Many police departments across the United States use social media sites as an economical and effective way to inform the community about current events. Often, law enforcement agencies issue warnings and share real-time information that protects the public in emergencies such as weather events.
Police departments also use social media sites to solicit public support in reporting crime. For example, police post crime data and trends to Facebook or Twitter to create public awareness and encourage citizens to report suspicious activity.
Twitter and Facebook Frequently Used to Inform Public about Criminal Incidents
Twitter and Facebook are particularly useful tools for quickly relaying information to the public. The Broward County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office (BSO) used Twitter to promptly inform the public of the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
As the situation at the school developed, the Broward Sheriff’s Office tweeted that “#BSO is working a developing incident regarding a report of active shooter located at 5901 Pine Island Road, Parkland. Here’s what we know so far: deputies are responding to reports of a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High. There are reports of victims.”
The Atlanta Police Department is another example of how police use social media sites to inform the public. The Atlanta police often post video surveillance of suspects on Facebook to solicit the public’s help in catching those criminals. Similarly, the Mountain View Police Department in California posts pictures of stolen and recovered property in an attempt to reunite crime victims with their property.
Facebook and Twitter Helpful in Locating Missing Children
Social media has become a valuable tool to quickly alert the public about missing children. For instance, law enforcement officers will post a missing child’s photo and identifying information on Facebook and Twitter. Anyone who has seen the missing child is encouraged to contact the local police.
Building Relationships and Community Trust
Through different sites, law enforcement agencies can foster community trust through transparency and improved communication. For example, when someone alleges officer misconduct, police departments create posts for Facebook and Twitter to inform the public about the investigation’s progress and how they are handling the situation.
Online Sites Valuable for Intelligence Gathering and Convicting Sex Offenders
Social media plays an important role in conducting criminal investigations due to its public nature. As a former law enforcement crime suppression squad member, I used online sites to identify burglary suspects and suspected gang members who posted stolen guns and other stolen property for sale. I used this information to connect suspects to burglaries I was investigating.
Online sites are a valuable source of information for apprehending sex offenders. A detective can create a false personal profile and join online groups where sex offenders prey on minors. Transcripts of web communications between child predators and criminal investigators can be valuable evidence in court.
More Social Media Training Needed for Law Enforcement Officers
A study by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice revealed that as many as 96.4% of law enforcement agencies surveyed use social media in one capacity or another, including intelligence gathering. It is important, therefore, that we train more police investigators in how to legally use online sites. From an investigative standpoint, officers should be trained in how to collect intelligence from social media outlets and should be provided guidance on how evidence can be collected legally and ethically from these sites.
Social media should be used in the future as a tool to provide prompt information to the public, since it has such an important role in our society. In addition, police agencies should provide links to their social media accounts on their websites to build followers. Published material should also have the same links to increase law enforcement’s ability to communicate with the public.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an adjunct professor with American Military University. He has spent more than two years studying police stress and its influence on the lives of police officers. Jarrod conducted a review of approximately 300 peer-reviewed scholarly articles that focused on topics associated with police stress and officer wellness. He interviewed veteran officers who have served in domestic and international law enforcement.
Based on his research, Jarrod is currently writing a book on effectively managing police stress through a successful police career, which covers in further detail the physiological effects of police stress and how stress can be managed. He has 20 years of policing experience between both federal and local law enforcement. To contact him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.