The ubiquitous nature of Internet-connected devices in the modern age is putting a world of information and communications capabilities at the fingertips of users across the globe. But alongside these benefits is a frightening array of new challenges confronted by law enforcement agencies in the digital realm.

Lt. June Groehler of the Madison, Wis., Police Department was surprised a few years ago by a colleague who felt ill-equipped to properly monitor his child’s online activity. Bringing her technology background to bear, Groehler recruited several co-workers and formed a technology committee. This group of officers and detectives began developing training materials to help educate the public about cybersafety. They created presentations and began meeting with local parent teacher organizations and youth groups to spread the word about how to stay safe online. 

Groehler told Government Technology that when the committee first formed in 2009, a lot of the advice given by law enforcement officials to parents was simply to keep kids away from technology. But she and others recognized that banning kids’ use of social media sites and getting kids cellphones without data plans to restrict texting and Internet access wasn’t necessarily the answer. They felt that children would find a way to access the latest technology anyway, so they pursued a different strategy: making sure kids have the tools and information to use technology safely.

"As we continue to move into the multifaceted and ever-evolving digital age, it's become clear that the public and law enforcement must evolve with it."

As is the case in so many communities across the country, officials in Madison were confronting issues like cyberbullying, sexting and sharing personal information that could leave young residents vulnerable to online predators. Groehler described one case in which a teenaged participant in a popular online gaming site was stalked by an adult from out of state who showed up at the child’s home brandishing a weapon. 

The Madison Cyber Safety Committee trains community groups on how to use Facebook settings to protect their privacy, and what kind of information is appropriate to share over text messages and the Internet. To broaden the reach of the training, the group developed DVDs containing its presentations as well as personal stories of people impacted by unsafe digital practices.

A Fund for Women, a grass-roots community organization in Madison, is helping to fund the production and duplication of the Cyber Safety Committee’s most recent DVD. Executive Director Jan Gietzel calls the Madison P.D.’s program “phenomenal,” adding that the community outreach is having an impact by preventing tragedies related to cyberbullying.

Gietzel’s group took up cybersafety as a signature issue a couple of years ago and now works in partnership with the Madison P.D. “They are giving out great information, and they are probably as astute about it as anyone we’ve seen,” Gietzel explained.

The police department also conducts “Cyber Detective” camps during the summer as a part of the community education effort. Middle and high school students are sworn in as cyber-detectives, working on a fictitious online bullying case, and learning about the potential real-life consequences of such activities. 

Law enforcement agencies across the state and even across the country have requested training and copies of the presentation materials, and the Madison P.D. is happy to share. Madison’s efforts were recently recognized by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard with a 2012 Bright Idea award.

“We’ll never be able to erase the impact and the direction of technology, nor would we want to,” Groehler explained, “but I think we all have a responsibility to ensure that users can safely navigate their way. That's why we believe so strongly in community and educational outreach.”

The work of the Madison P.D.’s Technology Committee will soon get its own section under Special Units on the agency’s website, where visitors can access some of the presentation materials, including the latest DVD.

“I truly believe that an informed public is a safer public, and together we can make it reality,” Groehler said.

According to Groehler, the Madison Police Department has initiated conversations with technology companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook to engage them more directly in this cooperative effort to encourage digital safety.

For more information watch this video from the Madison Police Department:

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.