"Social media is the most recent evolution in communication technology. I don’t think there’s a choice as to whether or not law enforcement uses social media."

So says law enforcement consultant Lauri Stevens in an interview with Government Technology. Stevens, founder of Massachusetts-based LAwS Communications, works with police departments all over the United States and Canada, and feels that while many agencies are getting social media right, there is ample opportunity to improve.

Those with the most successful implementations, according to Stevens, understand that social media can effectively engage citizens as active partners in keeping communities safe. And in a major incident involving the police, an established following on social media can help keep rumors at bay and contribute to a more positive outcome.

Citizens Want to Help, Need Information

A recent international study (PDF) by technology consulting firm Accenture found that 88 percent of citizens want to help the police fight crime. Perhaps more telling, however, is the fact that 84 percent of respondents “feel only minimally informed of local police activities.”

So how can social media help bridge this gap?

The Toronto Police Service used Twitter to communicate about an incident in 2010 where a gun was fired on a high school campus. The police communications office created a hash tag and used it to broadcast timely updates about the event. In addition to providing accurate information as it unfolded, tweets about the event informed local news stories. Information was timely and straight from police sources, helping diffuse worry from parents and the broader community.

Many other law enforcement agencies have built an effective presence on social media, using it as a successful extension of their community relations and crime-fighting efforts, Stevens said. Government Technology recently reported on Seattle’s "Tweets-by-Beat" program, for example, that provides hyper-localized crime information in near real time via Twitter.

Pinning Mug Shots

The bulletin-board style platform Pinterest received a lot of attention in 2012 for its rapid rise to the No. 3 spot in the most popular social media triumvirate, behind Facebook and Twitter. Government agencies at all levels are creating boards on Pinterest, and now, even police departments are establishing pages.

A local newspaper in Pottstown, Penn., started a Pinterest board featuring mug shots of people wanted by the local police for offenses like theft, fraud and sexual assault. While not the typical Pinterest fare, a platform known more for crafts and decorating ideas than catching criminals, the strategy is paying off. According to a report on NPR, tips started pouring in right away, and police say their arrest rates have increased by 57 percent.

Roughly 40 miles southeast of Pottstown, the Philadelphia Police Department, led by Commissioner Charles Ramsey, has an aggressive social media strategy. Corporal Frank Domizio explained that the department posts recovered surveillance videos on YouTube, enlisting the public’s help in identifying perpetrators unknown to police. The department’s blog, promoted via their Facebook page and Twitter accounts, links to the surveillance videos.

As of December 2012, Domizio reported that the department secured 112 arrests from the approximately 200 videos that it posted in this manner. A social media enthusiast, Domizio read about the success Pottstown was having using Pinterest. He created a presence for the department on Pinterest that features screen shots taken from the videos of unidentified criminals, hoping to replicate Pottstown’s success.

”I think their success is enough to let us know that we should at least try it.” Domizio said. “We won't know if it works unless we try it.”

On the site for about a month so far, Philadelphia has boards representing individual neighborhoods, allowing residents to follow only the areas where they live and work.

Photos Featured Prominently

Stevens points out that many agencies have posted mug shots on Facebook for several years, but Pinterest’s format may give it an edge. Pinterest keeps photos in a highly visible location, rather than relegating them to a less prominent spot in a Facebook timeline once timelier content is posted.

”It [Pinterest] works a little more cleanly for this,” Stevens explained. “Facebook is awesome because there are a billion people on it. There aren't a billion people on Pinterest yet, but there are a lot. And the people on there are mostly women, who just really want to put bad guys behind bars.”

Whether or not Philly sees a corresponding spike in arrests resulting from Pinterest, it’s clear that their social media strategy will continue to grow and evolve. Police are looking into broadening the reach of their community meetings using Google hangout, as well as establishing a presence on link-sharing portal Reddit and social aggregator site Rebel Mouse.

“Using the social media formula that we've come up with, we've arrested two cop killers and an old lady that was stealing silk flowers, so it kind of runs the gamut,” Domizio said. “People are tired of crime in their neighborhoods and they really do want to help.”

Photo via Pinterest

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 on Twitter.