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Cops Increasingly Use Social Media to Connect, Crowdsource

Communicating with the public is essential, and there are many ways to do so that allow for citizens to easily, anonymously assist in upholding and enforcing the law.

by Sara E. Wilson / May 5, 2015
In Oakland, Calif., the police department engage with citizens using a platform called Nixle. Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Law enforcement has long used public tip lines and missing persons bulletins to recruit citizens in helping solve crime and increasing public safety. Though the need for police departments to connect with their communities is nothing new, the array of technologies available to do so is growing all the time -- as are the ways in which departments use those technologies.

In fact, 81 percent of law enforcement professionals use sites such as Facebook and Twitter on the job. And 25 percent use it daily.

Much of law enforcement is crowdsourced -- Amber alerts are pushed to smartphones, seeking response from citizens; officers push wanted information and crime tips to users on Facebook and Twitter in the hopes they can help; and some departments create apps to streamline the information sharing.

Take the Johns Creek, Ga., Police Department, which has deployed a tool that allows additional citizen engagement and crowdsourcing.

“Law enforcement is sometimes behind, but we saw the need. We realized that we needed to use social media,” explained Lt. Jon Moses, noting that Johns Creek PD was using Facebook and Twitter, but wanted to add features.

Using a mobile app -- the SunGard Public Sector P2C Converge app, which is branded specifically for Johns Creek PD as JCPD4Me -- the department can more smoothly manage public safety announcements and other social media interactions.

Managing the 'Crowd'

During the high-profile manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013, the FBI asked the public for eyewitness photo and video evidence. The response from the public was so overwhelming that the server infrastructure couldn't handle the massive inflow of data.

This large-scale crowdsourcing and data dilemma inspired a new product: the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department's Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository (LEEDIR). Developed by CitizenGlobal Inc. and Amazon Web Services, LEEDIR pairs an app with cloud storage to help police use citizens’ smartphones as tools to gather and investigate evidence. Since its creation, the repository was used in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2014 to investigate riots in Isla Vista.

Proponents of LEEDIR say the crowdsourcing system gives authorities a secure, central repository for the countless electronic tips that can come in during a crisis. Critics, however, claim that privacy issues come into play with this kind of policing.

What’s more, amateur sleuths can get it wrong, as we saw in the Boston Marathon bombers’ manhunt, in which Reddit users wrongfully identified “suspects” -- and officials don’t want individuals who aren’t suspects subject to scrutiny and harassment on social media. Using LEEDIR may keep such issues at bay.

The JCPD4Me app provides news bulletins, information on arrests and traffic accidents, missing persons info, most wanted, and news and events. It also provides links to other city services, such as the Johns Creek Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube feeds, among many other things. 

Ultimately JCPD4Me is interoperable with social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which means citizens can not only obtain important information directly from the department, but also interact with and assist the department more easily in upholding the law.

In the department's new “Wanted Wednesday” series, for instance, it posts the picture and biographic information of suspected criminals on all platforms connected to JCPD4Me. And moments after posting a photo, name and age of a wanted individual in mid-March, the department began receiving dozens of inquiries from community residents. Within 24 hours, officers made an arrest.

So far, three suspects with warrants for their arrest have been apprehended thanks to the linked P2C Web page and app.

Implementing JCPD4Me was simple, Moses said. They’ve encountered no drawbacks. “We do have to have IT support. But [the system] is not tedious. I was impressed with how easy it is for us to manage it ourselves. It’s easy to add features.” Lt. Moses found the app to be self-explanatory when setting it up. “Without any real training, I was able to add features to the app.”

Presently the Johns Creek PD has two people who manage the JCPD4Me app; Moses is one of them. A team of 10 officers add and monitor the social media side of things, including the Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Support for the JCPD4Me app is growing. The department went with a soft launch for JCPD4Me in January of this year. After a local press release, the app had 500 downloads in one weekend. It has now been downloaded more than 700 times.

“We’re always looking for feedback, good or bad. Help us make this better,” Moses said.

SunGard is talking with other municipalities about the P2C Converge app, according to Kevin Lafeber, the company's vice president and general manager of public safety and justice, adding that there’s growing excitement for enhanced connection between police and sheriff’s departments and the communities they serve

“The community engagement between the police and citizens is going to be enhanced tremendously,” he said.

Another tool cops use for communicating with citizens is Nixle, which lets agencies publish alerts, advisories, community information and traffic news. Citizens register for free and receive credible, neighborhood-level public safety information via text message and email in real time.

The Oakland, Calif., Police Department (OPD) uses the platform to engage with citizens -- an April 17, 2015 post on Oakland PD’s Nixle Community feed informs readers that the department’s Special Victims Section, which is working to put an end to sex trafficking in the city, arrested five individuals for solicitation of prostitution. Since Jan. 1, 2015, OPD has arrested 70 individuals from 27 cities across the state for solicitation of prostitution.

Nixle allows two-way communication as well -- the Tip Watch function allows anonymous tipsters to send information to Oakland PD in three ways (text, phone, Web). Now OPD can issue a passcode to tipsters for two-way, anonymous communication to help gather more information.

On the East Coast, the Peabody, Mass., Police Department has used the My Police Department (MyPD) app by WiredBlue, which lets citizens submit tips and feedback directly to the department, since its creation.

“The best point of MyPD is that it is a smartphone app," said Deputy Chief Marty Cohan. "Everyone has a smartphone — kids, parents, grandparents.”

As of April 2015, 200 agencies in the U.S. and Canada are partnered with MyPD.

MyPD citizen users can use the app to file a report, submit a tip, provide feedback, and commend an officer. And citizen feedback is 95 percent positive.

“They trust the anonymity of the app and provide information on criminal behavior that has become very specific," Cohan said. "It started out as general, but now they almost write a police report when giving tips."

Peter Olson, founder of WiredBlue and a former police detective, said he thinks apps may create even more community engagement. “We think that app users are often more involved in the community and they are valuable to the department because they have taken those extra steps to really connect to the agency.”

Olsen also noted that law enforcement agencies can’t expect to use only one platform to connect with citizens.

“Different people prefer different avenues to connect. Some like certain social media websites, some prefer something like a productivity app, so I thought it was important to develop this app.” Social media followers might like or follow a page but may not see the latest updates (because of low reach now, especially from Facebook pages), or they don't interact with the page after liking it."

For Cohan, technology provides a way for law enforcement and citizens to work together.

“I absolutely believe that communicating with the public via social media is essential," he said. "People will talk to you from the safety of their own environments via technology. I think that most people want to communicate and assist the police, but prefer to do so undetected because there is still a stigma about talking to the police in some cultures, neighborhoods, etc.”

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