Police agencies, regardless of their size, cannot ignore the value of utilizing social media platforms. From Facebook and Twitter to Nextdoor and many other platform options, policing has embraced the internet, but in a disjointed fashion.
What platforms do people use?
Unsurprisingly, 84% of U.S. adults use social media — but where are they going when they use it?
Facebook is the most visited social media site in America. It commands 53% of all social media site visits in the United States, a supremacy that remains unchallenged to date. Other platforms, despite their individual strengths and popularity, continue to find themselves in Facebook’s shadow across desktop, mobile and tablet devices. This means Facebook remains essential for marketers aiming to capture and engage American audiences.
Is law enforcement capitalizing on the internet? Does every agency in America maintain an information-filled website to market its services, provide information and push transparency?
There is an obvious cost in staff time to generate social media and web content. Large agencies may have dedicated staff, but most police agencies assign these duties as an add-on. In small agencies, officers or a patrol supervisor may be posting material as time allows. Some agencies may still not engage or do it poorly, posting material online without a plan or a focused message.
A lack of staff time or budget are common complaints. But partnership-building is still a core requirement for all police agencies. Changing hearts and minds can only occur through a consistent approach to community outreach, and social media is a necessary tool.
Elected officials and local media consistently hear from law enforcement critics. While their voices are important, they can be interpreted as the “voice of the community.” With a constant, forward-leaning social media program, law enforcement can put those complaining parties into context within the larger community.
Active social media outreach builds community support. Sharing positive feedback with officers on how much community support they have increases morale and staff retention.
Law enforcement has gotten better in wrestling with the web. Facebook is the leading social media platform used by 94% of law enforcement agencies, followed by Twitter at 71% and YouTube at 40%. According to the Social Media Guidebook for Law Enforcement Agencies by the nonprofit Urban Institute, social media platforms are used by 91% of agencies to notify the public of safety concerns, by 89% for community outreach and citizen engagement, and by 86% for public relations and reputation management.
Social media as a civic engagement tool for law enforcement
Does the community have full faith and confidence in their local agency? Community trust is of equal importance to crime, arrest and case clearance rates. When citizens do not know what their police department, sheriff’s office or state law enforcement folks are doing, it undermines faith in policing. Lack of support, angry citizens at public meetings, and demonstrations do not just happen because of an increase in crime or a decrease in clearance rates.
Social media, while not a silver bullet to correct all challenges, is an important foundational investment in today’s world. Social media is a form of “owned media,” meaning it allows users to “own” their narrative. That is critical in policing. Where there is a void of information, that void will be filled up with misinformation, opinion and naysayers.
In addition to humanizing an agency, the use of social media by law enforcement enables them to shape emerging narratives and communicate them directly with the public, rather than relying only on external outlets to cover events, which could potentially have disastrous consequences.
Social media can help spread information rapidly to community members, which can be useful during public safety emergencies and natural disasters. It can also reduce the time it takes for first responders to get the vital information they need, in the form of tips and feedback directly from citizens.
If crucial information needs to be communicated quickly, a text message is often the channel of choice. According to the Pew Research Center, 98% of text messages are read within two minutes — a time savings that can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency.
Nextdoor, endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) as the 21st-century electronic neighborhood watch platform, is currently utilized by some 4,000 police agencies. It is a unique application that is safety-focused and neighborhood-driven, unlike other traditional social media platforms. This site allows an agency to set up neighborhood groups to facilitate communication among neighbors and allow law enforcement to share posts, crime alerts and other information. There is no cost to a participating police agency.
Evidence shows more citizen trust in communities where the police regularly post on social media. For example, one major police department in California found positive responses from the public increased when the department posted the following:
- Official department posts thanking the community for their cooperation and assistance in locating missing persons
- National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day in January, which generated a significant amount of positive buzz in just one day
- Updates about crimes and investigations, mobilizing the community about crime, alerts about wanted individuals and noteworthy arrests
- The department’s holiday greetings and related activities
- Departmental announcements about personnel changes, including congratulating recruit officers, promotions, unit achievements and awards
- Updates and pictures of the department’s K-9 units or other special teams
While social media can be a powerful tool, particularly for budget-constrained departments, the question of how to best harness social media remains.
The public has long called for more transparency from law enforcement. Communities need to know what their police are doing. Community members desire this information to build strong partnerships with local law enforcement and the officers working in the community. This need for more information from law enforcement has grown since the 1992 Rodney King riots, the death of George Floyd in 2020, the death of Tyre Nichols in 2023 and other notable incidents.
It would benefit police agencies to post about positive activities on social media: significant arrests, community engagement events, photographs of officers in everyday operations and personal stories to humanize the badge. They should also post about problems or mistakes and drive the narrative by openly admitting errors and detailing how the department will correct them.
While research suggests communities are more interested in the human side of the police department than just informational posts about arrests, policies and agendas, there is still more to consider.
Managing your social media
For social media to be effective, you must feed content regularly to build traffic. You will need a mix of platforms — say, Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor and YouTube (if you have the resources) — combined with an informative website that will host your press releases, blog and podcasts, and hopefully can send out text and email alerts that the public can sign up to receive.
Managing your social media is an investment that takes time, effort and budget to build. A competent and affordable web provider is necessary, which is another challenge.
Current case law indicates that the interactive portion of a government Facebook page is a “public forum,” so an official cannot block people from it because of the opinions they hold. According to the ACLU of Southern California, you need to have a posted comment policy. If a post includes threats, language that incites illegal action, factual statements you know to be false, obscene material or an attempt to sell something, you can delete the post, but you cannot block the account.
As an example, a clear Facebook comments policy is central to making sure everyone is aware of how they are expected to behave when engaging in your community’s online conversation. Creating a Facebook comments policy will help your supporters understand what kind of behavior is acceptable when participating in conversation on your organization’s page. This is an evolving area of case law, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to provide additional direction later in 2023.
Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are working hard to rebuild trust among their community members. By using social media channels citizens already trust for open communication, law enforcement officials can improve transparency and inclusivity, gauge public perception in real time, and understand discourse around the topics and events that matter most to residents.