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Social Media and Crime Prevention

Harnessing the Power of Technology

Creative cybermedia tools unite law enforcement and the community in the fight against crime.

For better or worse, the Internet has become an integral part of life for most Americans. On the negative side, interconnectivity has spawned new breeds of crime, such as cyber stalking and phishing, causing new headaches for law enforcement, who must remain a step ahead of today’s tech-savvy criminals. On the other hand, the increasing sophistication and improved integration of social media have also created unparalleled opportunities for law enforcement agencies to connect with their communities in innovative new ways.

A September 2010 International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) survey revealed that 81 percent of law enforcement agencies interviewed now use social media. However, while 62 percent report using tools such as Facebook to aid in criminal investigations, fewer than half acknowledge using social media for crime prevention. Many experts believe the social media sphere holds enormous potential for law enforcement crime prevention units and groups such as Neighborhood Watch. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, “… [W]ith law enforcement personnel being strained by budget cuts and the struggling economy keeping us at home more often, embracing online networks as prevention tools may help us form a deeper connection with our neighbors and local law enforcement while helping to prevent crime.”

Social Media: All the News That’s Fit to... Upload!

Just what constitutes “social media”? Wikipedia defines the term as “Media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques.” More simply, “Social media are primarily Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings” (Creative Media Farm). A few—but by no means all—of the available formats include online videos, blogs, and social networking sites. Designed as a primer, this article introduces some of the most popular platforms and reviews current and potential uses in crime prevention.

Back in the good old days, when family time meant an evening spent together watching Happy Days or Dallas, we received emergency news alerts via the local and national television networks. Nowadays, portable electronic devices such as smart phones, DVD players, and laptops are fragmenting a formerly cohesive audience, requiring crime prevention organizations to adopt multi-targeted approaches in order to reach individual segments of the community. “Whenever a group holds a Neighborhood Watch meeting, we send an officer. People are on social media now, so we have to have a presence there,” explained Mark Economou, public information officer for the Boca Raton Police Services Department. “The bottom line is, when you’re on the computer late at night checking your Facebook page, you’re not going to visit the police department’s website. We put information in front of your face so that you don’t have to go looking for it.”

According to the aforementioned IACP media survey, social networking is the most popular social media platform used within the law enforcement community, with nearly 67 percent of responding agencies stating that they currently have a Facebook page. This networking Goliath (and, to a lesser extent, its cousin MySpace) is especially popular with crime prevention units, which can easily—and for no setup cost—create a page where “fans” can read the latest news, post comments, and participate in discussion forums. With 500 million active users, Facebook represents a supersized slice of the social media pie, but it is by no means alone. Following are some other major social media platforms that are gaining ground within the law enforcement and crime prevention community.

Weblogs, or “blogs,” such as the Google-owned Blogger/BlogSpot, allow users to publish and share text and multimedia files online. Indexing and key word search functions enable readers to retrieve information easily, making this an attractive medium for detailed and timely communications. Arranged chronologically, blogs are an ideal venue for posting upcoming event announcements and seasonal crime prevention and safety information. Last summer, for example, the Boston Police Department posted propane gas and charcoal grill barbecue safety tips on its blog.

Microblogs adhere to the “less is more” principle, allowing users to publish brief (typically up to 140 characters) status updates. The Internet is home to dozens of microblogging sites, including Nixle, Tumblr, and Google Buzz, but Twitter currently boasts the most subscribers—175 million as of September 14, 2010. Because Twitter posts, known as “tweets,” convey a sense of urgency, they are an effective way to rapidly disseminate time-sensitive crime prevention news and alerts, as the National Crime Prevention Council illustrates: “If we sign up to our watch group’s designated social media site, we can give our neighbors instant access to information that may make a difference between being victimized and escaping unscathed. One tweet to your neighbors about a strange person peering into a neighbor’s house in the area... about an attempted child abduction can instantly put hundreds of your neighbors on alert and get them all working together to help law enforcement apprehend the suspects.”

Multimedia sharing websites such as Flickr, PhotoBucket, and YouTube let users store, share, and create audiovisual files and photographs. A similar audiovisual tool, the podcast, is designed to be released in segments, which are stored chronologically on a website server. Users can download these segments directly or stream them online. It’s an old cliché, but for visual learners, a picture really does paint a thousand words. Audiovisual media let law enforcement agencies demonstrate crime prevention and safety techniques in a format that Neighborhood Watch members can easily replay and share with others in their community. For example, in Lathrup Village, Michigan, the police department produced the following 10-minute video to explain the steps for establishing a Neighborhood Watch (www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHpDYiQq7z8). A segment featuring professional burglars helps illustrate how quickly and easily a home break-in can occur. The police department requires that groups wishing to start a Watch view the video before signage will be placed in their neighborhood. In Boca Raton, the Police Services Department has shot a series of seasonal videos on topics ranging from boating safety (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-w9YRZ55EU) to tips for remaining safe while holiday shopping (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Igt3TBB7ooc).

Thanks to advances in technology, video production doesn’t require a Spielberg-size budget. Using only a camera, a laptop, and video editing software, the average crime prevention unit can create a polished and professional product. Furthermore, when it comes to selecting a narrator or spokesperson, subject area expertise and public speaking ability may substitute for extensive media experience. “You don’t need to have a big staff or a public information officer, explained Economou. “[Your spokesperson] could even be a civilian in records or a deputy in crime analysis.”

Innovation and Integration

As the social media market matures, organizations are beginning to focus less on simply establishing an online presence and more on developing comprehensive integration strategies. For instance, Facebook and MySpace users now can embed YouTube videos into their profile pages. A Twitter application lets account holders find Facebook friends who tweet as well as post tweets to their own Facebook fan or profile page. A useful social media tool, the RSS feed, works in conjunction with other social media platforms to facilitate integration. Rather than repeatedly visiting an agency’s blog, Facebook or Twitter page, or website, subscribers to a site’s RSS feed can elect to have new content automatically forwarded to them electronically.

Integration is a rapidly evolving, multifaceted science that can be uniquely tailored to meet the needs of the individuals and organizations that use social media. “We’re currently looking at ways to integrate our daily blotter into the newsfeed on our Facebook page,” Economou noted. “We’re also trying to set up a notification system for when someone asks a question on our Facebook page after hours and on weekends so that we can reply in a timely manner.”

Smart phones also play an increasingly important role in social media integration. By downloading special applications, iPhone users can be notified when they receive a Facebook message or tweet, and bloggers can create new entries on their Blackberry. The Boca Raton Police Crime Prevention Unit recently teamed up with retailers at a popular local mall to reach on-the-go holiday shoppers using smart phone technology. “We’re constantly trying to get safety messages out, especially in areas where there is a lot of petty theft,” Economou said. “At Christmas time, many mall shoppers are oblivious to their surroundings. We want to remind them to not leave packages inside their cars and to not talk on their phone while walking through the parking lot.” The police department designed and displayed throughout the local mall “Happy Holiday” posters (without identifying the source) that invited readers to scan a QR (quick response) barcode. “We decided to try out this new technology during the holiday season,” Economou explained. “Smart phone users who scan the posters receive a holiday shopping safety reminder, courtesy of the police department, plus a discount coupon from a participating retailer.” The Be Safe and Save campaign was recently featured on CBS News and can be viewed here (www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHqWB3EGsyo&feature=related).

IACP Launches New Social Media Resource

The social media universe is expanding at a dizzying pace, making it difficult to keep current on the latest developments. Last October, in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, the IACP launched the Center for Social Media, a web-based learinghouse designed to “build the capacity of law enforcement to use social media to prevent and solve crimes, strengthen police-community relations, and enhance services.”

The comprehensive website (www.iacpsocialmedia.org) features a step-by-step guide that provides an overview of social media, information on strategy and policy development, as well as tips and tutorials for getting started. The Technologies section lists the major social media platforms with hyperlinks to detailed information and case studies from actual law enforcement agencies. A growing directory includes drop-down boxes from which users can search for agencies that use social media by country, state, agency type and size, and media platform.

The website’s blog, The Social Media Beat, features thought-provoking columns written by law enforcement communications experts. Past topics have ranged from tips for creating a Twitter bio to the importance of developing a consistent voice across social media platforms.

As social media use in the workplace increases, so does the need for established policy. The IACP has drafted a model policy to help law enforcement agencies develop procedures and guidelines for official departmental use (www.iacpsocialmedia.org/portals/1/documents/social%20media%20policy.pdf).

According to Nancy Kolb, IACP senior program manager, the project began in response to member inquiries and growing interest in the field of social media. “We’ve held several workshops on social media at recent conferences, and they’ve been standing room only.” Although the website launched only two months ago, feedback from the law enforcement community has been exceedingly positive.

In the News

Following is a sampling of media reports that focus on the use of social media in crime prevention.