Police agencies should embrace power of social media


Back in 1996, I was a sergeant working in community policing when I was asked to take on a new and groundbreaking assignment: become the first public information officer for the Anaheim Police Department.

Back then, the new position was an opportunity to improve the ways we communicated with the public through the media. By developing relationships with reporters, the thinking went, we could provide the public with the best information possible. I wrote a lot of press releases and did a lot of interviews.

Back then, we were only beginning to see the first inklings of the Internet. Mobile phones were just very expensive phones and email was considered a wondrous and amazing thing used by just an elite few.

Fast-forward 18 years and, my oh my, how the world has changed. Our phones are not just phones anymore, but sophisticated communication devices. It seems like every day I find out something else I can do with my mobile phone.

Communicating information has bypassed mainstream newspapers and television, allowing police departments to share information directly with the public via social media. With massive cuts in most newsrooms over the years, the ability to get information out to the public the traditional way has become more challenging.

I remember back in the day how frustrating it was to do a 20-minute interview with a reporter and watch it get reduced to a couple of paragraphs or a 20-second blip on the evening news. So much information never got passed along. And given the current state of the media, things only have gotten worse.

But law enforcement agencies are changing with the times.

A 2013 International Chiefs of Police survey showed that more than 95 percent of police departments are using some sort of social media. These include Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.  More than 80 percent of agencies have solved crimes with social media, and more than 75 percent report improved community relations because of this powerful tool.

Within 25 miles of central Orange County are 1.92 million Facebook users (I got this information from Facebook in just two minutes.) Public Relations 101 says you have to be where the people are, and it looks like they’re all on social media.

Given the overwhelming evidence, it would be ludicrous for any police department not to be using all forms of social media available to it.

The good news is that many local police departments in Orange County have decided to get serious about social media. And I, for one, think that’s great.

Click here to see the work Huntington BeachPD is doing on social media.

Social media gives agencies an opportunity to communicate and inform the public in a way they’ve never been able to do before. It provides a platform to really connect and engage with communities. It’s an opportunity for police agencies to be proactive and provide timely and accurate information without the filter of the media.

So what does all this mean? How about lower crime rates and more bad guys going to jail, and better crime prevention through educated and informed residents? Most of all, you get communities who are connected with their police departments and the officers who serve them.

So if you haven’t yet done it, sign up to “like” your local police department on Facebook, follow them on Twitter and check out their YouTube channel.

I think you might even find it more helpful than all those cute videos of kittens you keep getting.