Engaging your community on Facebook

What does undercover work have to do with law enforcement’s ability to effectively communicate with the community via social media?

I’ve been in law enforcement for 14 years. I’ve been working narcotics cases for almost five years, and in that time, I’ve worked in an undercover capacity more than 70 times. I’m here to tell you that UC work has helped me better understand social media, and in turn, has allowed me to forge great relationships with members of the community I serve. 

What does UC work have to do with law enforcement’s ability to effectively communicate with the community via social media? What could those two things possibly have in common? Well, in both, you must be able to: 

•    Adapt to situations on the fly
•    Communicate effectively in stressful situations
•    Assess situations correctly and safely

Learning to “Like” Facebook
After seeing all the stories on Police1 about LEOs losing their jobs over posts or pictures on Facebook, you may wonder, “How can social media be a good thing?” 

Your office is on Facebook. Your office begins to share updates (including photos) about the community that are positive (community events, good cases solved), yet needs to include some of the negatives (traffic issues, recent burglaries) to keep a balance of the overall situation in your community. 

Eventually, an online community is developed in which the members of the community feel as though they are part of keeping their neighborhoods safe. Once this happens, a unique conduit to the public is created. 

Brimfield Police Department 
A superb example of this would be the Brimfield Police Department in Ohio.

This Facebook page has more than 84,000 likes, in a community of less than 6,000 residents. 

Most cops aren’t math majors, so I’ll tell you this means a massive amount of people feel Brimfield PD — and the message it puts out on Facebook — is excellent. 

Why is this important? If you can get people not only in your community, but surrounding communities, to buy in to your mission statement and agency, you are doing very well. 

When something negative comes about for the agency, it is more likely the supporters they have developed through positive social media will back them. 

Do you remember the feeling you get when you make a little boo-boo on patrol and you know it will most likely be OK because your sergeant or lieutenant will back your play? It’s a great feeling. 

When hundreds (or even thousands) of people back you or your agency on social media, it’s a great thing. 

So, how do we get there? 

Adapting to Situations on the Fly
Let’s start with “adapting to situations on the fly.” I’ve done deals with suspects that were supposed to be at location “A” at a certain time. Half way to the deal, they change the time or location. My goal is to arrest bad guys, so we have to adapt to the situation on the fly (as long as we are safe about it).

This holds true in social media. For example, maybe the community is all excited for an upcoming event (rodeo, county fair, school event), and then something happens making the event impossible (a tragedy or terrible situation). 

The person handling posts for the Facebook account can immediately get a positive message to the entire community quickly that everything will be OK in the end. 

The public wants to feel as though they are being kept informed. A simple post to social media would do this, and help build a relationship between the agency and the community.

Communicate Effectively in Stressful Situations
The ability to communicate effectively in stressful situations is a no-brainer for a dope cop working UC. 

The bad guy does something we aren’t used to or are prepared for and we get caught with our pants down. Oftentimes our ability to communicate in these stressful situations is the reason we survive. You do not last long as a UC if you cannot communicate well. Many UCs will tell you that they attribute their surviving high-stress situations solely to their ability to talk themselves out of certain death or serious bodily injury.

Although it’s not a life-and-death thing, social media requires us to communicate effectively in stressful situations. For example, say a “pillar of the community” like a teacher or child-care professional gets arrested, causing great stress in the community. 

By using social media effectively and strategically, law enforcement can quell the distress of these incidents before they spiral out of control; curating open discussions allows people to bounce ideas off each other or share criticisms, which promotes community dialogue. 

Nothing is more effective at preventing small or medium incidents from becoming huge issues than open communication between law enforcement and the community. By giving the community a voice, even if it’s a one-liner on Facebook, it makes people feel they are part of the solution. That’s huge.

Assess Situations Correctly and Safely
Finally, in UC work and social media, we must be able to assess situations correctly and safely.

More than once I’ve been doing a controlled purchase and felt the hair rising on the back of my neck and got knots in my stomach because I felt (assessed) a situation was going sideways. By remaining calm and continuing to safely assess the situation, I was able to go home that night.

Law enforcement can use social media as a tool to provide information that allows the community to assess a situation correctly. This is done through updates on the post to the Facebook account. Crucial to this, however, is ensuring the information coming out from law enforcement is accurate.

Law enforcement can use social media to get relevant information out so the community can develop informed decisions and opinions.

Agencies that have developed and embraced social media have built strong and supportive foundations with the communities they serve. 

Why? People feel they have a voice and are part of the larger community. This has caused people to come forward to develop neighborhood watch programs that cut down on crime. Detectives have solved cases based on contacts they developed on their agency’s Facebook site. Facebook has welcomed law enforcement to their corporate campus and provided training to help us integrate into social media. 

More citizen interaction benefits law enforcement, to an extent. I’m not saying everything is peachy all the time, but the overwhelming positive response for law enforcement agencies that are on Facebook and use it correctly is undeniable. Check out Brimfield Police Department to see how it’s done. 

Remember, don’t start a site without departmental approval, and make sure someone is going to maintain the site. There’s no sense doing this if you or your agency isn’t fully committed to it.

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