What police departments need to know about TikTok

TikTok downloads surpass YouTube and Facebook, but how can police use this social media platform to connect with communities?

By Yael Bar-tur and Mathew Rejis

If you’ve been following the news, you will have heard the words “TikTok” many times the last few days, as President Trump’s attempted takedown of the Chinese social media platform led him to sign an executive order that will effectively ban the use of TikTok in the U.S.

Long before that, however, it was a wildly popular app, particularly among teenagers. The platform offers users the ability to share short-form videos, often accompanied with music and special effects. With 800 million users worldwide, it’s the most downloaded app on the Apple store, surpassing YouTube and Facebook. 

Should police departments be on TikTok?

Many police departments already are on TikTok, though not officially.

Most police departments do not have an official TikTok presence, but that doesn't mean the officers employed by them haven't discovered it. As the workforce becomes younger, it's not uncommon to see TikTok users posting about their jobs, and this includes many cops posting straight from the squad car.

A quick search through the platform finds accounts from officers around the country and world, some with thousands of followers, giving an up-close and personal, and often light-hearted, look into the law enforcement profession.

Many of these accounts offer a positive and humanizing view of law enforcement and find an audience that may not otherwise have seen a personal side of the police. However, many accounts are still un-sanctioned and lack some of the professional standards that come with an official social media presence. One wrong or inappropriate post will undoubtedly reach the press and could create a lot of damage.

LAPD on TikTok

Around mid-August of 2018, the LAPD became the first police department in the US that we know of to embrace the platform.

After creating a basic profile, LAPD worked to understand the type of content people were gravitating toward. The agency began repurposing older videos from its mounted platoon and air support divisions, as well as videos that officers had sent the media team to feature on other social channels, and synching them up with music that went along with the theme of each individual video. The growth was unreal. The account hit 5,000 followers in a week, 10,000 in a month and 20,000 in less than two months. The reach was undeniable.

Alternative platforms

While engagement numbers of that magnitude taken at face value seemed like an anomaly, the agency found other channels offered similar levels of engagement as well. The story was mimicked with the LAPD’s use of Snapchat. The department worked to understand the platform and the platform's audience, as well as speak directly with platform representatives about a subject they know well: their audience. They created filters for graduations and worked to create short-form stories that covered everything from press conferences to meetings with the chief of police.

Short-form videos are the future

Police departments should not venture into TikTok or Snapchat if they don’t have the resources and if they feel it will cause them to neglect other channels that speak to their constituents. However, if they can dip their toe in the water, they will likely be able to connect with the new generation of residents and even officers.

It's easy to dismiss these channels as fads, but one thing is clear – whether on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram Stories or whatever comes next – short-form videos are the future. Younger generations are becoming accustomed to consuming all of their content in quick, mobile bursts, and public agencies are as usual playing catch up. We'd be wise to learn to speak the language of these channels now and listen to the younger voices, or our voice will eventually be lost in the crowd.

NEXT: How to match your agency’s social media strategy with community needs

About the authors

Yael Bar-tur is a social media consultant who previously served as the director of social media and digital strategy for the New York City Police Department where she developed her own strategy and training guide for social media and policing. She has trained hundreds of members of service on the use of social media, both in the NYPD and in other agencies. She is also responsible for exploring new channels for the NYPD and creating viral videos with millions of views. 

Born and raised in Israel, Yael served in the Israeli Army as a foreign press liaison in the height of two wars and was also a reserve duty soldier in the Israeli mission to Haiti immediately following the 2010 earthquake.  She holds a master's degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she wrote her thesis on police use of social media. In 2016, she was named one of the International Association of Chiefs of Police "40 under 40," recognizing 40 law enforcement professionals under the age of 40 from around the world that demonstrate leadership and exemplify a commitment to their profession. In 2018, Yael was awarded the Hemmerdinger Award for Excellence for distinguished public service by the New York City Police Foundation.

Follow Yael on Twitter or at www.yaelbartur.com.

Mathew Rejis currently serves as the Senior Public Communications Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department and is responsible for developing the LAPD’s social media strategy, and training personnel on the use of social media. Before joining the LAPD, Officer Rejis worked for a Los Angeles-based advertising agency building digital ads and developing a social media strategy for clients. Follow LAPD on Twitter

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