The Power and Danger of Social Media for Law Enforcement

August 10, 2020by Robert Cruz

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This article was originally published by GCN on July 31, 2020.

Amid the current national discourse about the proper use of police force, social media has become a powerful tool for law enforcement agencies. Texts, posts and tweets offer direct ways to engage with communities by sharing critical updates and receiving candid feedback about local concerns.

Social media can help spread information rapidly to community members, which can be useful during public safety emergencies and natural disasters. It can also reduce the time it takes for first responders to get the important information they need, such as location coordinates to help a person in danger. If crucial information needs to be communicated quickly, a text message is often the channel of choice. According to the Pew Research Center, 98% of text messages are read within two minutes  time savings that can literally mean the difference between life and death in an emergency.

However, for all these benefits, social media presents its own set of dangers for law enforcement agencies. All communications sent or received by government organizations  including police departments, sheriff’s offices and their employees  are subject to open records requests. For this reason, law enforcement agencies must develop plans for collecting and archiving every message to deliver the transparency guaranteed by open-records laws, also known as Sunshine Laws. These records might also be needed for internal investigations, case logs and potential litigation.

How law enforcement uses communication technology today

Facebook is the leading social media platform used by 94% of law enforcement agencies, followed by Twitter at 71% and YouTube at 40%, according to the Social Media Guidebook for Law Enforcement Agencies by the nonprofit Urban Institute. Social media platforms are used by 91% of agencies to notify the public of safety concerns, by 89% for community outreach and citizen engagement and by 86% for public relations and reputation management.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, for instance, is committed to providing full and expeditious compliance with Florida’s public record laws. Toward that end, the department recently adopted technology to capture and archive troves of text messages made between officers, staff and citizens.

In another example, the police department in Flagstaff, Ariz., is implementing a novel program that will enable residents of Coconino County to text local police rather than calling them, according to the Arizona Daily Sun. The program aims to provide people who are deaf, hard of hearing or unable to speak a safe option in dangerous situations that may require discretion.

Reaching staff and citizens in their preferred digital habitats

Many law enforcement agencies are aware that the desire to use social media and texting to conduct business is driven largely by a youthful, tech-savvy workforce. Today, millennials make up the biggest demographic percentage of the workforce. More law enforcement agencies are also recognizing the importance of keeping up with new communication trends to better collaborate across departments, with other agencies, and most importantly, with the public.

Departments should create and implement specific written policies for the use of text messages and social media platforms. A solid policy includes clear rules on text messaging and social media interaction, and how those communications will be retained.

The rules will help meet public records requests and permit public-safety employees to use mobile devices to communicate. This set of written policies should describe:

  • Who is permitted to use text messages and social media
  • Which types of information can be sent using social media and text messages
  • An overview of the organizational device ownership policy, including which carriers can be used
  • Which channels and applications will be allowed for devices

Before finalizing the policy, it is important agencies get feedback from key stakeholders, such as the human resources and legal counsel teams that might have a role in determining the dos and don’ts and in shaping the consequences of non-compliance. This step creates buy-in from the top to ensure that policies align with organizational needs and guidelines.

After the policies are finalized, employees must be trained on the permitted use of text messaging and social media. These policies should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis, especially when new technologies are adopted into the agency’s communications strategies.

New communication channels can provide powerful tools for law enforcement officials to directly reach their constituents and officers. However, the benefits of social media can only be safely achieved by implementing clear policies that allow agencies to capture and securely archive all those messages for open records requests.

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Robert Cruz
Smarsh Blog

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