Social media has profoundly changed the ways in which police are now able to communicate—unmediated—with the public.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have become essential communications tools for police, and the events surrounding last month's Boston Marathon bombing indicate just how far police have come in engaging proactively with social media to achieve operational (and non-operational) outcomes.
With pressure on police to increase public confidence and reduce community concerns over crime, social media has emerged as a valuable tool for improving communication between organizations and their “customers” — the public.
And as we witnessed in Boston, social media is now the site for breaking news.
But increasingly it is the police, not the media, who are providing real-time crime news to an ever-interested audience.
In the aftermath of the bombings, and the ensuing pursuit of the alleged attackers, social media played a critical role.
For example, social media served as a channel for disseminating police information about the bombings, and facilitated “citizen policing” during the hunt for the prime suspects in the attack—with sometimes negative results, such as the wrongful identification of one missing student as a suspect.
But while the Boston case has brought attention to the nexus between police and social media, the intersection of social media and police work is not an entirely new phenomenon.
Over the last five years, police organizations around the world have been developing skills in using social media as investigative and public relations tools.
What my own research into this phenomenon has shown is that police are more than happy to take a lead role in defining crime events for the public, bypassing the traditional media platforms that have filtered much of the public communications work of law enforcement.
Today's police organizations increasingly recognize the benefits of social media to their communication and operational priorities.
Their pro-active approach includes:
- Seeking information and assistance from the public to help solve crime;
- Displaying footage, images and information that may help solve crime;
- Keeping the public informed about police activities and crime events;
- Warning the public of dangers;
- Reducing the fear of crime.
For the Boston Police Department (BPD), social media such as Twitter also proved invaluable in providing first-hand information to the public, keeping residents up to date with events in Boston as they happened.
From the confirmation of the first explosion, the BPD was able to harness social media as an authoritative source of information.
Regular Tweets from the BPD's official Twitter account relayed the latest news in the case, called for footage of the Marathon finish line from spectators, sought information from the public that might help solve the case, and quashed media-driven rumors of an arrest.
Through Twitter, the BPD was able to control the parameters of the case, and avoid potential panic created by the spread of misinformation, or speculation over the scale of the incident, or the status of the investigation.
In short, social media helped police not only to do their job but to let the community know they were doing their job.
In similar ways, social media has demonstrated great operational benefits to police forces elsewhere in the world. Evidence from Australia and Europe attests to the capacity of social media to assist in the detection and arrest of suspects.
The Boston case is just one of a number of examples of how social media has been used during large-scale disasters or incidents to bring a level of gravity to the typically sensationalist (and often incorrect) reporting of the past.
For example, police were praised for their use of social media during events such as Tropical Cyclones Yasi and Tasha in Queensland, Australia in 2010 and 2011, with the Queensland Police Service gaining international recognition for their effective use of social media during these disasters.
But despite the benefits of social media, there are still some thorny issues to be worked out.
As we saw in Boston, there was a downside to the role that social media played in the days following the attack, as “citizen journalists” turned into “citizen police.”
Suspects were mis-identified, and police investigative strategies were broadcast online for all — including, potentially, the bombers — to consume.
Theories were traded back and forth; speculation was rife.
So while social media has the potential to provide police agencies with crucial information and support, not to mention a direct line to the public in times of crisis, there is also a warning that must be heeded from Boston.
In harnessing the capacity of the crowd on social media to help solve cases, police must also clearly define the boundaries within which this occurs.
One way to stop the online chatter that occurred during the manhunt is to digitally encrypt police radio systems, a strategy that has already been employed in Australian policing organizations.
Such moves, though, have raised concerns over police secrecy, and may not completely address the problems that arose during the bombing investigation.
UK Government threats to shut down social media and mobile networks during times of crisis have also been widely criticized. So where does this leave governments and police?
There is no simple answer to the problems that threaten police investigations, given the changeable nature of social media platforms.
No doubt though, lessons can be learned from recent events, and police can put strategies in place to minimize the risks, if not completely erase them. Legal and technical moves, such as those listed above, may be one part of the solution.
Another response may be sought from looking at what other police organizations are doing to proactively harness social media in positive ways.
The New South Wales Police Force, for example, has introduced the Project Eyewatch scheme as a way of engaging the community in the crime-fighting process. With clear strategies and processes in place for how citizens can help police in the virtual environment, such a scheme signals a new development in policing capabilities, giving much more power to police than a 'free-for-all' model can.
“Citizen policing” on social media platforms can too readily turn into vigilante justice—with serious consequences not only for the accused but for the investigation itself.
Police now have to think carefully about the best ways forward to ensure that citizens can engage in investigative processes to beneficial ends.
Dr. Alyce McGovern, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of New South Wales, Australia, is a visiting scholar at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. She welcomes comments from readers.