Social media can help your department communicate and engage with the public.
Sites such as Facebook and Twitter give your law enforcement agency some control over your reputation. They let you release facts that can squash potentially harmful rumors.
Social media sites can help your agency quickly share information to help keep the public safe. For example, you can alert your community about an emergency storm warning, an accident scene, or an armed suspect at large.
Some agencies even use social media sites to gather tips, track down suspects, and investigate crimes.
Used well, social media connects law enforcement agencies with the community, making police work easier.
Earlier this year, the Norwood Police Department in Massachusetts posted on social media asking the public for help tracking down a man accused of assault.
The post got shared hundreds of times, reaching roughly 36,000 people. The man eventually turned himself into police, likely because of the pressure from social media.
The cons of social media
For all the potential good social media can do, it can also cause a lot of harm. Law enforcement agencies should be very careful with how they use official department social media accounts.
Weighing in on current events, posting memes, or starting a hashtag campaign can backfire. (Take Wendy’s controversial meme use, for example, or the NYPD’s #myNYPD campaign.)
Your officers’ personal use of social media can also reflect badly on your agency as a whole.
You don’t have to look long to find news reports of cases of officers tweeting racist or controversial jokes or posting inappropriate videos while at work or in uniform.
These sort of posts can damage community trust and put your agency under public scrutiny.
Therefore, it’s important for your law enforcement agency to develop solid policies guiding both department-approved uses of social media and officers’ individual uses.
Building and refining your social media policy
The International Association of Chiefs of Police suggests that law enforcement agencies determine the scope of social media policies before writing them.
Your agency should determine the purpose of the policy, and decide what it needs to cover. Like other policies, your social media policy should clearly define terms up front so as to avoid confusion or disputes.
IACP’s model social media policy defines things such as “blog,” “post,” “page,” and “profile.”
From there, the policy should clearly establish acceptable and unacceptable uses of official and personal social media.
Official use of social media
Social media is becoming a more integral part of law enforcement operations. So agencies need thorough guidelines for how to use it to communicate.
Many departments appoint a designated social media manager. Some allow several different officers to post from official department accounts.
In any case, effective law enforcement social media policy will clearly outline who is authorized to represent the department on official agency profiles.
Remember: official department social media is public record. It’s important for policies to include expectations for employee conduct while representing the department on social media.
IACP’s model social media policy includes a broad provision that personnel representing the department should “Conduct themselves at all times as representatives of the department and, accordingly, shall adhere to all department standards of conduct and observe conventionally accepted protocols and proper decorum.”
Engaging with the community
Since social media posts can be shared so widely, your agency needs to be careful about what information you share on official accounts.
Your department can use social media to share safety tips, information about accidents, and relevant agency updates and events.
Your department’s social media policy should clearly outline acceptable and unacceptable content. Social media is a great place to engage with the community.
But for official uses, it’s best to stick to facts and avoid weighing in on controversial issues. For example, policies may give social media managers some leeway on responding to questions from the community.
However, policies should prohibit posts that comment on pending prosecutions, share confidential information, or make statements about the guilt or innocence of any suspect.
Investigating and preventing crimes
Official department social media accounts can be helpful for soliciting tips about crimes or missing people. But individual officers can also use social media for investigations.
In fact, a 2014 study by LexisNexis found that 73 percent of officers believe that using social media can help solve crimes faster. According to the study, 8 out of 10 law enforcement professionals actively used social media in investigations.
However, the study also found that 52 percent of agencies didn’t have a formal process for doing so.
Without proper policies, evidence gathered via social media may not hold up in court. Social media policies can help officers navigate the legal and ethical issues of using social media to gather information.
All online investigations should comply with laws and require officers to receive adequate training.
Policies about investigations should cover things such as when and how officers can use false identities online and what equipment they can use for investigations.
It should outline procedures for documenting online investigations and establish provisions for accountability.
Monitoring comments and taking down posts
Facebook and Twitter aren’t always the most friendly places for public conversations. Even if your department never posts anything controversial, you will probably run into controversial or combative comments from users.
Your social media policy should include procedures on how to monitor comments. In her post on social media for law enforcement, consultant Lauri Stevens suggests that agencies post takedown policies on a separate tab on their Facebook page.
She encourages agencies to “protect your Facebook Page as a ‘limited public forum,’ have a takedown policy, and enforce it conservatively and consistently.”
Personal use of social media
In general, law enforcement agencies should be cautious about being too restrictive about officers’ personal social media use. Your agency’s social media policy has to respect officer’s First Amendment rights.
A court recently ruled that one agency’s policy—which restricted “negative comments” about the department—was overly broad and violated officers’ free speech.
For the most part, your social media policy should specify that your officers have freedom of expression, but it should outline a few exceptions.
It’s important that policies specify which individual accounts officially represent the department and which accounts don’t.
For example: If your police chief has an individual Twitter account, that account most likely represents the department.
Therefore, that account should align with the agency’s official social media use. However, individual officers’ personal accounts can’t be held to the same standards.
ConnectedCOPS advises agencies to include the use of disclaimers in social media policies.
“Because you may be giving your personnel the authority to comment on issues relating to the department, it’s imperative to emphasize the importance that officers, especially, state that what they write is their own opinion and not that of the department.”
Law enforcement social media policy should establish what officers are prohibited from posting on their personal accounts.
This may include sharing sensitive department information; posting images of department personnel, logos, or cruisers; or posting evidence of themselves acting badly on or off duty.
Agency policies should clearly state that officers can be disciplined for violating the department’s code of conduct on social media.
Privacy and perception
Most social media profiles aren’t private by default. In social media policy and training, law enforcement agencies should remind officers that their posts can be seen by community members, department leaders, and even suspects.
Irresponsible posts could undermine their testimony in criminal proceedings or reflect negatively on the department. Sharing sensitive information or posting their location could even put them or other officers in danger.
Social media policies should remind officers that the department may review their social media accounts at any time.
As a general rule, officers shouldn’t post anything they wouldn’t be comfortable with their supervisors reading.
Your social media policy is just one of the 12 law enforcement policies every agency needs to protect its community, officers, and reputation in an era of increased scrutiny and litigation.