Own the Internet: Best Practices for Police Agencies on Social Media

Here are some thoughts on best practices for agencies and individual officers as the use of social media becomes more prevalent in policing.

Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot

Embed from Getty Images

Earlier this week, we reported that the Clearwater (FL) Police Department announced on social media that its extended family mushroomed last year with the arrival of 13 new babies in 2019. The agency said, "Congratulations to Officer Diaz, Officer Hoxie, Officer Hurt, Officer Lightfoot, Officer Maser, Officer McCann, Officer Penna, Officer Robinson and Officer Yeates!"

Then we reported that the Wilkes-Barre Township (PA) Police Department took to Facebook to conduct an informal poll of citizens in its jurisdiction about feelings on whether or not some or all of the agency's radio traffic should be encrypted.

Agencies have been increasingly successful at utilizing social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and YouTube to interact with citizens in a meaningful way.

But the news about police use of Internet interaction has not all been good.

More times than I care to recall, I've been forced to write headlines and news articles about an officer who was disciplined—or even fired—for their personal behavior on social media.

Late last month we reported on an officer with the Seattle Police Department fired after an internal investigation revealed that he violated agency social media policy by posting several profane and politically charged comments on Instagram.

A week later, we reported that an officer with the Redondo Beach (CA) Police Department now faces criminal charges of contempt of court and unlawfully possessing ammunition stemming from a workplace violence restraining order after the department discovered social media posts that could be construed as threatening violence.

Here are some thoughts on best practices for agencies and individual officers as the use of social media becomes more prevalent in policing. I put these together with the input of a good friend and someone I consider to be one of the foremost experts on law enforcement social media practices, Mike Bires.

After serving 26 years as a police officer for three law enforcement agencies in Southern California, Mike Bires is now the public affairs officer for the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office. He is also the co-owner of Law Enforcement Social, which trains law enforcement agencies and personnel on the professional and efficient use of social media. You can find him on social media under the username, @iSocialCop.

Let's dig in.

Empower Employees

When we talked via phone earlier this week, I first asked Bires about his feelings on how much latitude could be or should be given to individual officers to post to their agency's social media pages.

"Let me ask you this," he said. "When the CEO of a hospital hires a heart surgeon, does the heart surgeon have to go into the CEO's office every time he is going to perform heart surgery on a patient? Or was he hired to that position because they have the faith in him that is a professional and has the expertise to know what he's doing?"

The take-away here is that PIOs and command staff must provide officers with appropriate training on the use of social media, and then trust that those individuals adhere to that training and make the agency shine.

Achieving Balance

I asked Bires about achieving the delicate balance between posting "light fare" such as the video of an officer playing basketball with kids on a cul-de-sac, or news of the upcoming coffee-with-a-cop event at the local diner, and using social media as a channel to communicate serious matters such as the report of a missing at-risk person or the search for a suspected kidnapper.

He says it all comes down to branding. But branding is not the badge, or the patch, or the colors, or the logo on the side of the patrol vehicle. Bires says branding is the answer to the question, "Why do we exist?"

"What's our purpose?" Bires said. "What makes us different from other agencies? What problems do we solve for our communities? Why would people care about what we do? What emotions do we want people to feel when they are in contact with us, whether it's in social media or out on the street? When you start answering those questions and start defining the voice and the culture of your organization, you start creating your brand."

This will then allow social media managers, command staff, and individual officers to have a more clearly defined roadmap for what to post and what to leave aside.

Have a Message

I personally loved the Lip Sync Challenge videos that dominated law enforcement social media for months—I wrote in this space that those videos can (and probably did) increase LEO morale and unity. They were also an opportunity to "rally the troops" to produce the video and call out a neighboring agency to answer the call. For me, that was reason enough to enjoy that social media trend.

Bires says that there needs to be another element for him to give approval on devoting time and energy to such a project. He says there needs to also be a purpose or a message delivered that justifies the project.

"I'm all for anything that sparks engagement but it has to have a purpose," Bires said. "There was an agency in Florida a couple of years ago that did a video around the holidays that had officers singing about locking your cars and hiding your presents. It was a music video, but it has a message that resonated with people. But I think when you take a lip-sync video and there's no message—or learning point in there for the community—then I disagree with spending that time."

Five Keys

At the end of our call, I challenged Bires to identify a few key critical success factors for law enforcement social media.

"Listen to your audience," he said immediately. "Pay attention to it."

He added, "Get yourself out of your content. Make it about the people you serve."

He said that agencies should key in on the emotions of the community. "What do you want them to feel? Get away from the negativity. If you put something positive out there, you're going to get good comments."

He concedes that your agency is going to have "trolls" and "haters" and that the social media manager should allow for interaction—in a limited fashion. "Respond professionally and answer them, but then let it go and let them say all they want."

Finally, Bires said that police should show empathy to people, because nobody really knows what is behind someone's comment or post on social media. "We need to get back to just being human and empathetic," he said.

Final Words

The fact remains that while many of your citizens are increasingly getting their news and information from their social media feeds, many still do not, so remain present in the real world for those people. There's simply no substitute for personal interaction with the citizens you serve at churches and community events, schools and businesses, as well as—obviously—on calls for service.

However, I've said for years that the future of police-community relations must include a robust and effective social media element.

Those who do follow your agency on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and elsewhere have tacitly asked you to share your stories. Plenty of pro-police citizens follow your department on Facebook and Twitter—and these are precisely the people with whom you should be directly communicating.

About the Author
Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot
Contributing Editor
View Bio
Page 1 of 56
Next Page