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Implementing Social Networking into Law Enforcement Ops: Community Relations

The SMILE conference is one of the most promising of today’s law enforcement training conferences.

SMILE stands for Social Media, the Internet and Law Enforcement. Social media is more than just a trend. It is now a solid part of the fabric of our society. And it’s time law enforcement realized this is how their community chooses to communicate.

With more than 750 million active users, Facebook is a social networking site that is here to stay. When you can purchase a cell phone or a camera that has the ubiquitous blue Facebook button pre-installed for instant photo uploading to the site, that’s a clue to its longevity.

Social networking sites, like Facebook, have become the default method of communication for the majority of the population in our communities. From enlightening friends of their breakfast choice to updating people about major life events, social networking is easier—and more habit-forming—than making a phone call or popping over for an in-person visit.

Sure, you think Twitter is ridiculous. Sure, Facebook is a giant time-suck. Sure, you personally think playing two hours of Farmville is inane. But this is not your personal choice we’re talking about—we’re talking about choosing to reach the citizens you protect in the way they want to be reached.

If you’re not utilizing social networking sites for community relations, you’ve essentially told your community that you’ve chosen to ignore them. Think about this: If person tells you they prefer, and rely, on phone communications and instead, you choose to send them a letter via snail mail. What message does that send? So, if you choose not to use social networking and continue to communicate via press release, what does that say about you and your department?

Law enforcement agencies can implement social networking as much or as little as they want. At a basic level, you can start a department Facebook page that puts out the typical information people want: contact info, bolos, alerts, crime prevention tips, etc. This is usually a very good start for an agency that been apprehensive about dipping the toes into the social networking waters.

You can set it up so that you only disseminate information, as opposed to solicit information from other users. If you do this minimum effort style, just remember that it will still require regular updates to keep it fresh and usable. What’s regular? In the world of social networking, at least once a day.

However, the whole point of social networking is that it is social, so interaction is key. A truly successful social networking presence will not only allow people to comment, but will respond to those comments. For this to happen, of course, you’ll need to designate a person (or persons) to be responsible for the page.

Some of those responsibilities should include regular posting of information, monitoring comments and responding appropriately (and deleting the inevitable verbal graffiti that will ensue), cultivating online networks and routing concerns to the proper channels. Most agencies entrust a public information officer or a command staff level person to maintain this level of activity because there is more to these tasks than just being social networking savvy.

A more involved option would be to start several social networking sites for each division. Criminal investigations would maintain their own presence, public information would have their own, patrol would have their little corner, etc. This option, while on the surface seems to be the most future-forward option, also opens the door for more error, as well as potential hazards. For this to be successful—and it can be successful—there would have to be very clear rules about who’s in charge of what and when. There should also be much oversight on the part of supervisors.

No matter which option is chosen, be sure to follow these two cardinal rules. First, update often. Social media users thrive of instant gratification and constant information. If you start a site and let it lie fallow, you’ve failed your audience and they will leave you. Second, monitor more often. Make sure someone is aware of every comment and addresses it appropriately and within a reasonable timeframe. Next month we will cover using social networking for background investigations.

Cara Donlon-Cotton is a former course developer and instructor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. She currently teaches a variety of media relations and social networking classes to local law enforcement agencies. She can be reached at or through the Public Safety Training & Education Network at

Published in Law and Order, Jan 2012

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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Police Chief

Posted on : Jan 26 at 7:49 AM By John Edwards

Our agency has checked into the open records issues and found that anything posted on the social networking sites must be treated as open records. They must be retained, whether it is posted by the PD or citizens responding. It is not as easy as suggested in the article to just start up a site.

Polie Chief

Posted on : Jan 20 at 10:53 AM By Tim Sabransky

While I appreciate the article I take exception to the comment in the print version that says choosing not to use social media is a bad decision. While that may be the opinion of the author I see nothing in the article to support that opinion. I also think that more discussion is needed concerning public records, retention of material posted and whether or not a public agency really has the right to delete citizen postings on a public forum. While there may be benefits to using social media, once again the technology has outstripped our capacity to deal with or anticipate the problems.

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