about a frustration they are experiencing. The department encourages open dialogue, and those comments are allowed to remain on the page provided they follow the guidelines spelled out on the welcome page. In some cases, Facebook users have rallied around the department in response to another citizen who has posted a negative comment. Just two citizen comments have been removed since February 1 this year. Despite some negative posts, the effort to enhance social media efforts has proven worthwhile. The department has gained more than 1,300 new “likes” since February and Roanoke police have yet another way to communicate with citizens.

Addressing Social Media from Within

As plans were devised to increase social media communication with the public, internal plans were being made to address social media use within the agency. “Have you guys lost your mind?” was the question posed by one Virginia law enforcement administrator toward the Roanoke Police Department’s new social media initiative. The department’s efforts to expand its community policing philosophy into the realm of social media naturally led to the question of how a police department can simultaneously harness the usefulness of social media and protect itself and its personnel from the technology pitfalls of inappropriate use.

The misuse of technology and social media venues continues to be a commonly discussed topic for today’s law enforcement. As the availability of the Internet makes its way to patrol cars and duty belts, law enforcement personnel risk a plethora of career-altering circumstances. If any agency has not yet stumbled over a social media issue, it is only a matter of time. For the Roanoke Police Department, the urgency of this matter began in September 2009, when an officer created a blog site. The blog posts went mostly unnoticed by the public until a local community group, at which the officer attended monthly meetings, created a link—sporting an image of the police department’s badge—to the blog site. The local newspaper soon followed the community group’s lead and linked to the blog site, too. A further review of the postings revealed enough descriptive information about police calls for service that confidentiality matters for both the individuals involved and prosecution in the cases risked being jeopardized.

The department’s command staff realized it needed to act quickly and methodically. This task did not prove easy. Command staff recognized the prominent use of social media by today’s youthful workforce. Banning officers from listing their place of employment on social media sites contradicted the ongoing project by the department to expand its own social media sites. In addition, discussing work in an open forum exposed the officers and the department to litigation and civil suits.

The command staff working with the city attorney’s office used existing case law to develop a policy relating to information disclosed by Roanoke police employees in the social media arena. During this process, it was recognized that an overly broad policy tinkering with what an employee could and could not publish away from work was unlikely to survive court review. Command staff’s focus was to cleanly and simply set parameters for the publication of information pursuant to law.

An additional resource to establish these parameters was found in the Law Enforcement Officer Code of Ethics, which is used by almost all police agencies throughout the country. The central point to the code is “Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided to me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.” It became clear that the department could not expect its officers to uphold the Code of Ethics while simultaneously allowing the publication of information that has been learned in the course of their duties to remain unregulated within the social media arena. Equally significant is case law where courts have restricted the rights of government employees who identified themselves as police officers or displayed their department badges, uniforms, or uniform patches.1

When it comes to restricting what law enforcement personnel do and say through social media, the best laid plans can be a tough sell. In order to lay the groundwork for what could have been a very controversial policy, change was needed to educate those who would be affected by it. To broach this issue, the Roanoke Police Department used a team consisting of an assistant city attorney and two deputy chiefs to deliver the new social media training to department personnel. The three-person team needed to frame the training as a benefit to personnel rather than an edict from management.

In May 2010, after six months of monitoring and legal review, Roanoke Chief of Police (then–Deputy Chief) Chris Perkins; assistant city attorney Tim Spencer; and Roanoke Deputy Chief of Police Tim Jones conducted the first of six sessions on the pitfalls of social media. As the Roanoke Police Department was instituting a social media policy, so was the city of Roanoke; however, the city’s policy was designed for the general workforce, and the police department needed a policy that spoke to the image of the department and the confidential information that is available to officers and civilian employees. To set the tone of the training, several law enforcement social media situations where critiqued. Situations in Lexington, Kentucky, and in New Port Richey, Florida, among others, were used as examples of just how easy it is to suffer the fate of disciplinary action or agency embarrassment by way of social media.2 The basic message is not to post anything the agency would not want to see in the local newspaper the next day.

Worth the Effort

So why would law enforcement agencies venture into the social media arena? After all, the use of this technology as an extension of resources to the community comes with measured risks. However, a 2010 survey conducted by the IACP Center of Social Media reports that 81 percent of 728 respondents use social media.3 Of this response, more than two-thirds use Facebook as a means to empower the public and facilitate information sharing with the community. In addition, Twitter (29.8 percent); Myspace (21.6 percent); and You-Tube (17.6 percent) all were reported as being used in some form to better enable communication or crime prevention services. Yet another use of social media is in investigations. The Roanoke Police Computer Crimes Unit has used Facebook and other social media sites in gang, drug, and cyberbullying investigations. A search warrant was even written, based on a Facebook page, to find a wanted person.4 Within the Roanoke Police Department, the move to social media was a natural progression. After working through a legal and procedural maze, the department emerged a more transparent organization to the community.

Visit the Roanoke Police Department’s Facebook page at; and the agency on Twitter at ■

     Deputy Chief Tim Jones is a 30-year veteran of the Roanoke, Virginia, Police Department. He currently commands the Operations Division.
     Aisha Johnson is the Crime Prevention and Community Involvement Specialist for the Roanoke, Virginia, Police Department.


1See, for example, Dible v. City of Chandler, 502 F.3d 1040 (9th Cir. 2007) (officer published sexual material on website, dismissal upheld); City of San Diego v. Roe, 543 U.S. 77 (2004) (officer terminated for sexual material on website, including stripping off a police uniform); and the Case Law web page of the IACP Center for Social Media website: (accessed May 16, 2011).
2Dean Scoville, “Watch What You Post,” POLICE Magazine (December 10, 2009), (accessed May 23, 2011).
3More details regarding findings of the September 2010 survey of IACP members can be found at Summary results of the survey were presented in “IACP Center for Social Media: Supporting the Needs of Law Enforcement Online,” The Police Chief 77 (December 2010): 86–87, (accessed January 4, 2011).
4“Search Warrant Issued in Beaver County Facebook Page Probe” CBS Pittsburgh, February 24, 2011, (accessed May 16, 2011).

Please cite as:

Tim Jones and Aisha Johnson, "Engaging the Public and Protecting Agencies and Personnel on Facebook and Beyond," The Police Chief 78 (July 2011): 58–61.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 78, no. 7, July 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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