Law enforcement and social media: Strengthening the bond
Younger officers can help departments improve their online profiles and better connect with their communities
This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.
The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.
By Lieutenant Sean M. Dawkins
Social media has dominated every facet of American lives for decades. Early social media applications started in the late 1980s with AOL chatrooms. In the 1990s households throughout America witnessed the advent of the desktop computer. The first Apple iPhone hit the market in 2007 and dramatically changed the future of social media. Today the iPhone and similar smartphones allow users to have social media apps in the palms of their hands 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This boom has had a dramatic impact on society. It has also significantly impacted law enforcement and will continue to into the future.
Social media has crept into the livelihood of Americans to the point where many people exist primarily in online worlds. This deep and persistent engagement has created both positive and negative takeaways for society.
It has created a positive platform for police agencies to send and receive information, recruit resources and future officers, and engage with the public faster and more efficiently.  However, social media has also created an “infodemic” responsible for rapid, widespread information and disinformation. Recent examples of this include information relevant to COVID-19, election propaganda, targeted ad campaigns and police-involved critical incidents.  This spread of information has dramatically enhanced the rapid dissemination of newsworthy stories, quickly changing public sentiments on various issues, including those regarding the police.
In large part, officers who started their careers in the past 10 years grew up in the digital realm. They are comfortable with the “infodemic” and the ongoing oversight of technologies such as body-worn cameras. Generation Y (millennials) and Generation Z (iGen) have entered policing since 2000. Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, and “iGen” officers, born between 1997 and 2012,  are already stepping into management and executive roles in law enforcement. Considering both generations rely on technology as digital natives, social media will inevitably impact them as they advance into leadership roles. Both generations have the opportunity to use social media to interact and build relationships with the community in ways their predecessors could not.
iGen has a much stronger connection to the social media world. They may even face challenges interacting with people face-to-face during their daily duties. One survey indicated that 60% of Gen Z members enter their social lives online, 50% feel more comfortable talking to people online than in real life, and 70% say it is more convenient to talk to friends online than in real life. 
While technological advances can enhance law enforcement’s ability to do the job efficiently, they can also negatively impact it in a profession that relies heavily on the ability to interact with individuals in person. Will iGen have difficulty stepping into law enforcement leadership positions, or will members use their social media skills to communicate more efficiently with a public that increasingly also wants to connect online?
iGen and law enforcement
iGen is the first generation to grow up not knowing a world without the internet. This generation relies on phone apps for almost every daily function, from fitness to games. Millennials and iGen tend to be tech-savvy and communicate via text, although iGen is even more “tech-innate” and speaks with images.  This evolution of tech-savvy communication will naturally create issues in policing as iGen attempts to interact with the older generation of officers currently in leadership positions.
Millennials do not favor the often opaque and complicated bureaucracy associated with police departments.  iGen officers can be expected to be even more discomforted by the “old ways.” Millennials and iGen are naturally comfortable posting online, and this learned behavior can allow for a seamless transition to posting about police department achievements and news on social media. However, this may create challenges for the current Gen X leadership and their reluctance to post meaningful information in nontraditional ways.
Millennials can help bridge the gap as the profession prepares for the entry of iGen into leadership roles. Empirical evidence suggests millennials strongly connect to social media for information, leisure, entertainment, friendship, socializing and a sense of community.  They also helped facilitate law enforcement’s entry into the digital age to communicate with the public via social media platforms. While Gen X leadership has often pushed back against law enforcement transparency, iGen officers will jump toward greater public transparency via social media applications and their ability to spread information rapidly if their elder generations allow it. Even as Gen X leaders resist this transition, the public is more than ready to accept it.
Social media, the public and transparency
The public has long called for more transparency from law enforcement. Communities need to know what their police are doing. Community members desire this information to build strong partnerships with local law enforcement and the officers working in the community.
This need for more information from law enforcement has grown since the 1992 Rodney King riots and, most recently, the death of George Floyd in 2020. One example of this public desire for more transparency is California Assembly Bill 748, which requires law enforcement agencies to release the recordings from body-worn cameras within 45 days of a critical incident. However, the immediacy of social media and the “infodemic” still create significant challenges for this law.
In the cases of both King and Floyd, the public saw the bystander videos long before law enforcement released BWC footage. Social media also allows the viral spread of information before law enforcement can get ahead of the need to be transparent. The tsunami of information online creates a problem for the police because details about critical incidents may already be broadcast to tens of thousands of viewers by “citizen journalists” using their smartphones before law enforcement can explain the circumstances of the contact or what led up to the critical incident.
For example, shortly after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there were numerous witnesses who said Brown’s hands were up in the air when Officer Darren Wilson shot him. This false claim created a national movement on social media with the hashtag #handsupdontshoot. A U.S. DOJ report later determined Brown did not have his hands in the air when shot. The damage, though, was already inflicted across the law enforcement profession by the viral spreading of unsubstantiated claims on social media platforms. The Ferguson Police Department was ill-prepared to deal with an epic incident that created an uncontrollable maelstrom. This illustrates that even a small department such as Ferguson’s could have benefited from a social media management team.
While law enforcement is trying to connect better with its communities, it is still lacking in many ways. Many law enforcement agencies are reluctant to hire full-time employees to manage their social media. Even though evidence shows more citizen trust in communities where the police regularly post on social media, departments may be reluctant to dedicate resources to it.  They are missing a chance to connect with the public and younger generations. Fortunately, those who follow them largely recognize the positives of social media outweigh the negatives.
Millennials and iGen also recognize the possibilities such an increased presence may bring to recruitment efforts. For example, the Seal Beach Police Department in California is well known for controversial postings that poke fun at local criminals. There is a Reddit thread with almost 350 comments focused on the department’s “unprofessional” social media conduct.  However, some posts also show the human side of the department, and posts reportedly boost the morale of officers, thereby enhancing recruitment. Although Seal Beach’s posts may generate controversy, they also generate attention, especially from a younger audience that sees them as human, responsive and something their generation routinely engages in.
Police1 resource: Is it OK for your police department to be silly on social media?
A more immersive social media
It would benefit police agencies to post about positive activities on social media: significant arrests, community engagement events, photographs of officers in everyday operations and personal stories to humanize the badge. They should also post about problems or mistakes and drive the narrative by openly admitting errors and detailing how the department will fix them. 
Since there is evidence that police social media presence can breed increased trust, police need to understand what type of information the community needs from their social media posts. Research found communities registered more “likes” on Facebook if a police department posted stories that increased familiarity with police and department staff.  The research also suggests communities are more interested in the human side of the police department than informational posts about arrests, policies and agendas. Posting those kinds of stories, though, is only a start.
Police1 resource: How a small police department can thrive on social media
Social media will become more immersive as it evolves. Technology advances rapidly, arguably faster than humans can keep up. The influx of millennials and iGen entering the workforce puts law enforcement in an excellent position to meet the challenge of a quickly changing social media realm. iGen is a hypercognitive generation comfortable with the connection and correlation of the virtual and offline worlds. This generation’s reliance on a digital world allows the transition to a world that combines virtual reality and a second digital life, or “metaverse.”  Agencies will soon want to consider entering those worlds to reach their community where they are.
The new generation of officers is ready to take the reins. However, the current leadership must allow more innate social media users to step into these leadership roles and create stronger relationships and connections with the community.
While there are many advantages for law enforcement using social media, there are also some significant dangers. Sophisticated deepfakes have only recently hit the internet but have had notable success in fooling the public. TikTok accounts dedicated to Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves deepfakes have amassed millions of followers.  Law enforcement must prepare for the possibility of a deepfake that manipulates bodyworn camera footage or creates edited footage that shows officers using excessive force during an incident that never occurred. Considering the rapid spread of information, by the time the video is released and goes viral, the police may be unable to repair the damage.
Police1 resource: Why LE needs to prepare for the disinformation era
Law enforcement can avoid potential negatives by recognizing the possible and likely futures of social media and the metaverse. Agencies should focus on establishing and building a solid full-time social media management team. The team size should be based on the department’s size and how much content is posted to the department’s social media websites. Small agencies may not have the staffing to outfit a full-time social media team. They could benefit, however, by linking with other agencies to create regional social media teams or partnering with a county sheriff’s department. Regional social media teams would function similarly to how local agencies join together to form regional SWAT teams and share resources.
No matter how a social media effort is managed, agencies must focus on pushing as much information as possible to the public. While more information is beneficial for transparency, the data must also be brief and relevant. Agencies should focus on disseminating information specific to community policing, showing the human side of the job, interacting with the public and performing efficiently.  Focus on positive interactions with the community. Release information relative to critical incidents as soon as practical and in compliance with the law.
If possible, consider hiring an expert in the IT field to work on the team. Officers and supervisors from iGen would also fit perfectly into any social media team role.
The police must be willing and prepared to adjust to a world that is rapidly becoming more technologically advanced. Millennial and iGen officers have the knowledge and capabilities to bridge the gap between law enforcement and technology.
The newer generations should be prepared to step into leadership roles where the law enforcement profession can rely on their tech-savvy skill set. Future law enforcement leaders will have to adapt to tech field that grows continuously, but the rewards will outweigh the efforts.
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8. Are any other OC police agencies as openly unprofessional on social media as Seal Beach? Posts regularly name and shame suspects (with little made-up stories like this one), and the cops who run it make fun of anyone who speaks out. Why do we let cops act like this in their official capacity? u/WallyJade. Reddit, r/orangecounty.
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About the author
Sean M. Dawkins is an experienced police lieutenant with experience in community policing, tactical planning, team motivation, event planning, event security, threat management, firearms handling and public safety. He has a military and protective services background with a Master of Arts (MA) focused in criminal justice and corrections from Arizona State University. He is a graduate of the California POST executive development course.