The bottom line for encouraging community engagement is communication, specifically opening the lines of communication to allow for a two-way dialog. Social media offers an avenue to engage community members to a degree that has not been possible before.
Many cities and towns are successfully using social media within their police departments for both investigative purposes and community engagement.
There are numerous free or inexpensive social media tools available, and new ones appear almost daily. Should you have a profile on Facebook or Google Plus? Should you be using Group Me or Viber for group messaging? Ustream or Bambuser to stream video?
The actual tool used in not that important. In fact, it should be last item on the list of decisions that need to be made. It is more important to determine why you want to use the tools, who you want to reach, what resources are available to sustain the initiative and how will you know if you have succeeded in meeting your goals. Once these questions have been answered, it is time to pick the right tool for the job.
Microblogs (Twitter, Nixle)
Police departments are using microblog services like Twitter to issue breaking news, dispel rumors, host tweet-alongs and answer questions directly from the public. Encourage the media to follow your account for alerts. Tip: Have Twitter designate your account as an authentic government Twitter account. Verified accounts are designated by a blue verified badge on the account's profile. Twitter does not accept requests for verification from the general public.
Video sharing (UStream, Vimeo, YouTube)
Using an Ipad or even a smart phone, officials can share audio and video from events, press conferences or media interviews. Both UStream and Bambuser allow for live streaming.
Networking (Facebook, MySpace, Google Plus, LinkedIn, BlueLine)
Facebook is the name that first comes to mind when thinking about social networks, but there are a host of others, depending on what you are trying to do and who you are trying to reach. LinkedIn, a professional network, is better suited for recruitment purposes than information about a Crime Watch meeting.
The number of adults using social networks is up to 72 percent, and police departments are using these networks to share relevant information and encourage two-way communication.
The police chief of Brimfield, OH, has reached global "rock star" status in the social media world. From a township of a little more than 10,000, the department's Facebook page has more than 89,000 likes. The only police department with more likes is New York City.
"Our followers know that good news or bad news, we-re going to tell you the truth," said Oliver in a recent interview with Governing magazine. "We have some fun, but we also tell some sad stories along the way. You-ll always know that we-re trying to do what's right."
Chief Oliver posts relevant content with a healthy dose of humor and straight talk. His goal for using Facebook and other social media is to allow the public an inside look at police work. He credits the Facebook page with showing his residents and followers as far away as Australia and Japan that keeping a community safe is a team effort.
"If we-re going to reduce crime, the people have to be willing participants," explained Oliver during the interview. "We wanted to have any means of communication available so our department is the most functional operation it can be. I think the paradigm is shifting a little bit toward using social media as an outreach tool rather than just picking up the phone to call the police department."
Looking to replicate the type of communities created by Facebook and other social and professional networks, Bratton Technologies launched the BlueLine - in October. The web-based, free professional network is open exclusively to law enforcement professionals.
"Information sharing helps cops do a better job of keeping our communities safe," said CEO William Bratton, former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and commissioner of both the New York and Boston Police Departments. "BlueLine crowdsources the best and brightest in American policing, so innovations in crime-fighting and training and all manner of expertise can be shared to the instant benefit of everyone."
The International Association of Chiefs of Police maintains a website that serves as a clearinghouse of social media information to help officers integrate social media tools into their daily operations.
The site shares best practices, offers model policies and procedures and provides concise explanations of the tools and their potential uses.