It’s been said that social media “amplifies” whatever an organization’s values are. If a company is all about pushy sales, so will be its social efforts. If it seeks long-term customer loyalty based on relationships, its social efforts will reflect that too.
Likewise among police departments. An agency that respects its citizens enough to communicate with them and make them partners in crime-solving will show that online. An agency that has no respect for citizens… well, it might have Twitter and Facebook pages, but it either won’t use them regularly, or won’t use them appropriately.
That’s why it’s so important that the Huntington Beach (Calif.) Police Department resisted city council member Devin Dwyer’s plan to use the department’s Facebook page to “shame” drivers arrested for DWI. An Associated Press article noted:
Police spokesman Lt. Russell Reinhart said that since launching its Facebook page in November, officers have found it to be a valuable way of getting information to the public and soliciting tips on tough cases.
A couple of DUI suspect mug shots have been posted, but they were from egregious cases where police thought the public could be at immediate risk from the suspect. Reinhart fears Facebook fans could be turned off by the routine public shaming of all repeat DUI offenders.
This is not just a gut sense on his part, but rather one based on page analytics: “Our social media presence is just a few months old and we have had a steady growth of fans and followers,” he told me. “The administrative side of Facebook shows the number of views and impressions is growing steadily as well. The feedback is all positive from our community. Using those tools as a measurement, we are doing the right thing for the right reason.”
Different definitions of “public safety”
This debate shows how critical it is for goals and strategy to come before the tactics. If you jump on social media without knowing what you want your public to take away from it – and then, what you want them to do with the information – it will be harder to articulate why a politician’s demand “feels wrong,” and easier to cave to that demand.
This is especially true when the demand is grounded in a different perspective on public safety. As it turned out in a council debate, the issues on both sides are complex. Among the council members’ reasons for opposition:
- Posting pictures, even of habitual offenders, could shame families as well as offenders and increase the risk for bullying or cyberbullying of kids who have tried to hide the family secret.
- Huntington Beach, having marketed itself as a fun tourist destination, should not hurt that image by appearing to be a “Footloose” kind of town.
- Conversely, the additional publicity could hurt the city’s image by showing it has a DUI problem.
On the other hand, Dwyer himself pointed out that he had received many letters of support from families with alcoholics, who told him that shaming could be another tool in a family’s – and a community’s – intervention toolbox. He also felt that the shaming could be part of the agency’s own arsenal, together with existing saturation patrols, training for restaurant/bar owners and servers, and other prevention methods.
Social presence starts with values
HBPD was able to disagree because it had already decided on how to use its Facebook page. “We never disagreed on the public safety issue of those individuals on the road who are DUI,” Reinhart says. However, “Shaming is a form of punishment and law enforcement’s role in society is not to hand out punishment.” Posting all DUIs, or even all habitual offenders, could dilute the page’s overall focus and distract fans from paying attention to public safety as a whole.
Indeed, the Associated Press article went on to note other agencies that have tried – and then rescinded – similar policies. Meanwhile, the council elected (largely, Reinhart says, to end the media “hype” around the issue) to allow the department to continue to use its discretion with its Facebook postings.
Reinhart says of this experience, “For other agencies using or considering social media my recommendation would be to anticipate political pressures on how it should be used and be prepared to support and defend your position. This is no different than the debate on how we dedicate and use all the resources we have in law enforcement.”
At the same time, as Reinhart says, “Social media gives law enforcement the opportunity to help the community we police know the realities, both strengths and weaknesses, of our role in society.” This means that police departments must tread carefully when communicating those realities. People can misconstrue intent via social channels just as traditional media have in the past.
Again, it comes back to values. Transmit those through social and traditional media, and people (including local politicians) will know what you and your agency stand for – for better or worse.