It's now become nearly impossible for law enforcement agencies to remain uninvolved in social media. However much you might try to avoid it, it's out there and its use is growing.
Enter the Social Media, the Internet, and Law Enforcement (SMILE) conference. Its goal is to give attendees the knowledge and tools to use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media with confidence.
The conference, which takes place in Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 10-12 this week, covers a wide range of topics that pertain to law enforcement's interest in social media: posting policies, cyber bullying, conducting background checks, issuing alerts, and meeting public expectations. It's put on by LAWS Communications and hosted by the Santa Monica Police Department.
Capt. Michael Parker of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department said in his presentation today, "To ignore social media is to ignore a huge part of the population that we are sworn to protect." As he noted at the conference, social media is being used to victimize people. Sexual predators who used to find young victims in chat rooms have moved to the newer versions of online interaction.
But social media is also a tool for collecting information to solve crimes and for interacting with the public in a positive way, including counteracting negative comments being made about your agency.
Parker's presentation was called "Instant Communications - The World has Changed, and so has the Public's Expectations of Law Enforcement," but it really came down to the idea of marketing your police agency. He's a strong proponent of creating an agency marketing plan to safely and systematically interact online and to promote the right message, both to the public and to internal employees.
While the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is a very large agency, any size agency can benefit from utilizing social media, and from having a plan for how to do so.
Sgt. Tom LeVeque of the Arcadia (Calif.) Police Department gave a presentation on his 75-officer agency's social media strategy. He has spearheaded a program to use Twitter and Facebook. It was a tough sell, but he now has support from his chief.
Although tweeting and responding to Facebook posts takes time and resources, LeVeque gave many examples of the return on investment for his department. In addition to being a communication tool, social media allows an agency to create positive branding, building trust, educating the public, learning about the community and what's being said about the agency, and giving the agency a personality.
Attendees I spoke with were eager to learn as much as they could about social media and how they could make it work for their agencies, both as an investigative tool and as a means of providing their communities with accurate, up-to-date information.
Parker says he appreciates the fact that the SMILE conference is devoted to law enforcement's interests and their constraints, unlike social media workshops geared toward corporations.
Law enforcement officers are focused on communicating with the public and on solving crimes within the parameters of a government agency. And because they're not competing, police officers at the conference can share best practices and know that they are trying to achieve the same goals.
"We learn from each other's mistakes and successes," says Parker. "Law enforcement's engagement in social media is so new, it still makes officers and agencies nervous, so having examples of success can help convince management."
Yes, using Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace can get individual officers and other citizens into trouble if they're not judicous about their use. But that's not a reason to dismiss it.
The overall feeling at the conference was that social media interaction is an important tool whose usefulness and relevance to law enforcement shouldn't be ignored.
The next SMILE Conference will be held in Chicago in May.