Study: Social Media Widely Used, Often Unregulated, in Policing

Police departments across the country have rapidly adopted social media tools during the last few years, but more than half have do not have formal policies for social media use, according to a new study by the company LexisNexis. The online study surveyed 496 federal, state and local law enforcement officials about how their departments apply social media tools. LexisNexis, which sells social media tools, was not identified as the survey's sponsor. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed (63 percent) said their departments use social media in crime investigations, and more than half (51 percent), for crime prevention. But even though most agencies use social media regularly, the majority have not devoted full-time positions or made formal rules for its use.

Tweeting for Justice

Twitter's potential as a crime-fighting and investigative tool for police is still largely unexploited by U.S. law enforcement, two experts said yesterday. In the seven years since Twitter was founded, many police departments have embraced it as a public relations tool, but it's no longer good enough to have just one social media expert on staff, Lauri Stevens of LAwS Communications, said during a law enforcement webinar. The event, “Social Media for Law Enforcement: From Implementation to Investigation,” was organized by private contracting firm BrightPlanet to give police personnel a sense of how to use Twitter and Facebook as a crime prevention tool. “You don’t want to treat [being on Twitter] as a checkbox, and that’s what I see a lot of law enforcement agencies doing,” Stevens said. Twitter's 500 million users feed constantly evolving streams of information onto the web, describing everything from neighborhood events to their own social gatherings.

Policing Twitter and Facebook

Law enforcement agencies have long understood the value of social media as a public relations tool, but many have begun to recognize its potential for investigating crime and managing large gatherings of people. A new guide published by the non-profit Police Executive Research Forum provides insights and tips for departments looking to do more than public relations outreach with their Twitter and Facebook feeds. The guide advises departments to “not be afraid to take calculated risks” in disseminating certain information to the public in real-time. “The Toronto Police Service and other departments have demonstrated that social media can be used for many purposes, from crime prevention and community policing to intelligence and criminal investigations,” the report's authors wrote. “It is not merely a function of a police department's public information unit.”

Crime-fighting, Twitter and the Boston Bombing

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.