There’s a New Sheriff in Town: Social Media in Law Enforcement

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 inforAPDmation 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 nypd tweeton 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?


  1. Great post Matt! It is extremely interesting to see that law enforcement is using social media in an effective and helpful manner. Its nice that government organizations, that are usually the last to adopt new technologies, are really putting this to good use. There’s definitely a need for more research into preventing potential crimes or using social media as a deterrent to crimes ( But the other two examples are definitely much needed. Giving people a safe and anonymous way to help the police is amazing. Even more needed though is making a connection with the public and improving their image. In countries such as India or cities in the US like Ferguson, MO, the police and law enforcement agencies has lost their image as public servants and have become an image of tyranny and oppression. I feel the use of social media will definitely help them change this image by connecting with the public in a better way and showing the efforts they put on a daily basis to ensure our security. Lastly, one really good use of social media by the police could be catching criminals that go to social media websites to boast about their crimes and leave incriminating evidence. It happens more than you would think!

  2. Hey Matt, great post! One example on positive use of social media by law enforcement is this Weibo (Chinese Twitter) account owned by the police department of Jiangning Police Department. As a small district police department from Nanjing city, China, the crew now has over 1 million followers. Typically in China, government affiliated agencies have very serious presence on traditional media, and they are not expected to have a social media presence (at least not a few years ago). Jianging Police was not only one of the first official accounts of its kind on Weibo , but also with a very personable approach. They personified the entire organization as “Uncle Jiangning ” , who is like this fun, knowledge guy in your neighborhood that you always want to grab a beer with. They engage the community by posting a lot of infographics and short articles that clear crime-related rumors and scams circulating on the internet. They respond and interact with followers very frequently, and now it’s been a standard practice where people would tag them on suspicious contents, and they would retweet the content by commenting on whether the information is reliable and why. They also post tips on self-defense, tips on self-rescue during natural disasters and other kinds of useful information to help improve people’s overall awareness on safety. I guess you could say they are a great example of using “content marketing” to enhance “brand image” ( in this case, the trust level people have towards their local police department, which is not usually very high ) .

  3. Great post Matt! What I have personally noticed, in addition to using social media to solve crimes, figure out where missing people are, etc., what I have unfortunately noticed is that social media has a secondary effect in terms of law enforcement. That effect is the notion that rumors run rampant whenever a crime occurs involving someone with a group of friends on social media, (i.e. almost everyone). For example, when I was on Facebook last year, I was shocked to discover a news report running viral among my friends from back home about a group of 3 teenagers assaulting and severely beating another teenager over an apparent insult. All over my Facebook feed, however, I saw friends of mine, their friends, and other friends sharing this story over and over again, claiming at the same time they knew what exactly what happened, why, and what would happen to the accused. So I think this makes it very important that police departments use social media for up-to-date news on recent crimes, but of course you would have to deal with privacy rights for arrested individuals.

  4. Thank you for this post Matt! I think the use of social media channels is the best way for Law Enforcement to battle against the negative PR surrounding a lot of police misconduct occuring around the country. There are hundreds of thousands of officers doing good in their communities and serving the public and those positive stories need to be shared more often!

    I really like how the MA State Police academy posts updates about the recruits as they go thruough the grueling process of becoming police officers. When I had friends in the academy I was able to get a glimpse into what they were going through!

  5. Excellent post. As far as solving crime goes, the Boston Marathon bombing is one of the best examples. Law enforcement actively sought the community’s help and many online groups, such as on Reddit, pooled a lot of resources and brainpower together to look through and analyze thousands of pictures and videos from the event. That being said, however, the wrong individual was identified at first and, in typical mob mentality fashion, vilified on social media.

  6. Wow! 96% of police officers using social media in one way or another. Sounds like great potential for a powerful social community. As you noted, I think we have to look at both sides of the coin here. In one sense, law enforcers are doing a good job of using social for their benefit. Releasing shareable content that they want the public to talk about and generate hype around can be done effectively over platforms such as Facebook. As you mentioned, when officials are looking for tips or advice on if people recognize a person, it’s helpful to take to the visual sphere. The outlets are also helpful in dealing with the divide that exists between police officers and the public. When they take to the social waves, they seem more human and easy to relate to. These things being said, the kinks are still being worked out. With every post comes scrutiny and critiques. Laws officials must make sure that what they are posting is appropriate, relevant, newsworthy, and not confidential. If any lines are crossed, social critiques will be quick to point them out.

  7. I thought this was a really interesting read, Matt! I think you covered a lot of the positive aspects of police using social media to do good and humanize themselves in the process. Personally, though, I’m a little concerned that this could become a PR nightmare. Think of all of the companies now that have employees biff on social media, now make that company a governmental agency that is supposed to protect us and it gets a little concerning. This being said, there’s always some trust involved with social media accounts, and I certainly think that these accounts could do a lot of good as long as their being run by responsible people who are accountable for their posts.

  8. Really great post. I was watching old re-runs of the Wire the other day, whcih occurred before SM. It talked about how important it was for the police to relate to the people, and how that was missing today. When NYC police tried to engage people on Twitter, it led people to share all their negative experiences.

  9. Great post! I think it’s refreshing that social media can help bring justice to our society. Your post also relates to the sporting world; engaged fans have influenced controversies/cheating scandals in real time when sharing through social media.

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