Owens said the feedback has been rather positive. “People like that we are communicating with them, and we’re telling our stories.”

To reduce incoming traffic, the department only allows the public to comment on DPS posts. “So a random person wasn’t posting on our wall without us knowing,” Owens said. Comments appear as soon as they are posted, and Owens keeps track of what’s appearing. She utilizes a Facebook setting that emails her when someone comments on a post, picture, album or video.

Owens handles social media pages for the Minnesota State Patrol, DPS, Homeland Security and Emergency Management division, and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The State Fire Marshal’s office handles its own page.

The DPS also uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to publicize events like the department’s “Maroon Day” patrols. Maroon Days — named after the State Patrol colors of maroon and gold — are high-traffic days where every state trooper is on the road enforcing Minnesota laws. To prepare, said Owens, “We did a big social media push. I went on a ride-along with our lieutenant and produced a video on YouTube. And then on the actual Maroon Day, the State Patrol tweeted with hashtag #MSPmaroonday, how many people they had pulled over for things like seat-belt violations, [driving while intoxicated], etc., and how many crashes.”

Seattle uses Twitter effectively too. The city created a Twitter feed called “Get Your Car Back” where 911 center staff tweet the license plate number, color, year, make and model of stolen cars. “We want car thieves to be on notice that if they steal a car, it will go out to the patrol folks and also out to the general public,” Whitcomb said. “If someone gets home, sees an unfamiliar car on their street, they can check the feed to see if it was stolen. We’ve had a couple of recoveries where people did check and found a stolen car.”

The city also updated the traditional police ride-along for the social media age. A “tweet-along” — where members of the public spend time with officers and tweet in real time about their experiences — helps residents better understand what police officers are doing and how they protect the public.

Owens said agencies of all sizes need to have a presence on social media. “If Facebook was a country, it would have the third largest population,” she said. “But once you post something, it’s out there — even if you delete it. So think before you post. And you don’t have to be a grammarian — write like you talk.”

In addition to providing an outlet to communicate with the public, social media can help agencies interact with the news media. Owens said the department tweets when the lieutenant is available to comment on a crime or case, which streamlines the public information officer’s job.

The Old and the New

Embracing social media does not negate traditional police work. Ultimately cops still deal with human beings and law enforcement remains a one-to-one business. But social media is becoming an important tool for officers and public safety agencies.

“We’re always looking at technology and where we can best utilize it. We’re bringing people into the workforce as well who have that aptitude,” said Edwards. “We had Polaroids, then we had 35 mm film for decades. Now we’re moving through these different platforms far more quickly. Some of it is our own demand. We’re pushing vendors and engineers and the rest to get us these tools, because we see the utility and the benefit for them; in some cases, [we’re] even designing them ourselves.”

For instance, as more people migrate to mobile devices and tablets, it will be important for cities to have applications that run on those platforms, Schrier said. While Seattle’s immigrant communities have fewer home computers, most have mobile devices and smartphones, so applications and websites should be able to interact with people via those platforms.

As the use of social networks evolves, it’s vital for law enforcement agencies to watch their peers and share their experiences.

“We’re constantly looking at what other people are doing and how they’re doing it. There’s a lot of communication going on between agencies now, and the willingness to share has increased dramatically,” Edwards said. “We all realize that we may have come up with a really good idea, and the only way others can get it is if we share it with them. And if we tried stuff that didn’t work, we can help others avoid the same pitfalls.”

Wayne Hanson  | 

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.