For communicators across the public and private sectors, the old adage rings true: Reach people where they are. And today, with so many people online, law enforcement agencies are employing sophisticated social media techniques that engage citizens via blogs, Facebook, Twitter and now, Pinterest. 

Government Technology recently reported on how the graphics-heavy platform is helping communities solve crimes. Inspired by a mugshot page started by a newspaper in the region, Philadelphia police now post surveillance videos of crimes in which they need help identifying suspects.

Sarah Boyd, public relations specialist with the Kansas City, Mo., police, believes her department was the first in the U.S. to take to Pinterest last April. Their popular “Fuzzy Friends” board engages the community with photos and information about the department’s K-9 unit and mounted patrol, as well as a collection of photos from the crime lab’s annual take your dog to work day. Another board that gets a lot of traffic features female police officers highlighting their contributions to the police force in Kansas City. A “Making History” board features historical department photos and information, and boasts more than 600 followers.

Boards like these primarily serve a public relations function, Boyd explained, helping to engage the public and humanize the department to an audience that hasn’t traditionally been as engaged with law enforcement.

“It’s a way for us to reach people who wouldn’t have gotten our messages before,” Boyd said. “People who maybe don’t interact with traditional media.”

But the department recognizes that Pinterest serves a crime-fighting and crime prevention purpose too. Boyd and colleague Lynsay Holst post photos, video and information on unsolved crimes to their boards. The public has helped solve burglary and robbery cases, and locate missing persons.

But how do Kansas City police decide what kind of information to pin?

The “Identifying Street Drugs & Paraphernalia” board resulted from conversations with officers involved in a special project cracking down on marijuana use, who explained that parents often didn’t know what to look for. KCPD created a board featuring photos and information to help parents identify different forms of drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, heroin and crystal meth.

The board also educates parents about the latest household items people are using to get high. Pins on hand sanitizer, for example, explain that ingesting a few squirts of the readily available liquid produces effects equivalent to drinking multiple shots of hard liquor. Photos of bath salts depict its many forms, as well as the many dangerous side effects it can produce.

While Boyd explained that Kansas City doesn’t have a specific street drug problem that the board is meant to combat, many of the photos come from actual enforcement efforts in the city. She is hopeful that the board will be a particular help to suburban parents who don’t believe their schools have issues with any of these drugs.

“Pinterest offers an audience that I think isn’t traditionally in touch with law enforcement, and that is women,” Boyd said, adding that recent stats reveal about 80 percent of Pinterest users are female. “We thought it would be a really neat way to meet stay-at-home moms who aren’t getting the information about what street drugs look like if they found them in their kid’s room.”

In Kansas City, Mo., Pinterest is just one element of the police department's successful social media strategy. Chief Darryl Forté writes a blog on Blogspot, and the department is also active on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They also offer a text message alert system via Nixle. In addition, they are considering getting onto Instagram and other neighborhood-level social networks pioneered by law enforcement agencies.

“I just don’t think police in particular can ignore social media anymore,” Boyd concluded, acknowledging that social media still has its skeptics. “There are some people here that are like, ‘I don’t get it,’ but it’s the way to reach people that we have never reached, and it’s been incredibly successful for us.”

Photo from Shutterstock

Noelle Knell, Assistant Web Editor Noelle Knell  |  Managing Editor

Government Technology managing editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience, writing about public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she graduated from the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and @GovTechNoelle on Twitter.