When I first got into law enforcement, pagers were the rage; the few cell phones available were big, clunky and only made phone calls. By the time I retired, there were computers installed into patrol cars, internet capabilities were vastly increased with more and more households utilizing computers and the internet. With the advent of Facebook, Twitter, mobile internet capacity and the exponential growth of technological capabilities, the profession of policing has a whole new horizon to explore namely that of Policing and social media.
Like many “old school” types, I am well behind the social media curve compared to many who have grown up knowing nothing else, yet the possibilities I see for utilizing these tools are exciting and inspiring. With that, there are also concerns, like any tool, if used improperly can wreak havoc on society, departments and individual officers.
Policing and Social Media – The Good
One of the most valuable aspects I see in social media is the sharing of information, not just to share information on criminal activity, but to provide access for training units to information on best practices, professional peer support and rapid dissemination to agencies of strategy, tactics and policies that improve service to the public. Social media is, when properly utilized, a very effective tool to engage the citizenry in more effective partnerships to reduce criminal activity, respond to emergencies and relate with the professionals who serve their communities.
Another valuable aspect of social media in this age of budget cuts is that an individual officer can access the best in professional development materials such as the latest case law, founding principles underlying the oath of office, the experience of veteran officers sharing their knowledge through social networking and the latest in research materials on sustaining performance in a rapidly changing and demanding profession. Learning from others in the aftermath of officer involved shootings, mental and physical burn out and managing career and family in a wider context than the department the officer works for is invaluable.
In addition, being able to interact directly with the public at both an agency level and an individual level, when used properly, social media tools helps create and improve the support of the public for the work being done on their behalf. Enabling citizens to better understand the profession of policing helps citizens to have more realistic expectations of their officers and see them as fellow humans. It also helps to remind both sides of the equation of the importance of partnering to effectively solve problems the community is facing. Take the example of our very own Chief of Police Scott Silverii, as seen in the video above, and available for Twitter chat @ThibodauxChief.
Inspiring public trust and engagement through open dialogue and transparency is an integral part of effective policing. Simply put, when citizens understand what their officers are trying to accomplish, with their help as partners in a safer community, the opportunity is there to build a closer, more resilient bond between the police and those they serve. It serves to reduce the likelihood of citizen complaints ending up in law suits and gives officers the opportunity to connect with law abiding citizens, rather than seeing nothing but the criminal element.
Social Media-The Bad
Unfortunately, as with every tool, the misuse of social media can end careers, damage agency credibility, as well as create additional security risks and civil rights violations. The most significant challenge in the use of social media is the lag of law and policies to clarify appropriate use and the protection of individual civil rights. Of equal importance are the security of critical information and the vulnerability of computers and networks to the individual and state sponsored hackers that are increasingly sophisticated and adaptive to the best efforts to thwart their criminal activity.
Some law enforcement agencies, especially at the federal level are under scrutiny for utilizing technological capabilities to access social media and other communications without proper oversight, potentially in violation of 4th and 5th amendment protections. Legislative and case law are still behind the curve on the implications of social media, privacy, civil rights and legitimate law enforcement functions. This, in turn, increases mistrust and even animosity towards the efforts of the policing community to deal with the explosion of computer crimes, especially identity theft and human trafficking, including child pornography or potential terrorist activity.
Hackers have embarrassed and compromised some policing agencies, gaining access to critical information if released would damage investigations, expose sensitive information on witnesses or victims of crime or provide potential terrorists access to sensitive information needed to further the devastation of their attacks or escape detection. Computer security, like any other security requires effective policies, training and implementation to reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic breach. Significant effort must be implemented and maintained in order to keep pace with the continuing adaptive measures computer criminals are developing.
Individual officers have also unfortunately brought discredit to themselves, their departments and the policing profession as a whole through poor judgment in the use of social media. Inappropriate comments on officer involved shootings, insensitive remarks targeting racial, ethnic or other groups, as well as airing personal grievances not related to actual whistleblowing on criminal or unethical behavior unresolved through department channels have damaged or destroyed more than one officer’s career. Inappropriate or unethical behavior posted on social media, such as nude or pornographic photos, drunk or other unprofessional behavior reflects poorly on not just the individual officer, but the department and policing overall.
Social media is a powerful tool that when used lawfully, ethically and respectfully, promises to yield immeasurable benefits in connecting policing professionals, agencies and citizens together to achieve more effective use of resources, better partnering and potentially safer communities. Its use will require careful consideration of legal frameworks, policies and ethics to ensure that social media remains an important tool to utilize in achieving the potential that it promises.
What are the positive benefits of utilizing social media? What are the negative aspects of social media? What policies should there be for the use of social media? How do we balance 1st, 4th and 5th amendment rights in the use of social media both on an individual officer level and at an agency level? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.