Do not cross this police Facebook line
A sheriff's office has disabled comments on its Facebook page. Here's why that may not be a good idea
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Citizen support for LEOs; Why PDs shouldn't disable comments, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
Last month, a Florida sheriff's office made the decision to disable comments on the agency's Facebook page. The reasoning, announced in a post, was an increase in people posting tips on Facebook as opposed to using the provided tip line or online form.
This sounds tempting from an agency perspective. Disabling comments will ensure no one shares any sensitive public information, and of course, will also protect the agency from negativity or trolling from disgruntled community members. However, by disabling engagement, you could be missing out on so much more than the behaviors you are trying to discourage.
As case law tries to keep up with technological advances, an agency's Facebook page may be considered a public forum. Aside from the thorny legal issues, the agency is sending a message, even if inadvertently, of “We don’t want to hear from you.”
In an age where people are more likely to engage online than come to a community meeting, by disabling comments you are telling the user you won’t hear from them on their terms. Sure, you still have an open door in your station and people are welcome to call 911 when they need you, but communities today want more. They want to be able to share their opinion on what you post and be part of the conversation. We may not always like what they have to say (though in most police social media pages the positive far outweighs the negative), but we can respect their right to say it.
Policing in 2022 is already rapidly moving toward a community-oriented partnership approach, and this move, whether intentional or not, sends the opposite message.
By disabling comments you are missing out on opportunities. Great stories and kudos are frequently shared on police social media pages, and the “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” approach will deny you access to many of these gems as well.
The alternative may be no tips at all
While the purpose was to discourage people from sharing tips online, the solution might prevent them from sharing them at all. In 2022, it’s much more convenient and less daunting for someone to send a Facebook message or Instagram DM than it is to submit an online form, pick up the phone to call crime stoppers or walk into the station.
We can’t guarantee that the people who wanted to send a tip online will choose to go the traditional route if they are prevented from using social media. And isn’t an online tip better than no tip at all? As a member of the community commented before the disabling came into effect, “If people weren't comfortable using the other formats to leave tips before, they won't be comfortable with it now. It will just leave you with less tips.”
The agency reminds people that their social media office isn’t staffed 24/7, which is more than reasonable. But it can provide workarounds, from automated legal disclaimers on banners and daily quick check-ins and automated responses. It may not be perfect, but not much in police work is.