By Dan Alexander, Chief of Police, Boca Raton, Florida, Police Services Department
he Boca Raton, Florida, Police Services Department (BRPD) was one of the first law enforcement departments in the country to embrace social media. It happened in 2007, when this affluent oceanfront city fell into the national spotlight because of a double homicide of a mother and her daughter at an upscale mall. The department turned to one of the only widespread social networking sites at the time, Myspace, to post information and ask for anonymous leads in the case. This was considered a unique way for a law enforcement organization to investigate a crime and look for leads. In 2011, the BRPD is still on the cutting edge of social media. With Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs, the agency uses all means available via technology, including the introduction of Quick Response (QR) codes as one of the latest electronic tools.
Why use this technology? The reason is fairly simple. Boca Raton, whose population fluctuates from 89,000 in the summer to approximately 130,000 during the winter months, also has several large corporations within the city limits making the weekday, daytime population around 300,000. This fluctuating population is served by just fewer than 200 sworn officers and approximately 100 civilian employees. Using various social media platforms allows the department to communicate and inform residents, visitors, and those doing business in the city. It also allows those who live elsewhere part of the year with a way to follow the happenings in the city.
At the same time the department began using social media, it also hired a public relations firm. The reason was simple: BRPD employees view their department as a business and those that work, live, and visit the city as customers. So what did those customers think about the business serving them? To find out, the department set up a series of focus groups over four days with a total of 40 community members. The groups provided both positive and negative feedback and also helped to shape future branding plans and the department’s social media strategy.
With the agency’s assistance, the department developed the Visibility, Intelligence, Partnerships, Education, and Resources (VIPER) branding that has become synonymous with the BRPD throughout the region. The department and the public relations firm collaborated to create a logo along with a number of highly visible marketing campaigns aimed at crime prevention throughout the city.
In addition to strong branding and a solidified view of its role in the community, the BRPD also has clearly defined goals regarding social media outreach. Effectively engaging the community is the number one priority of the department’s social media and overarching communications strategies. Therefore, instead of merely pushing information out, the BRPD’s social networking sites are designed to allow for open, two-way communication. This philosophy and the practice of communicating content immediately to the public allow for heightened levels of transparency—a characteristic that is valued by the city government in Boca Raton and by communities across the United States. Further, these new channels of communication allow BRPD employees to show their customers what the department is doing and highlight efforts that are routinely overlooked by traditional media outlets.
By using social media, the BRPD has been able to effectively market itself within its community, increasing awareness and establishing positive relationships. The reason is simple: The media is not what it used to be. Between the challenging economy and budget cuts, most media outlets have made drastic cutbacks that not only affect the way they cover the news but also what they cover. When it comes to getting information out to the public, law enforcement has always turned to the media. Now reporters find themselves having to decide what story to cover that day, no longer able to cover it all. This means many stories go unreported. The lack of coverage leaves citizens uninformed about crimes or arrests in their communities.
The BRPD uses several forms of social media, including Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, and its own website at http://www.ci.boca-raton.fl.us/police. Critics question the use of social media, saying it releases too much information without adequate filtering. However, at the BRPD, the same information that would normally be released to the public is posted on social media sites—no more, no less. The only difference is the information is closer to being available in real time. Unlike the traditional methods of emailing or faxing releases to local television stations and newspapers and waiting for broadcasts or publications, social media facilitates a real-time approach.
This system does have its drawbacks. The department generally does not have as much time to think about and massage the language that is being posted as quickly as possible on Facebook, for example, as it does when a traditional press release is drafted and released. Once the send button is pushed, the message is difficult to retract.
Yet in times of crisis, social media becomes a direct link between the police and the public. During natural disasters, social media can prove to be an incredibly valuable tool. Agencies can communicate information to the public more quickly through tweets and Facebook posts than they can through radio, television, and even online media. For example, during a hurricane, a public information officer (PIO) can constantly update citizens on evacuations, street closures, flooding, and storm conditions almost as they occur. The public, media officials, and anyone else following the law enforcement agency online will receive the updates simultaneously. The two-way nature of social media also provides an excellent mechanism for law enforcement to gather information from community members.
Because social media provides a dynamic way to connect with a rich and diverse online community, it has yet to be fully embraced by many law enforcement administrators. Here are some of the obstacles that the BRPD has had to overcome.
1. It’s fast, and we’re not. We have to take our time.
The allure of social media, particularly Twitter, is speed and efficiency. The Miracle on the Hudson—the plane crash into the Hudson River in New York City after both engines were disabled but in which there were no fatalities—demonstrated how quickly an item can be reported via social media and then spread like wildfire.
How often does the public hear the police public information line about it being too premature to comment on an ongoing investigation? Police officials are not trying to stall for the sake of building drama; instead, they have to build an airtight case and cannot release information that will jeopardize their investigation. Often, police officers are working several different angles, including multiple interviews and the careful collection of evidence.
In this new media world order, no one has the patience for all of the facts to emerge. Law enforcement officials are now struggling with telling the story quickly and, at least as far as Twitter is concerned, in fewer than 140 characters.
2. We sometimes creep people out.
Consider this actual event: A tweeter that the Twitter handle for the BRPD, @bocapolice, decided to follow received this ominous message: “Boca Raton Police (@BocaPolice) is now following your tweets on Twitter.” He said that he found this message disconcerting. Consider this comment from a different tweeter: “I was alerted that @bocachief was following me. I hope I wasn’t speeding.”
There is truth in humor. When law enforcement officers in uniform encounter ordinary citizens, it is not uncommon for one of these citizens to jokingly say, “I didn’t do it!” Parents sometimes point to the officer and warn their misbehaving children that the officer will put the kids in jail if they do not behave appropriately. It is not surprising that firefighters do not receive these same types of reactions, and it is unlikely anyone will ever hear a parent saying, “Behave or that paramedic will stick you with a needle.”
People generally still trust police officers but are naturally anxious about being social with law enforcement. Ordinary citizens often have their first and only interactions with officers during traffic stops. This does not seem to be the best time to ask a citizen to follow the department in the social media universe. Imagine this: “Please sign the citation, and be sure to follow us on Twitter.” Not a great way to connect.
3. It’s personal, and we are not.
There are a number of reasons why police officers seem to be impersonal at times. They are programmed to always be on alert for an imminent attack. Some Boca Raton residents are not willing subjects or witnesses and, frequently, they are not happy to see the police. Because cases are often built on solid legal standards, police officers can project a “just the facts, ma’am” image.
Law enforcement also sees the worst of the human condition, sometimes making it difficult for officers to relate to citizens in a meaningful way. If officers do amass friends and followers online, they are typically a select group of like-minded individuals.
Even in the subconscious, police officers often like to gather intelligence on who they are dealing with before they become comfortable with an individual. The insanely wide-open world of social networking does not correspond well with that cynical frame of reference.
4. We are afraid of getting burned.
Police officers represent authority, have been given a lot of power, and are held to a higher standard. Right or wrong, they are easy targets of verbal attacks.
The byproduct of using social media effectively is increased exposure. While transparency is currently in demand, it generally does not make police officers feel secure.
5. We cannot handle the volume.
The police PIO is often the sole person responsible for handling social media for the agency. Traditional PIO work is event-driven, involving organized communication primarily with the media. Social media is constant, ever changing, and involves multiple points of contact. The PIO now has to develop content, update multiple sites, and be responsive to many customers in this evolving form of communication.
The benefits of social media outweigh the costs. There are ways to easily overcome these potential roadblocks, allowing law enforcement to leverage social media to take community policing to another level. Police administrators must consider the following when weighing the pros and cons of a social media presence.
- Does it make sense to ignore a huge audience of constituents?
- Does the agency want other people defining its message to this enormous audience?
The key is identifying what elements work for individual agencies, and then engaging the elements.
Find the BRPD on Facebook at http://http://www.facebook.com/BocaPolice; follow it on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/bocapolice, or watch its channel on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/bocapolice. ■
|Dan Alexander was sworn in as Boca Raton's Police Chief on July 17, 2006. He has spent his entire law enforcement career in Florida. From August 2002 to July 2006, Chief Alexander led the police department in Cape Coral. He served for approximately three years (1999 to 2002) as an assistant police chief and captain in Boca Raton, three years with the Indian Creek Village Public Safety Department, and six years as a deputy sheriff in Alachua County. In 2003, he was named the Southwest Florida Police Chief of the Year by the Southwest Florida Crime Prevention and Community Policing Association. Read his blog at http://www.bocachiefblog.com.|
Please cite as:
Dan Alexander, "Using Technology to Take Community Policing to the Next Level," The Police Chief 78 (July 2011): 64–65.