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The Role of Social Media in Public Safety

Written by Jennifer Gavigan

The era of the Internet and Social Media is upon us. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are providing state and local law enforcement with low cost ways of not only keeping the public informed, but educating them as well. Social media tools can help communicate with the public in emergencies, build situational awareness, and spur recovery. This facilitates trust between police and the citizens they are sworn to protect. There’s no doubt a tremendous amount of information can be found on the Internet as well as social networking sites. Police departments are now taking advantage of such tools to help solve crimes.

As mentioned in “Top agencies utilize state-of-the-art technology” in this issue, the Baltimore Police have been employing Google Video Chat and Skype to communicate directly with members of the public and news media. Crime alerts are broadcast in real time on the department’s Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook pages. Videos on police and community happenings are posted weekly on YouTube, and residents can subscribe to free text-message alerts about crime in their neighborhood through Nixle (see page 21). Using social media also saves time; agencies can post information once and refer all inquiries to the same source. In addition, the Phoenix Police Department is using an iPhone app to fight graffiti and vandalism (see page 20).

Agencies are increasingly using the Internet to improve their investigations and data sharing. See “North Carolina criminal justice takes data sharing to new level” on page 32 to learn more about a Web-based software application that integrates data stored in state criminal justice databases to any authorized user on a state computer with access to the Internet. On page 36, “Picture Perfect: How public safety organizations are using Web analytics to improve their Web sites” discusses how police departments in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Phoenix, Denver and Nashville are all using Web analytics to track visitor use of their sites.

Earlier this year, a social media networking workshop, supported by the Interagency Biological Restoration Demonstration Project, under the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was held. Over 100 representatives from federal, state, and local government agencies; the private sector; and the news media met to share case studies, learn from research, and participate in demonstrations of social media tools. One of the goals of the workshop was to identify ways in which emergency management can learn to use these tools to better protect communities and improve communication during crisis situations.

When fires burned through Los Angeles County last year, residents shared real-time updates on burn areas and evacuations via social media platforms, often before the traditional news outlets such as TV or radio. Washington D.C. Emergency Management used social media at the inauguration of President Obama to gain situational awareness. When an Amber Alert is issued, a simple Facebook update or tweet on a missing child increases exposure and that child’s chances of being safely returned.

The public wants information, and they want it instantly. The challenge for public safety agencies is balancing resources and accuracy against the need to produce instant information. Of course, regulations must be in place to assure first responders are not using social networking sites for personal reasons while on the job or out in the field. Social media and law enforcement can make a good team when used responsibly and proactively.

What do you think? Is social media helping your agency? E-mail me your comments and we will post them in a future issue or on our Web site. Like it or not, we are living in an online world, so let’s embrace this technology and use it to make the world safer. After all, the lives of first responders and the safety of the public are priceless.

Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2010

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