By Todd Duncan, Law Enforcement and Safety Specialist
Social media has become an integral tool for law enforcement agencies to enhance communication, community engagement, and public safety. The value of law enforcement agency social media accounts extends beyond mere information dissemination; when used properly they may serve as a bridge connecting members of the public and agencies, fostering transparency, and contributing to safer and more informed communities. Potential benefits to consider include:
Enhanced Community Engagement:
One of the primary benefits is the ability to engage with the community in real-time. Social media platforms provide a direct line of communication, allowing agencies to share important updates, safety tips, and event information. This engagement builds trust, fosters positive relationships, and empowers community members with knowledge, ultimately contributing to crime prevention.
Transparency and Information Dissemination:
Law enforcement agencies can leverage social media to disseminate timely and accurate information during emergencies, crises, or investigations. This transparent communication helps dispel rumors, provides situational awareness, and allows agencies to demonstrate their commitment to public safety.
Public Relations and Humanizing the Force:
Social media offers a platform to humanize the people behind the badge. Agencies can share behind-the-scenes glimpses of daily operations, introduce deputies to the community, and highlight positive interactions. This approach creates a more relatable image of law enforcement, breaking down barriers and strengthening community ties.
Emergency Communication and Public Alerts:
In critical situations, social media serves as a rapid and effective channel for emergency communication. Agencies can provide real-time updates, evacuation instructions, and safety tips to ensure the public’s well-being. Social media platforms also facilitate the dissemination of AMBER alerts and other public safety warnings.
Crime Prevention and Public Education:
Law enforcement agencies can use social media to educate the public on crime prevention strategies, cybersecurity, and other safety-related topics. By sharing relevant information, agencies empower individuals to take an active role in their own safety and the security of their communities.
Social media can serve as a cost-effective recruiting tool and is becoming one of the primary ways agencies advertise employment opportunities. It provides an opportunity to showcase the agency from a career perspective, reach a broad, far-reaching audience, and share important information regarding qualifications, pay, and benefits.
Best Practices and First Amendment Considerations
Establishing an agency social media program takes work and involves risks. Before proceeding, the agency must be committed to managing the program in a professional and legally compliant manner. The following are some suggested best practices for establishing and maintaining agency social media accounts:
- Define Clear Objectives:
- Clearly outline the agency’s goals and objectives for social media, whether it’s community engagement, public education, recruiting, or emergency communication.
- Develop a Comprehensive Policy:
- Establish a robust social media policy that addresses content guidelines, moderation procedures, employee use, and privacy considerations.
- A model policy for agency social media pages from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) can be viewed/downloaded here.
- Additional social media resources from the IACP can be found here.
- Engaging with the Community:
- Consider whether the account will be set to allow public comments/posts or configured as information only.
- If public comments are allowed on an agency’s social media page, they are generally protected under the First Amendment (see important legal considerations below).
- Provide Accurate Information:
- Ensure that all information shared on social media is accurate, timely, and aligns with the agency’s commitment to transparency.
- When posting incident details or briefings, keep comments factual, respectful, and relevant.
- Humanize the Force While Maintaining Professionalism:
- Share positive stories, deputy profiles, and community events to humanize the law enforcement image and build trust.
- Be cautious in how humor might be perceived. Clean humor can be a great way to humanize the agency, but it is also important to remember that what is funny to some may not be perceived the same way by others. Avoid humor that could be deemed offensive or that comes at the expense of someone’s privacy or dignity.
- Use Multimedia:
- Incorporate multimedia content such as videos and images to make posts more engaging and shareable.
- Remember that copyright laws apply when posting images, videos, or other creative content on social media. Best practices to avoid potential copyright violations include obtaining permission from the content owner, linking to the original source of the content, using royalty-free content, or creating your own content.
- Emergency Preparedness:
- Develop and regularly update an emergency communication plan, ensuring rapid and effective response during crises.
Retired New Jersey State Police Captain/Director of Communications Stephen Jones teaches an excellent course on law enforcement media relations at the FBI National Academy. Much of his course material is based on experience he gained while developing and overseeing the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) Facebook page which serves as a great example for other agencies to follow when developing their own social media program.
First Amendment Considerations for Moderating the Account (such as deleting or hiding public comments):
- Content-Neutral Moderation:
- Transparency in Moderation:
- Respect First Amendment Rights:
- Recognize and respect individuals’ First Amendment rights to express opinions, even if critical of law enforcement.
- Balanced Moderation:
- Regular Policy Review:
- Periodically review and update the social media policy to align with legal developments, community expectations, and emerging trends.
Law enforcement agency social media accounts may hold significant value in building community trust, enhancing transparency, recruiting, and contributing to public safety. By adhering to best practices, complying with all laws, and respecting First Amendment considerations, agencies can effectively leverage social media to strengthen their relationship with the communities they serve.