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