As more law enforcement agencies turn to social media as a communication channel, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has created a center to help agencies make the transition easier.

The IACP, a nonprofit membership organization for police executives, in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs and the U.S. Department of Justice, is using its Center for Social Media to teach law enforcement to use social media to prevent and solve crimes, strengthen community relations and enhance services.

“In 2009, we really started seeing increased number of inquiries, questions, e-mails and phone calls about what social media is and how law enforcement is using it,” said Nancy Kolb, senior program manager for the IACP.

In response, the Center for Social Media was created last year as a free resource to help agencies establish a social media presence by pinpointing specific agency goals and forming a social media policy. “It’s a way for law enforcement to communicate with people where they already are, to reach them in the ways they are communicating,” said Kolb. “In a lot of ways social media humanizes law enforcement,” she said.

A survey conducted last year by the IACP found 80 percent of law enforcement agencies surveyed use social media in some way and 68 percent have a Facebook page. Of the agencies not currently using social media, 62 percent are considering its adoption.

The survey also stated that the majority of agencies reported using social media to help in crime investigations. Other uses include emergency alerts, tips collection and notifying the public of crime problems in the area.

As social media becomes more integrated into agencies’ everyday operations, Kolb said she foresees social media’s use growing to include more community outreach and in-house services. Currently a handful of law enforcement agencies are using the tool for internal podcasts and virtual roll-calls.

Recently the subject gained national attention as Facebook announced it would be an official channel for posting Amber Alerts, the public notification that a child is missing — a move that got much positive feedback from the public.

“Facebook is not just a social network. It’s one of the largest communication platforms in the world, and as such, is a great place to disseminate Amber Alerts,” Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications for Facebook, wrote in an e-mail. “Facebook's mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. We think this initiative helps advance that mission in an important way,” he wrote.

But debate remains on what should or shouldn’t be posted on the social networking sites. The Huntington Beach, Calif., City Council recently shot down a proposal by Councilman Devin Dwyer that would have directed police to post repeat DUI booking photos on Facebook as a way to publicly shame them into changing their behavior.

The Huntington Beach Police Department opposed the proposal and officials said they feared such a move would alienate residents. Other observers claimed that it violated privacy rights and would humiliate family members of the accused.

“Courts are slower than technology,” Kolb said. “It is such an emerging technology, what you can do two months from now might be different from how you can share information today on some of these platforms.

“The next few years are going to be really interesting to see if new laws are established,” she said.

Lauren Katims Nadeau  |  Contributing Writer