What budget cuts mean to online public safety

budget cuts police social media

How are budget cuts affecting your social strategy?

In April, the Wall Street Journal highlighted law enforcement budget cuts and what they meant for public safety:

Since January, Tulsa has laid off 89 police officers, 11% of its force. That has pushed the city to the forefront of a national movement, spurred by hard times, to revamp long-held policing strategies.

In the crosshairs: community-policing initiatives created over the past two decades, such as having officers work in troubled schools, attend neighborhood-watch meetings and help small-business owners address nuisance crimes like graffiti.

Other cuts listed include investigation, the traffic unit, undercover work, and surveillance.

In the past, I’ve thought social media could be the kind of force-multiplying technology that could help with community outreach where officers on a beat could not. Except now, I’m not so sure. You see, Tulsa has a good social media presence – or did. Now, its efforts are catch as catch can.

Struggling to reach the online community

I talked to Tulsa PIO Jason Willingham about all these issues: why some of his agency’s social media efforts are thriving, and others not; how he and his partner, down from a 3-person staff to 2, are managing their time; and what their tradeoffs are.

“We used to blog a lot, but now it’s fallen by the wayside,” says Willingham. Likewise the podcast, which was once maintained by a civilian volunteer together with an officer. The officer was laid off, and the civilian moved away. “We didn’t have the expertise to podcast well, and the community that’s into podcasting is small,” Willingham explains.

Thus the agency has “evolved” to microblogging: primarily, via Nixle, which is fed to Twitter. (Willingham says the agency’s Facebook page was originally intended for recruiting, so while it is maintained, it’s not a focus.) In Nixle, he and his partner have found “one of the easiest and most effective tools” for community outreach.

That’s because of the diversity of media to which Nixle publishes, including email and SMS. Email especially makes for popular forwards, says Willingham.

That’s far less work for Willingham, who divides his time among his duties as PIO, Crime Stoppers coordinator, and bomb squad member; and his partner, who is a training sergeant. Even so, Willingham says, he can do 3-5 interviews with media per day, and often finds himself coming to work on furlough days and days off.

“It’s hard to manage,” he says. “I feel a lot of guilt over all the things I could be doing, that I’m not.” For instance, every other week he makes rounds at the TV stations in order to talk about the department’s most wanted. Couldn’t social media make this easier?

No. First, any self-produced videos would be lower resolution, not professional quality enough for news stations to use, or the department to feel comfortable with. Second, it’s not the video clips that take the time – it’s finding the right suspects to broadcast during those 45 seconds. However, says Willingham, “We get a lot of tips, and we do find people, so we think the time spent is worth it.”

Civilians, mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, might help, but Willingham thinks these hires are another few years off. As for more widespread officer use, he agrees that this might help – TPD’s open media relations policy allows any officer to talk to media at any time – but again, two issues are in play:

First, the officers are simply too busy. Although the chief wants to return from a “sector” patrol system to a more community-friendly “beat” system, officers may get to know residents and business owners better, but that doesn’t mean they’d have the time to talk with them online.

Social strategy begins on the street

Willingham admits officer morale is low, which affects their ability to be more proactive and not simply call-hop. The reinstitution of the beat system may help, but coming to know the same “problem” residents may not.

Even so, TPD has a chance to lay the groundwork for a future, stronger social presence. Over time, they won’t just come to know people; they’ll come to know problems, resources, geography; of the people, they’ll learn who the community influencers are, both vocal and not.

Of such knowledge are problem-solving relationships built. This will not be easy – call-hopping does not lend itself to relationship-building, and some community members already don’t believe their officers are doing their best. But it’s not impossible, especially given the agency’s openness to social tools.

Social media does require a time commitment, and police do need to be online, at least in some capacity. Tulsa police have the benefit of having already tested many of the tools. They have what is working for their needs and current resources, so that when they are ready to pick it back up, they should be able to do so easily enough.

Meanwhile, they might introduce official social communication slowly, perhaps with an internal social program; or in the community, start with one small problem (say, the drag racing mentioned in the article), and build out from there.

Until then, though, Willingham says he continues to monitor local blogs and other mentions of Tulsa PD, as well as website statistics. “While its hard to put a percentage on time spent, I can say we use the numbers to determine where and what people want to know,” he says.

This has already had one result: a website redesign planned to launch in mid-summer. “We hope that this will simplify the content that we put out and make things a little more user friendly,” he adds. Will that include a blog? Possibly – but:

“Again [we] are concerned with not being able to provide a quality product 100% of the time. We have gone down the road of half hearted projects and that sends the wrong message before the reader or viewer even looks at the content. Hopefully, we can zero in on what works for our staff as well as what our consumers want so we can provide a quality product that is feasible for our department.”

Is your agency hurting for personnel? How is this affecting your social efforts or interest?

Image: SqueakyMarmot via Flickr

8 thoughts on “What budget cuts mean to online public safety

  1. Ari Herzog

    That Tulsa blog is hardly a “blog” and more of a series of media articles. If that’s what was spent creating, no wonder they’re worn out. I spy few comments, too. Were they running analytics to determine people were reading the blog?

    I can ask the same for Twitter and Facebook and Flickr and everything else.

    When you’re dealing with taxpayer dollars, let alone limited staff and time, why have multiple social media and not singling on one or two? It’s one thing for a business to make a decision to launch an online campaign, but a government entity should go where its users are by ASKING its users.
    .-= Ari Herzog´s last blog ..Should City Lighting Be Reduced By 30 Percent? =-.

  2. Christa Miller Post author

    Yeah, but remember when they first started to blog and podcast, 2007-ish… at that time, no one was talking about social media in LE, much less applying business lessons such as measurement and testing. The lesson TPD appears to have learned from its experimentation is, blogging and podcasting don’t work for their community, but they have had good response to Nixle/Twitter and that’s what they’re focusing on right now with their limited resources.

    My point in writing this was simply to point out that for an agency that doesn’t have staff to test different blog formats or podcast ideas, to see what people respond to best, focusing social efforts in one spot is at least a start. We can’t assume that social will be a “force multiplier” when the force itself is functioning on basic police work, unable to apply community policing principles in real life much less online.

    Also, I’m not sure that users/citizens will always know what they want from a police department. They’re as likely as not to say “Sure, sounds good” when asked about a blog or Twitter presence, if only because they’d first want to see how that particular tool would be utilized. I think it’s just as reasonable for an agency to experiment first with tools they’re most comfortable with, most likely to use, before deciding whether to add another or just move on.

    Most of all I wanted to show that you don’t have to aim for an entire branding/communication program incorporating a full spectrum of social media presence. It’s easy to look at programs like Boca VIPER and think that’s the way it has to be to be effective. But as you point out, one single effort can work, and can pave the way toward future efforts — rather than administrators throwing up their hands and saying “can’t be done” when they haven’t even tried.

  3. Tom Le Veque

    You are safe in saying that many agencies are being hit with budget cuts and being asked to do more with less. No matter the size or area, to one degree or another it impacts us all.

    Tulsa has over 1200 fans on their Facebook page. Perhaps ditching the in person media snips is a good thing when it comes to the “wanted” topic. The time commitment was probably significant in preparation for and presence at a live media event. Perhaps they can enhance their current use of Facebook by adding a “wanted” post and photo album. This reaches out to not only their 1200 fans but gives the local media a resource to draw from as well. Nixle is also a tool that can be used to disseminate similar “want” info along with photos. While this all takes time, I feel that it is time well spent.

    Christa, you make an excellent point in that this whole Law Enforcement/Social Media concept is very new. We learn every day how to better communicate and interact with our communities. It takes time to build that relationship and trust. My take from Ari is the concept of listening and learning. From discussions like this one on your website, you help provide that opportunity for LE.
    .-= Tom Le Veque´s last blog ..Activity Highlights for May 16-22, 2010 =-.

  4. Christa Miller Post author

    Hey Tom, that’s a great point about saving hours by going low-tech — using images rather than video. Do you think it would take less time, and ultimately be as potent as video… would TPD sacrifice something by replacing Ofc. Willingham’s face and voice with wider spread and more dedicated SM presence?

    The other thing which complicates matters is that people’s tastes change… what worked at one time may not in even a year’s time, while something no one wanted last year might be very important to the collective this year. So at that point the question is: with limited resources, how much time can/should be devoted to asking and adapting?

  5. Tom Le Veque

    Certainly the presence on video has an impact but I think that as long as the crime info and wants are available to their community, the message can be delivered effectively and at a much lower time commitment.

    Your last thought on the changing landscape is where the time/money strapped agency will suffer. If we don’t have the resources to be involved and continuously evaluate our role and influence via SM, it is quite possible that the old wheels will simply be “spinning” and not impacting our community like we intend.
    .-= Tom Le Veque´s last blog ..Memorial Day 2010 =-.

  6. Pingback: What do local bloggers mean to you? | Cops 2.0

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