Law enforcement 2.0: How to build your virtual police department

An effective partnership with your community today means an awareness and a unique media presence

By Lt. Rhonda Leipelt
Redwood City, Calif. Police Department

Every police agency is beginning to recognize the unique challenge we all face in this era of Law Enforcement 2.0. The challenge is how to identify and engage our “community” in an ever-changing age of social media and modern technology advancements. 

In early 2012, the Redwood City Police Department took this challenge head on and made a conscious decision to implement a new policing model that enhances proven community policing techniques by expanding their reach through the innovative use of technology and social media.

Social media technology + community policing = Social policing

"Social Policing" is the Redwood City Police Department’s “Community-Centric” approach to building an effective partnership with our community and it includes a structured approach to building our unique social media presence. 

The 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, said it best, “If you build it, they will come...”, yet building a consistent “presence," “voice," “brand” or “identity” across many platforms can be tricky—if not completely overwhelming if you do not take the time to develop a comprehensive plan.

How did we begin? The details of which platforms to implement or who should manage them are not nearly as important as embracing the concept that your agency has to have a plan for managing your virtual police department—where every component of your physical agency can be mirrored in the virtual setting. 

In your virtual PD, you have to prepare to manage your community policing presence along with an emergency alert system, investigative leads and public information assistance requests, criminal monitoring and data mining and now youth services including anti-bullying social media components. 

It is a dangerous plan to enter social media only to engage the public socially and not assume your community will expect full-service in all areas of your virtual police department.

The most dangerous assumption being made in law enforcement is that social media is “trendy” and just another mechanism for community policing and feel-good stories about your staff.  Absolutely, that is one component of social media and I would argue that this is exactly how you start to build your virtual “community." 

However, once you have established your presence, you have to prepare your organization to be ready to address the other disciplines of your virtual police department that include the following: 

Community Policing
This component is the foundation for all of our social media platforms and we operate under the belief that we are the official information source for all activity related to our police department and our “brand." Two-way communication with our residents is the cornerstone of our social policing model and it allows our department to incorporate the community’s point of view in order to create a sustainable, balanced and interactive model for enhanced police services. 

Emergency Alert
 This component recognizes that delivering timely and accurate information to keep residents informed is a department priority.

However, social media is a two-way street and if we push out information, we have to prepare for police calls or emergency information being pushed back on to our social media sites. 

Yes, we have received a “shot fired” message via Twitter and suspicious person reports on Facebook.  Additionally, in a geographic region known for earthquakes, we believe we have a duty to study how Twitter is being used for emergency services in catastrophic events across the world and a plan to use them.

 This component involves utilizing social media outlets to request the public’s assistance for active investigations. What cases, information, and images are released? How long are they posted?  Who monitors the responses?  How do we document it?  Who makes publishing decisions—PIO, Investigations, Social Media Team? 

The rewards completely justify the use.  We located an “at-risk” elderly missing person after eight hours of conventional searching in less than 13 minutes after a Twitter Alert was published. 

We also identified and located a serial armed robber wanted in multiple jurisdictions in less than 24 hours after publishing video of the suspect on Facebook.

Criminal Activity and Data Mining
 This component deals with the obvious criminal threats and criminal activity now displayed in the virtual setting. 

Training and familiarity with social media platforms is not only a issue in field services, but also begs the question of who is monitoring the open source data swirling in the cloud above your jurisdiction about your officers, operations, and brand?

 We openly troll our platforms for key words, jurisdiction issues, brand tags and other search criteria for specific events in order to develop operational plans. 

We have located fake accounts made for our political residents, threats to President Obama during his presidential campaign stop in Redwood City and Occupy activity during Mitt Romney’s visit.   

Youth Services
Quite frankly, this is a new component that our team recently identified to address our tech-savvy juveniles who bully online, post and share inappropriate images, and now operate in a digital age that is completely foreign to our officers and our adult community. 

We have an obligation to close both the generation and service gaps by structuring youth services to include a significant understanding of social media at all levels. 

The Redwood City Police Department has recognized that technology has redefined the definition of “Community” beyond fixed geographic boundaries and is now only limited by our citizen’s willingness to engage with us in person and in the virtual Redwood City community. 

We are actively engaging our residents through our Social Policing strategy and we are constantly looking for new ways to collaborate in order to provide more effective community-police partnerships focused on enhancing the level of service we can provide. 

This innovative model of “community-centric” policing utilizes emerging technologies and social media to serve our residents as effectively as possible because we believe that it is our duty as a trusted provider of municipal government services, to never forget who our customers are—the citizens of Redwood City.

If you have any questions about building your department's social media presence, email Lt. Leipelt.

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