Author Archives: Scott White

Police Department Vendor Decisions

As I was sitting at my desk this morning, struggling with some issues and a vendor I had a thought.  This is always dangerous territory for me.

Can social media/networking benefit government agencies, specifically police departments in the decision making process of selecting a vendor for a particular solution?

I believe the answer is a resounding yes.  But of course, it has it’s limitations.  Right now for instance, the number of police departments leveraging social media is limited.  Those limitations transfer directly to the effectiveness of this thought process.

When an agency publishes a request for proposal and describes their needs, many companies jump at the chance to provide the solution.  Sometimes, even stepping outside their area of expertise to gain the contract.

These same companies will gladly offer “references” for their benefit.  These may not be a good cross representation of the company.

Were an agency to go out over a social media outlet and request feedback about a company, they may get a better representation of that company and the kinds of service they provide.

I recently experienced this.  I spoke with my counterpart at another police agency and asked which solution provider he was using for a particular application, and why he chose them.  Granted it wasn’t through social media but the application is the same.

He provided an excellent sales pitch for the company, provided a wealth of information about the company, it’s services and some very positive feedback about the product.

I was able to take this information, couple it with quotes and other documents and secure funding for my project.  The company ended up with a new client and hopefully, we end up with a solution that makes my users happy.

At the end of the day, a couple of things were noted.

1.  They vendor didn’t have to sell much.  It was pretty much “sold” when I called them.

2.  My end users have a friendly user base in a neighboring city, whom they communicate with often anyway.

3.  A lot of leg work was saved by talking to USERS vice sales people.

4.  We as an agency are gladly paying the fees for this service and solution since we know, from our peers that it is valuable and worth the money.

All in all it’s a win/win situation for everyone concerned.

Social Media vs Employer

Wow!  Imagine my surprise when I popped open my browser window to find this:

Cop catches heat for profane blog entries

Although Newport News doesn’t regulate the behavior of off-duty employees or what they write, individuals shouldn’t make reckless or malicious statements against city employees, according to the city’s existing policy. In addition, any conduct by police officers that’s prejudicial to the interests, reputation or operations of the city “are subject to disciplinary action,” under the city’s policies.

Since I am a sworn police officer who blogs on several different levels, you can imagine that it caught my attention immediately.

As I read the article I began to understand why this was newsworthy.  And the more I read the more concerned I became.  But then I realized that what is depicted in the article is only one side.  So I won’t pass judgment on the officer.

A little background

I blog.  I blog about politics.  I blog about local, national and international news.  I also blog about public safety agencies and Web 2.0.  I blog cop stories, war stories if you will.  And in all those niches, I also blog my opinion.  In those instances, I blog off duty, from my home using my home computer.  Lastly, I blog professionally as a police officer for my agency.  This is done on duty and with agency owned assets.

A little history

In August of 2007, I was involved in a local Virginia blogging controversy that gained some amount of old media attention, sparked conversations with lawyers and basically got really ugly.

I was accused of publishing the home address of a political operative on my blog.  He called my Chief of Police and filed a complaint, stating that I was harassing him on the internet and placing him and his family in danger.

The Chief of Police called me to his office to discuss this.  On the way to his office, I called my attorney and gave him a heads up and retained him just in case.

Once in the Chief’s office, he said, “I’ve received a complaint about your blog.”  And I told him the name of the complainant.  He nodded.  The Chief then played the audio recording of the complaint for me so I knew exactly what was said and then asked me if I could explain what was going on.

The first thing I did was show the Chief the blog post in question.  I showed him that the “published address” that was the central point of the complaint was in fact a screen capture of another web site and was a graphic, not a text publishing of the persons home address.  The key point on this is that the graphic was named something rather innocuous like “screetshot001.jpg” and provided absolutely NO search engine information.

I then took the Chief to the website where I retrieved the screen shot and showed him the page with the address on it.  In TEXT so it WAS able to be crawled by search engines.  On that website, the complainant is listed as a principle and while I don’t know for sure, may have been the web designer who manufactured the site.

I also showed the Chief that I have a disclosure on my blog indicating I was a police officer in a local jurisdiction and that this blog was private, maintained with personal funds and computers and was in no way connected to my agency or my city.  I did NOT identify which agency I was employed by.

Lastly, I showed the Chief my server logs, which indicated what time I placed the post online, and the IP from which I posted it.  It was something like 10:30PM (I work 8AM-5PM), from my home IP address.  He was satisfied that the complaint was unfounded and called the complainant back in my presence.

The blog post in question simply brought to light the position of the complainant and linked him, factually, with a nefarious action that he perpetrated.  All based in fact.  It did not attack the person personally or professionally, just identified his position and act in one place.

When the Chief explained to the complainant that the bottom line was a 1st Amendment concern and did not in any way concern or affect the agency, the complainant became upset and started screaming on the phone.  The Chief politely terminated the telephone call.

I had covered all my bases and carefully, made sure I was doing “things” by the book, and ethically.  It paid off.  Cost me $400 for the attorney but worth it for peace of mind.

Finally, I do not live in the city I work in.  I have no say, politically in the happenings of that city.  I don’t vote there, so who the city elects and puts in office is not my place to critique.  It concerns me but it’s not my place to say anything.    My primary blog is a political blog, but I just don’t blog about the city I work for.  It’s easy, and smart that way.

In the article quoted above, it lists some city rules that all employees must abide by.  If not codified in city code, it’s at least mandated by policy.  The city I work for has similar policies in place.

The meat of the article…

As police officers we ARE held to a different standard.  I’ll pose an example in the form of a question.  When was the last time you heard about an off duty  (insert any company) employee getting arrested from DUI?

You probably haven’t.  Just John Doe (my apologies to Mr. Doe) was arrested for DUI.

However, if it is a police officer, you would find that information on the front page of the newspaper:  Off Duty (INSERT CITY HERE) Police Officer Arrested for DUI.

We are forever associated with our agencies.  Even after we leave the agency.  The headline would then read:  Former (INSERT CITY HERE) Police Officer Arrested for DUI.  Even if we work for Office Max now.

Because we are held to a different standard, it requires us to act differently than the everyday citizen.  Because no matter what, we are forever and always associated with that title and agency.

In the case of the article cited above.  Was the officer wrong?  Is the city squelching his 1st Amendment rights?  Does the city have the right to curtail off duty speech?

I don’t know.  He made choices I would not have made.  But that doesn’t make him wrong.  I will leave that to the courts to decide if needed.  My position is classical.  Don’t bite the hand that feeds you; and if you are going to be critical, do it professionally and tactfully.  Not in a breathless, sophomoric, possibly beer inspired rant.

The final discussion point is policy.  Should entities, public or otherwise enact policy that would dictate the use of social media.

One school of thought is this, enact policy now to cover it or be faced with a complete ban later.  Another is, if the city has a policy similar to Newport News, that it is sufficient to cover behavior when using social media.

I don’t think that a city, or any entity can ban the use of social media when not at work, but I would not want to be the “test case” that has to fight it if it comes to that.  Smart use of social media is required.  Not so smart use should be dealt with appropriately.

Social Media vs Employer vs your rights

Wow!  Imagine my surprise when I popped open my browser window to find this:

Cop catches heat for profane blog entries

Although Newport News doesn’t regulate the behavior of off-duty employees or what they write, individuals shouldn’t make reckless or malicious statements against city employees, according to the city’s existing policy. In addition, any conduct by police officers that’s prejudicial to the interests, reputation or operations of the city “are subject to disciplinary action,” under the city’s policies.  -=SOURCE=-

Since I am a sworn police officer who blogs on several different levels, you can imagine that it caught my attention immediately.

As I read the article I began to understand why this was newsworthy.  And the more I read the more concerned I became.  But then I realized that what is depicted in the article is only one side.  So I won’t pass judgment on the officer.

A little background

I blog.  I blog about politics.  I blog about local, national and international news.  I also blog about public safety agencies and Web 2.0.  I blog cop stories, war stories if you will.  And in all those niches, I also blog my opinion.  In those instances, I blog off duty, from my home using my home computer.  Lastly, I blog professionally as a police officer for my agency.  This is done on duty and with agency owned assets.

A little history

In August of 2007, I was involved in a local Virginia blogging controversy that gained some amount of old media attention, sparked conversations with lawyers and basically got really ugly.

I was accused of publishing the home address of a political operative on my blog.  He called my Chief of Police and filed a complaint, stating that I was harassing him on the internet and placing him and his family in danger.

The Chief of Police called me to his office to discuss this.  On the way to his office, I called my attorney and gave him a heads up and retained him just in case.

Once in the Chief’s office, he said, “I’ve received a complaint about your blog.”  And I told him the name of the complainant.  He nodded.  The Chief then played the audio recording of the complaint for me so I knew exactly what was said and then asked me if I could explain what was going on.

The first thing I did was show the Chief the blog post in question.  I showed him that the “published address” that was the central point of the complaint was in fact a screen capture of another web site and was a graphic, not a text publishing of the persons home address.  The key point on this is that the graphic was named something rather innocuous like “screetshot001.jpg” and provided absolutely NO search engine information.

I then took the Chief to the website where I retrieved the screen shot and showed him the page with the address on it.  In TEXT so it WAS able to be crawled by search engines.  On that website, the complainant is listed as a principle and while I don’t know for sure, may have been the web designer who manufactured the site.

I also showed the Chief that I have a disclosure on my blog indicating I was a police officer in a local jurisdiction and that this blog was private, maintained with personal funds and computers and was in no way connected to my agency or my city.  I did NOT identify which agency I was employed by.

Lastly, I showed the Chief my server logs, which indicated what time I placed the post online, and the IP from which I posted it.  It was something like 10:30PM (I work 8AM-5PM), from my home IP address.  He was satisfied that the complaint was unfounded and called the complainant back in my presence.

The blog post in question simply brought to light the position of the complainant and linked him, factually, with a nefarious action that he perpetrated.  All based in fact.  It did not attack the person personally or professionally, just identified his position and act in one place.

When the Chief explained to the complainant that the bottom line was a 1st Amendment concern and did not in any way concern or affect the agency, the complainant became upset and started screaming on the phone.  The Chief politely terminated the telephone call.

I had covered all my bases and carefully, made sure I was doing “things” by the book, and ethically.  It paid off.  Cost me $400 for the attorney but worth it for peace of mind.

Finally, I do not live in the city I work in.  I have no say, politically in the happenings of that city.  I don’t vote there, so who the city elects and puts in office is not my place to critique.  It concerns me but it’s not my place to say anything.    My primary blog is a political blog, but I just don’t blog about the city I work for.  It’s easy, and smart that way.

In the article quoted above, it lists some city rules that all employees must abide by.  If not codified in city code, it’s at least mandated by policy.  The city I work for has similar policies in place.

The meat of the article…

As police officers we ARE held to a different standard.  I’ll pose an example in the form of a question.  When was the last time you heard about an off duty Office Max (insert any company) employee getting arrested from DUI?

You probably haven’t.  Just John Doe (my apologies to Mr. Doe) was arrested for DUI.

However, if it is a police officer, you would find that information on the front page of the newspaper:  Off Duty (INSERT CITY HERE) Police Officer Arrested for DUI.

We are forever associated with our agencies.  Even after we leave the agency.  The headline would then read:  Former (INSERT CITY HERE) Police Officer Arrested for DUI.  Even if we work for Office Max now.

Because we are held to a different standard, it requires us to act differently than the everyday citizen.  Because no matter what, we are forever and always associated with that title and agency.

In the case of the article cited above.  Was the officer wrong?  Is the city squelching his 1st Amendment rights?  Does the city have the right to curtail off duty speech?

I don’t know.  He made choices I would not have made.  But that doesn’t make him wrong.  I will leave that to the courts to decide if needed.  My position is classical.  Don’t bite the hand that feeds you; and if you are going to be critical, do it professionally and tactfully.  Not in a breathless, possibly beer inspired rant.

The final discussion point is policy.  Should entities, public or otherwise enact policy that would dictate the use of social media.

One school of thought is this, enact policy now to cover it or be faced with a complete ban later.  Another is, if the city has a policy similar to Newport News, that it is sufficient to cover behavior when using social media.

I don’t think that a city, or any entity can ban the use of social media when not at work, but I would not want to be the “test case” that has to fight it if it comes to that.  Smart use of social media is required.  Not so smart use should be dealt with appropriately.

Categories? Tags? What’s the big deal?

Now that we have our blogging platform, and our theme or front end, we need to start working on the backend of the site.

One of the areas that seems to be the biggest hang up for organizations stepping into the social media/blogging realm is the idea behind categories and tags. Which is what and what is which? It really confuses a lot of folks. And it confused me for a long time. I couldn’t quite grasp what each was for and what the difference was.

I am still working on my analogy but I try to explain it to people, potential bloggers like this.

The “Blogosphere” is a Super Wal Mart.

Your blog is the grocery section

Your category is the vegetable aisle

Your tags are the different vegatables in the aisle

Example. Your blog is titled Groceries at Super Wal Mart. Your blog post is titled Potato Chips. Your category might be Snack Foods and your tags would be Lays, Wise, potato chip, Cheeze Doodles, Cheetos, pretzel sticks, pretzel knots and my personal favorite, Munchos.

Did I completely lose you in the bread aisle?

ScreenShot001My main blog, Scott’s Morning Brew, has 7 categories.

Church
General
News
Opinion
Politics
Technology
Videos

Currently, I have about 400 tags.

One of the trickiest tasks involved with setting up my agency’s blog, was choosing the categories. Each section of a magazine theme is generally defined by a category. There are five secions on the front page, not including the sidebar. I wanted to make sure that the sections displayed on the front end of the blog were relevant, interesting and provided enough information that visitors didn’t have to dig to deep. The categories on the front page are self explanatory and the reasoning behind choosing them is probably pretty obvious. If not, ask me.

Announcements
Crimeline
Events
Featured*
Press Releases

A sixth category is General Information and is not displayed on the front of the blog. It is the catch all and the category that I move some entries out of other categories to. For example, an event that has passed would be moved to General Information for historical purposes. That way it stays a part of the site but not on the front page in the events section.

*The Featured category is a hybrid. Any entry from any other category could go here. This is the article, or blog entry that is in the top left most corner of the blog. The “FEATURED” section. The entry may also be in Press Releases, General Information or Announcements. Once it’s usefulness of being a featured article has passed, it is removed from this category and place in a category of it’s own.

Since my agency is a police department, an example might be an article concerning a bank robbery, where a suspect’s photograph was taken. The investigators release the photo to the public along with a press release describing him/her. We put the photo in the FEATURED category and it displays foremost on the site.

Once that suspect has been dealt with, or another entry takes precedence it is moved down to it’s preferred category. In this case, press releases.

Using that same example of a bank robbery, we might add the tags of Bluebird Bank and Trust, robbery, armed, and firearm.

Once the blog starts getting populated with information, visitors can then search on “Bluebird Bank and Trust” and find all entries, regardless of category that mention it.

Tags can also be useful for SEO, or search engine optimization as well as on sites like Technorati and other social bookmarking/catalog sites.

I hope this clarifies the Category/Tag difference and their usefulness. If I managed to muddy the waters for you, please let me know. I will try to explain further.

Choosing a theme…

wordpress_logoThis was probably the most difficult part of my process to this point. How did I want to present the information the police department was going to put out.

I knew a standard “blog” format was not going to work. There just wasn’t going to be enough information flowing out to support that format. What I consider a standard “blog” format is like this site. A column with articles and a column or two on the side with links, quick static information and such. The keyword is columns.

Magazine formats were probably the way to go but which one? There are numerous ones out there that look sharp. There were a couple of stumbling blocks however.

  • Ease of setup – It had to be easy to set up
  • Ease of maintenance – It had to be easy to maintain. Man hours needed to be at the absolute minimum
  • Ease of posting – This was crucial since I was going to ultimately rely on non-tech types to post their own information on the site

The other “hitch” came when it came to purchasing the theme. Municipalities generally operate on a purchase order type system. Internally, we would process the paperwork or request and generate the purchase order. The PO would then be sent to the vendor who would send the product out. Once the product was received with an invoice, the PO would then be paid and the vendor would receive his/her check.

The problem is, most vendors in this field are guys who work at “real jobs” during the day and design themes in the evening. Some may have actual business licenses. Few, have filed W9 forms with the government and have an assigned TAX ID number (besides their SSN). These things are required, at least for my purchasing department to produce a purchase order.

I had narrowed the field down to three different themes. I knew I was going to use one of them, just didn’t know which one. I contact the three vendors via email. Since none of the themes were available for testing, I asked them if I could have the full version to set up and test, based on my word that we wouldn’t go “live” with the site until they were paid. They all agreed and sent me the appropriate files.

I ran through the testing on each theme. Updating articles, modifying the core files a little bit and basically going through a complete set up on each one.

Setting up a magazine theme is quite a bit more intensive that setting up a standard blog theme. Most blog themes you simply upload them, make a few quick changes to the content on the sidebars and you are up and running. I have changed the theme of this blog at least 5 times since I started writing it.

Magazine themes on the other hand use common functions of WordPress in uncommon ways. Categories, pages and articles all display in non-blog like fashion on the site.

To close this particular installment out, I will say that I settled on Brian Gardner’s Revolution Magazine theme. This theme is no longer available but he has many new themes available at http://www.revolutiontwo.com. I personally can not recommend his products high enough.

As an additional note, when I began talking with Brian about payment for the theme, he sent me an email donating it to the police department. No charge. Very gracious and professional man to deal with. Again, I personally can’t recommend him high enough.

The other vendor I dealt with was Nathan Rice. Same thing. Professional and very gracious young man with a lot of talent. He has designed many many themes, both premium and free for WordPress and the blogging community. The only reason his Proximity Theme didn’t get chosen for that application was because it was just a wee bit trickier to set up. Not bad. Quite easy for me. But the next guy that comes along… In fact, I liked the theme so much when Nathan offered a midnight Twitter sale (ask me about this); I jumped on the opportunity to purchase the theme for my personal use. You can see it in action (slightly tweaked from the original) at my Scott’s Morning Brew blog.    Note:  I have reverted back to a regular blog style theme on my personal site.

Choose your theme carefully.  You don’t want it to be a chore to get a new article up, but you want it to be flashy enough on the front end to draw visitor’s attention…  and hold it.

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When the equipment won’t work…

What do you do when the equipment your agency provides, will not support your goals for social outreach or the people ultimately in charge of the equipment do not want to run the software?

The short and long answer is… I have no idea.

BUT… I do know what I did. A bit risky. But in my case it worked. Or at least at this point it works. Subject to change at any given moment.

Disclaimer: I am using commercially available products. While I personally HIGHLY recommend these products, please do not interpret this as an endorsement of these products by my agency or my government body.

One of the most difficult things to do in my agency is to convince the leadership that something is available commercially and better than what we can provide.

It has nothing to do with their lack of technical knowledge or resistance to change. It’s an honest effort to fully utilize resources that we have available “in house”. Nothing wrong with that.

That being said, trying to explain to the uninitiated about SQL servers, running PHP 4.? vs 5.? and the associated connections is a bit tough. You get the glazed eye look after about 5 minutes, and usually what follows is, “put something together and bring it to us” and they move on to the next item of business.

What I did was bypass that step altogether.

This next part is NOT recommended unless you have a great relationship with the management of your agency. And I mean GREAT.

I went online to a hosting solution and registered two domain names that matched my agency’s current .org name. I registered a .us and .net domain. I then contracted with the provider for a hosting account. The scary part? I paid for it out of my pocket, planning to get reimbursed at a later date. IF they liked what they saw.

Then I went to work. I registered an identifiable moniker on several social networks like Twitter, Plurk, FriendFeed.

Then I installed WordPress on the domain and created an account at WordPress.com.

Now the fun started. I wanted a professional site, that didn’t look like a blog but had all the functionality of a blog. I toyed with the idea of installing Joomla and Drupal. I have used those platforms on many different sites and love them as Content Management Sites. The problem with them is the learning curve. Getting non-technical members of my agency to the level needed to maintain the site once I am transferred or retired would have been too much. Positions within my agency are very fluid and can change at a moment’s notice.

I chose WordPress because of the ease of adding an article and being able to limit the damage a “contributor” can do from the limited back end. So WordPress was my answer.

In the next article I will cover themes, how I chose the one I am using and why.

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