Law Enforcement Agencies and their use of Social Media

Policy Development Research Paper

Social media has turned into a common method of communication between family and friends, community members, politicians, and businesses. As social media popularity grows, the significance of user engagement or popularity has come to light. Engagement through social media dictates various aspects of social media experience and can have both negative and positive effects on the organizations that create content for their social networking page. Due to the high interaction level through social media, law enforcement agencies have identified utility in engaging with the public through social media. Consequently, law enforcement agencies can inform their jurisdictions on community outreach, increase crime prevention, and crime occurrence.

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Based on recent research conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), about 95.9 percent of law enforcement agencies utilize social media in a different capacity, and about 55.9% of agencies that are not using it are considering adopting the practice (Jeanis, Muniz, & Molbert, 2019). While the use of social media in law enforcement agencies has demonstrated great importance in community engagement and outreach, the practice also presents various challenges that create a need for regulation in its use among the law enforcement agencies.

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How Law Enforcement Agencies Regulates Social Media

Social media has been extensively used by law enforcement agencies to enhance public engagement and outreach, and also in fighting crime. While its use has proven to be highly important in the agency especially in building public trust and monitoring criminal activities in different regions concurrently, it has also introduced new problems in the agency. Some of the experienced problems include officers’ misconduct in social media, especially by posting information that can tarnish police image to the public.

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Another experienced issue is officers’ security. Posting personal details on social media gives too many details to criminals such that it is easy to cause security to an officer or his or her family. According to Mihalek and Frankel (2019), the recent secret Facebook group revelation that involved former and current Customs and Border Protection personnel that created offensive posts regarding lawmakers and migrant deaths raises the danger of the use of social media by law enforcement officers. The member of the said group that includes former and current Border Patrol members posted unprofessional content that might be against the agency policy and disgusting. The involved member was put on administrative duty. In a different case, 72 officers in Philadelphia were removed from the street and put in administrative duty for sexist and racial bias claims in social media (Allen, 2019).  In another case, a police officer in Albuquerque, New Mexico listed human waste disposal as his occupation on Facebook, and later fatally shot and murdered a suspect in a traffic stop. Those incidences bring in the need to regulate officers’ conduct in social media, while still considering their right to free speech (Mihalek & Frankel, 2019).

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Should Organizations Regulate Officers’ Social Media?

Social media a highly changed how police departments communicate and share information with the public. It has impacted policing and modified the way police officers do their job. Social media offer an essential avenue for law enforcers to circulate relevant information to the public. Social media is of benefit to police departments since information can be circulated much faster and get to a huge audience in a short time through social media compared to other news media sources. A good example during the incident of bombing in the Boston Marathon. The Boston Police Department was able to share essential information regarding the investigation, assuage fears of the public and correct wrong information through Twitter. Police departments have also relied on social media in various instances to assist in crises such as school shootings. Police are also using social media to enhance citizen contribution in police investigations, leveraging the civic engagement to the public, strengthening the police departments’ public image, recruiting police officers, controlling crowds, getting better input in processes of policy-making, and handling crises.

However, social media is mostly used in aiding investigations and information dissemination (Boateng & Chenane, 2020). This makes social media an important part of the law enforcement process, and unlikely to be eliminated. However, officers need to be responsible while using it since its misuse can be disastrous especially in scenarios such as crisis control, or information dissemination. Accuracy in the two instances is highly important. Hence a high level of professionalism is required to prevent the use of the same technology to destroy public trust toward law enforcement. This means regulation on its use, especially when using the department account is highly important. 

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Best Practices for Social Media in Law Enforcement Agencies

Social media has been extensively used to enhance the law enforcement process. Social media can save or kill a department based on how it is used. In a round table discussion by PI Staff (2019), the police department should use social media to engage the community. Engagement, in this case, means sharing information and being there to answer questions asked to the comment section and also react to different concerns shown by the public in the comments. Another best practice is adjusting the message to fit the media by making the message shorter, eliminating police jargon, and internal codes to adopt plain –shorter versions of the message, and grabbing people’s attention by moderate use of emojis and use of visuals where necessary. The message should be emotionally based on the targeted audience. Also, the officers need to be honest and professional while engaging online.

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According to PI Staff (2019), in terms of professionalism, an officer should behave online as he or she is supposed to behave in the office. This ensures that officers do not engage in unprofessional behavior. The main goal of using social media should be maintained without drifting. Also when engaging, officers need to be aware of an anti-law group that wants to demonstrate that it does not obey the law and be careful while engaging them.

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Law Enforcement Agencies Social Media Use Departmental Policy Outline

Social media is an important part of law enforcement practice in the modern world. When properly used, it can play an important role in information dissemination and crime investigation. However, when wrongly used, it can result in public outbursts and the destruction of public trust. For this reason, police departments need to have a guideline to follow while using social media. Some of the policies that should be included include:

Individual police officers have a right to freedom of speech, however, they have a moral duty to safeguard the integrity of their department in all their engagements.

Policy General Rules

  • Violation of any of the social media use policies can result in disciplinary action that can extend up to the termination
  • Officers should not assume any privacy expectation while using their social media account, misconduct investigation may require one to provide login information for account assessment
  • Any information posted by a police officer to a public social media site might be accessed at any time by the investigation officer, defense attorneys, or media members without prior warning

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Social Media Use in the Department

  • Social media communication is purely left to designated people such as the chief of police, police spokesperson, or police communication department
  • In a situation that one is left in charge of social media communication, a high level of professionalism will be demanded
  • Although mode and tone of communication and means of engagement may change in social media communication, professionalism should remain while engaging with the public
  • Police officers should never share false or incorrect information with the public through department social media; information should be verified before it is released

Social Media Members personal Accounts

  • Police officers are permitted to have personal accounts, however, they should restrain from sharing personal information that can link them to the police department as a security measure
  • No police officer should share his or her photo in their social media accounts while wearing a police uniform, showing police ID, departmental horses or dogs, departmental seals, badges, or patches, or displaying police unmarked or marked vehicle
  • Police officers should not register personal accounts using a job-related email address
  • Police officers are restrained from posting biased information, especially on matters related to discriminative aspects such as race, sexuality, nationality, gender, and religion among others
  • Police officers should demonstrate a high level of moral conduct in their social media communication, they should avoid using uncouth language
  • One should not reveal employment positions while positing in personal accounts.
  • Every member is responsible for any information published, posted, or forward through their social media accounts
  • Members should not create posts or tags to insinuate that they are related or working with other members of the department before obtaining their consent

Conclusion

Social media has become an important part of law enforcement practices. It is being extensively used in law enforcement especially in information dissemination and criminal investigation. The use of social media in law enforcement has played a great role in enhancing public trust and public relations between the police and the community. Today, most police departments have learned how to use social media effectively to enhance public engagement in different policing issues. This has highly promoted efficiency law enforcement. Despite these advantages, the integration of social media in law enforcement has also come with its disadvantage. Some of these include misuse of social media by police officers, especially by posting messages that undermine police integrity in different units of operation. Some information posted and the nature of social media accounts have also exposed police officers and their families to security issues.

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Consequently, there is a need to have a regulation on how police officers use social media both in department accounts and personal accounts. Police personal accounts in various departments are closely monitored to ensure that they are not used to give the wrong impression of police officers in a specific unit or department. The regulations include limiting police officers’ engagement in topics likely to result in biased opinions such as racism and sexism. Controlling police engagement in social media helps in protecting police image and public trust from rogue police officers who are likely to post anything for personal pleasure.

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