Social media in law enforcement can be far more than just a digital bulletin board. According to a survey from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 96 percent of police departments use social media, and more than 70 percent of agencies said it helped improve police-community relationships.

For social media to be a helpful tool rather than a hazard or a distraction, agencies should intentionally develop policies, procedures and strategies for social media use for both the department as a whole and for individual officers. Here are some places to start:

Gather a committee to develop a strategy

There’s no one right way for police to use social media, but before starting to post, agencies should gather a committee (including officers, command staff and civilians) to discuss which social media sites will be most effective, who should post, how often and what to post.

Police social media should encourage conversation and help the public see the human side of policing, so departments should regularly invite officers from all levels of the force to post and respond to questions.

However, departments should also consider designating at least one social media manager to maintain the flow of content, notify officers about crime tips, monitor what the public is saying about the department and contact sites to take down any sensitive personal information that may put officers in danger.

Stick to the basics

Sending out crime alerts, keeping the public informed during emergency situations and sharing safety tips are tried and true functions of social media in law enforcement.

Police departments can get creative with social media (for example: creating a Pinterest board for lost and found items), but policies should establish firm guidelines for what information about police activity and cases is necessary for the public to know.

And when it comes to posting a snarky response to a trending issue or trying to start a hashtag, it’s better to be safe than sorry (take it from the #myNYPD Twitter campaign).

Create clear social media guidelines for individual officers

In training, individual officers are often told their actions represent the whole organization. Unfortunately, their social media accounts often do, too. Offensive comments or controversial posts by officers can erode community trust just as quickly as irresponsible actions.

Department policies should lay out clear expectations for how officers should conduct themselves online. They should also establish consequences for officers who share sensitive department information, post offensive comments or spread false information through social media to minimize the harm such posts can have to do the department as a whole.

Social media doesn’t have to be viewed as another chore for police departments. It can help police improve relationships with the community, build trust and encourage conversations.

Every law enforcement agency will use social media differently, but all police departments should develop a comprehensive strategy for social media and incorporate it into department policies and officer training.