Over the course of our social media class thus far, many of our discussions have turned to the “mob mentality” and how users are constantly looking to attack people who mess up on social networks. See Justine Sacco #1 & #2. See Blake O’Neill. Therefore, I wanted to use one of my blog posts to talk about a way in which social media can be used positively to motivate the masses and that is through law enforcement. In fact, a 2013 study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police states that nearly 96% of police agencies are using social media in some capacity. Below, I have outlined some of my favorite uses of social media by police departments across the world.
Turning Tips to Arrests
Arguably the greatest benefit of social media for law enforcement is sending and acquiring information about criminals. One of the most heralded examples of this practice is the Akron Police Department in Ohio. They have established their own social network entitled Nixle to facilitate the sharing of information to help apprehend criminals. All posts are anonymous to allow people to feel comfortable sharing tips. The network has become so popular that the department estimates ~40% of their crimes are solved through their social media outreach. The APD often posts pictures or videos of wanted criminals and the number of responses helping identify the person are frankly astounding. In one recent example, the police department received over 30 tips regarding a local gas station altercation caught on video where a woman forced past the clerk and stole cigarettes. Not to diminish the crime in this case, but if that is the response for this type of crime, imagine how many people would be willing to help out for more serious offenses?
Preventing Potential Crimes
Anytime you talk about preventing an action it enters a skeptical realm because how can you really predict behavior? However, social media has made it easier to identify a potential situation. In a poll done by GlobalWebIndex, the top reason why consumers use social media is to stay in contact with friends. When you have constant, instant access to your friends, it is easier to tell when something is different and that has started to become the basis for crime prevention.
A recent example came just after the Oregon community college shooting in October, when Philadelphia institutions sent alerts to their students about a potential threat in the area based on social media message patterns that were similar to patterns prior to the Oregon attack. Is it certain that something was pending? No, but spreading the word keeps people paying attention to these types of situations. After many mass shootings law enforcement has pointed to social media messaging that could have tipped off the planned actions of the shooters. Now we are starting to become smarter about this information and law enforcement is using it to head off potential crimes. More recent examples include a middle school in Methuen, Massachusetts and Riverbend High School in Virginia.
A more controversial case of attempted crime prevention occurred last year when a Maryland division decided to live-tweet prostitution stings. To the common person this may seem like it defeats the purpose of the quick-action sting without notice, but the police instituted the change to dissuade future behavior and to protect young people being forced into the crime. While the success of this program is still debatable, it demonstrates that cops are trying to creatively use platforms to prevent future illegal actions.
Engaging the Community
Maybe it does not feel as powerful as helping to arrest criminals or stop them before carrying out their actions, but helping on small, everyday problems is a big win for police departments. Gone are the days when stapling missing dog posters on telephone poles is the most effective way to bring home Spot. Town traffic issues are also being minimized by fast-acting updates by police officers called to the scene of accidents and congestion. Cops are even trying to build relationships with its local citizens via social media. The Victoria police in Australia takes a more light-hearted approach to some of their social media usage by posting pictures of baby ducks and “fugitive” goats or sharing a convict’s displeasure with his mug shot. The NYPD also attempted to connect with residents by prompting them to take pictures with their local police officers and post them on social media under #myNYPD. Sadly, people on Twitter took it a darker route, but overall, these attempts highlight that departments around the world are trying to smooth out rough relationships through social media engagement.
I’ve only been able to share a few interesting examples of local law enforcement leveraging social media in their communities. Are any of these examples surprising to you? Have you seen any others that you found to be new and different?