Mental illness is a hot topic in the news right now, thanks largely to mass killings, domestic violence and violence that doesn’t fit either of those narratives. While the stories help to highlight the overall topic — that mental illness is prevalent among our neighbors, coworkers and the strangers we pass each day — they don’t do much to help us understand deeper issues, such as how to recognize and then communicate with people who have mental illnesses.
This affects emergency services more than it does the rest of us, because police, fire and EMS personnel are usually the first on the scene during or after an incident. They often don’t know how to respond appropriately, for a variety of reasons. As a result, things can go very bad very fast. The subject gets hurt or killed, the cops look bad, and community trust is broken. It should follow that you can’t have an effective social media program if you don’t have effective communication to start with.
On Wednesday night, we explored some of these issues in #copchat. Mostly in order, the transcript follows below. Click “Read more” on the bottom right of each segment to continue.
At Officer.com this week, I wrote a back-to-basics column on using Twitter. The article ran long, so I didn’t get a chance to include a segment about a trend I’ve been noticing (and taking part in): the increasing importance of content curation.
Last month, the news that Twitter had acquired curation service Summify generated quite a bit of news. “Like some other services such as News.me, Summify filtered a user’s activity streams, then used an algorithm to produce a daily e-mail with links to the most-shared content in their social networks,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek explained.
In other words, Summify helped Twitter users determine what was important without their having to filter tweets manually. And with Twitter building this capability into its service, think about what curation might mean to a law enforcement Twitter account.
Remember: people share what they think their followers will benefit from. At this point, relevance is in the eye of the beholder—not the content originator. How can you help them?
First, put high quality content out there for sharing. Well-written blogs and web pages, well-edited video, carefully chosen images will get your followers’ attention. What about your agency’s police work do you want people to focus on? Communicate it clearly, and you’ll improve your chances that they’ll notice it and share it among themselves.
Second, curate content that supports what you’re doing. Sgt. John Jackson of the Houston Police Department presented me with an idea: use a curation service like Paper.li (or Scoop.it, my pick for Cops 2.0-related content) to package their various social streams for their audiences.
“Even better,” he wrote, “they could use it to bring some of their partners on board too. Crimestoppers, groups working with the mentally ill, homeless, veterans, etc.” Nonprofits, victim services advocates, community centers and others would be natural additions to a newsletter or curated stream. So would news articles highlighting a local-turned-broader issue across the nation.
I chose paper.li due to the format being easy to use, it self populates, you can add content and it looks like a newspaper! It is also easy for the reader to digest and navigate through.
“Naturally I draw from local Hampshire Constabulary Twitter accounts but also from others across the county that I find are interesting and who promote useful crime prevention information/advice by thinking outside of the box.
It is, along with the unit’s Twitter account, a tactic that supports a strategy: as Sutton describes, “to communicate crime prevention advice and encourage engagement with the public…. What we want is to break down the stereotypical barriers about what people think of the police, open up and explain what we do and show that we aren’t just a uniform; there is someone there for you if you need us.” Curation is just one of the ways the Portsmouth CCU is translating those words into action.
Are you curating content for your agency? What services do you use, and what kinds of articles do you include?
In my last post, I blogged about how public opinion—and trust—is formed according to the way police use (and communicate their use of) technology. This week’s post isn’t a direct sequel, but more of an exemplar: how one agency has implemented a strategic plan that integrates social communication.
Having participated in a client’s strategic planning process this past summer, I took notice of a tweet from the Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) Police Department in mid-November:
Strategy that involves public opinion
To some degree, VicPD’s strategic plan reminds me of Boca Raton’s VIPER program. Visibility, Intelligence, Partnerships, Education, and Resources are, however, more public relations-focused than VicPD’s five-step plan, which takes into account both internal and external issues: operation effectiveness, recruitment and retention, communication improvement, regionalization, and partnerships with other community groups.
Constable Mike Russell, VicPD’s public affairs media spokesperson and social media officer (as well as a former community resource officer with Edmonton, Alberta Police Department), says the plan had been in the works for nearly a year before its launch.
The result: a strategy that spans 8 years rather than the typical 3 to 5. Developed into a 16-page, image-driven brochure, the plan is “a living document,” its online counterpart a bare-bones microsite. That’s because it seeks to crowdsource direction: for community members to collaborate with the agency, helping to determine how their police will function.
To that end, Russell says, the agency intends to use QR codes and social media to establish an ongoing dialogue with the public. They will also update the microsite’s videos, goals and action steps four times a year.
Brainstorming ideas that lead to action
“Our chief and the planning facilitators took us on a different journey than we’re used to, a peer to peer process where rank doesn’t matter,” Russell says. “It was about the questions rather than the answers, so we were given carte blanche for brainstorming.”
Indeed, Russell says the feedback has been made intentionally informal in the plan’s early stages, in order to encourage relationship-building and to avoid bureaucracy within the public forum. “We divided our community into sectors, with people made responsible for each,” he explains. “Then, we began to encourage the citizens to bring their ideas to the working groups.”
Each working group has a lead manager who oversees four police officers and one civilian. The managing inspectors are ultimately responsible for implementing action items, but act as facilitators for their groups to find the right avenues to go down.
Part of that is police differentiating between service provision, rather than delivery—and asking citizens to think in the same terms, basing their ideas off that distinction, which puts police in much more of a “helping” rather than transactional frame. This allows everyone to talk about problems in terms of solutions.
Finding community-specific solutions
For example, within three days of beginning the planning process, Russell says certain themes had begun to emerge. “Regionalization [Step 4] was the biggest,” he says. “And while we didn’t set out to create silos, we found ideas running up the middle with outliers on either side.”
This is particularly important in a community where demographics are shifting. Baby boomers, who are retiring from the workforce in greater numbers, will shift their public safety priorities accordingly. Meanwhile, young people need a format in which to participate effectively.
That’s why planning involves best practices research, including who should do it and how to adapt, train on, and implement their recommendations for police.
Another important piece: recruitment and retention of people who can mirror the community itself. As Russell says, “The organization’s makeup hit a bubble where 1/3 of the people are all retiring in a short timespan. When that happens, all their experience goes away.”
VicPD seeks to hire and train people with many different communication styles, the better to move public relations forward. And, because the agency wants to ingrain social media throughout its operations, it wants people who can focus on taking part in conversations (rather than being technically savvy), which Russell says “brings empathy” on all sides.
Publicizing VicPD’s new focus
Russell says that in lieu of a traditional ad campaign, news media have been helping to generate awareness around the plan—but that word of mouth and social media have been especially crucial in spreading the plan’s content around.
“We’ve changed the way we’re doing social media from a newsfeed, to tweetups and other ways to create personal connections,” Russell explains. “Some of the best conversations happen off hours, in the evenings and weekends.”
VicPD has not yet seen these conversations translated into an offline space; coffee dates, announced on Facebook and Twitter, have not gotten much response.
Finally, Russell says, although VicPD plans to learn from police in other countries, “We’re not looking to do the same thing as everyone else. For example, we’ve seen both right and wrong examples of how to handle the Occupy movement worldwide. The key is to be open and honest with people, not contrived, which many people find offensive.”
Has your agency ever participated in strategic planning for its future? What did that process look like for you?
Before I go into this week’s post, I want to draw your attention to a new project being undertaken by a college professor acquaintance who, like me, has worked extensively with law enforcement. In his Jan. 1 blog, he writes:
Seeking LE organization willing to work virtually with supervised university students.
The goal is to give students more exposure to real officers and police administrators and fewer TV cops.
Are you willing to partner with a handful of students with retired-LE professor oversight on a small project tailored to your department/team needs? All project ideas considered, prefer those reated to mobile technology, with no anticipated cost to your organization.
I find Carter’s work — bringing younger citizens into active law enforcement research — especially important because, as 2012 begins, I think we need to take stock of where policing currently sits. In recent months I’ve seen a couple of opinions that indicate community policing, as we knew it in the 1990s, is dead; meanwhile, technology provides police with ever-increasing amounts of data about private citizens. Law enforcement, along with the societies it polices, is clearly in transition as technology and privacy collide at unprecedented rates.
This is not just true of the kinds and amount of data an investigator can glean from social media, surveillance video, license plate readers, and so on. It will also increase as law enforcement becomes comfortable with technology such as:
How police use these technologies, the extent to which they use them, and what they do with the data will face intense public and legal scrutiny, as they should. Now’s the time to get comfortable with transparency; if you’re worried about the bad guys finding out how you use technology, then you need to get creative about understanding 1) what the public needs to know and 2) how to communicate it to reduce privacy fears without giving away too many details.
Transparency sits between accountability and exposure
This may be more important than you think. As Scott Dickson wrote the other day, some agencies remain steeped in politics, manipulating their crime statistics by asking officers not to take reports. This, as Scott writes, is a double public relations whammy: not only does it look bad to citizens, who are unlikely to support budget increases for such an unprofessional agency; it also hurts the agency’s ability to see (and thus respond to) emerging problem patterns.
In the face of growing demand for accountability, public exposure will emerge as as a multifaceted strategy for disrupting existing power structures, both hidden and obvious, both criminal and socially beneficial.
There is both danger and opportunity in that balance: danger to certain law enforcement power structures, like the kind that manipulate crime stats. But also opportunity, for innovative investigators to understand and exploit how criminal power structures are being disrupted.
The ‘love-in’ experienced, “just because” the public’s local police are using social media is over and the public will demand (and deserve) greater accountability.
There will be less tolerance for mistakes, faux pas, and ignorance.
Working partnerships with individuals of influence, community groups, professional partnerships, and other police agencies will be standard.
As arms of the government, it’s incumbent on police to provide fair leadership to their communities. The law enforcement commander who doesn’t believe he has to justify his agency’s technology use — who believes crime-fighting is justification unto itself — necessarily invites public scrutiny. So does the commander who takes advantage of grant money without a long-term strategy to go with it; both COPS and homeland security programs have seen this happen.
True transparency shows strength, not weakness
This month’s Officer.com column describes using content to serve an agency’s goals, whether related specifically to social media, or more broadly to relationship-building. Besides that column, nearly two years ago (!) I wrote about one example of this kind of activity. There’s a lot of promise for communication. But also a lot of agencies that are so focused on the status quo that they can’t get out of their own way.
Digital content shared through social media can show how police are relevant and important to civil society, as well as weaknesses that need to be shored up. This is the exact opposite of stat manipulation because it’s not trying to cover over weakness; it’s leadership in asking for help to solve the problem.
Yes, the public needs to know a strong police force can competently and adequately enforce laws; but that’s during personal or community crisis. If an agency can’t provide services, in or out of crisis, because it lacks the funds to buy the technology that would enable that provision, then the public deserves to know up front, and deserves to become part of the solution. That was the promise of community policing.
What balances are you striking in your police work?
If you came to this blog by way of Twitter or Facebook, you know that for several months I’ve been using the Scoop.It bookmarking service to aggregate news items about how police are using high tech. One reason I like it: its magazine-style format is nicely laid out, easy to read and easy to digest.
A “mission control” center for disaster response, a high-tech-investigations room that gives city detectives real-time access to federal crime databases — and a meeting room where community groups can meet with police leaders.
The way this story was packaged caught my eye because even with all the ostensibly “Big Brother” style high tech, some emphasis remained for low-tech face to face relationship-building. I’m pretty naive, but I’d like to think this means NPD will use that room to give adequate attention to those who are worried about the way they’re policing. It’s something for other departments to keep in mind as they move further into the realm of high tech.
Along similar lines was an article about predictive analytics, which prompted me to post on Facebook: “Used the right way, this may be a hybrid between reactive and proactive/community policing. However, data can never replace human relationships, and police shouldn’t overrely on predictive policing.” It’s an argument I made earlier this year in writing about the value of HUMINT and community policing compared to high tech use.
A two-fer on the use of Predator drones
KXAN in Texas covered a convention of UAV enthusiasts, many of whom do help law enforcement on search and rescue missions. Just a day later, though, the LA Times featured law enforcement use of federal agencies’ drones, questioning whether the routine practice is wise. Although courts have ruled that warrantless aerial surveillance is legal — what’s done out in the open cannot be assumed to be legal — drones make surveillance more accessible to police. Once again, it’s officer safety vs. government transparency.
Predictions for law enforcement technology, community service
Finally, I didn’t bookmark this in Scoop.It but it caught my eye nonetheless, because of the predictions it made for the coming year. Most relevant:
A store will be where the customer says it is.
Augmented reality and plain old reality will merge.
Social traction will correlate to brand affinity.
In a law enforcement context:
If stores are going mobile, be prepared for customers to want to interact with police departments this way, too. I’m not talking just getting your text-message Nixle alerts; I mean e-government services like mobile citation payments, real-time crime mapping, crime reporting, etc. Is your website mobile-friendly? Do you have apps for citizens to use?
Finally, “social traction and brand affinity” simply mean that more people will pay attention to you online if you’re giving them information they can trust. Not what you think they should trust — but what they can rely on because it educates and is relevant to them. What they need to know, not what you want them to know.
How are you communicating your agency’s use of high tech to the public?
Weeks following the pepper-spraying of UC/Davis student protesters — once the damage had been done to both agency’s and officers’ reputations — an “extended cut” of the incident surfaced. In fact, the officer responsible for pepper spray use, along with his colleagues, had communicated extensively with students before spraying them.
Emphasize strategic as much as tactical messaging
Telling officers to “behave professionally at all times,” regardless of what they’re doing, where they are or whether they’re being videoed, is important… but overemphasizes the tactical aspect of a situation. Department commanders should also consider strategic aspects, including:
Community culture. Watching the full UC/Davis video was almost like watching newsreel from 1968. The protesters were organized, using professional activist tactics to push the situation in the direction they wanted it to go. Police commanders need to be not just aware of activist organizations in their communities, but also in regular contact with them before, during, and following events — acting “as facilitators rather than a force to be confronted.”
The nature of journalism. Traditional journalists have argued that “citizen journalists,” who are not beholden to the same ethical standards, can edit video, text and images with impunity (among other issues). Professional media, however, are not immune; their businesses are suffering, and they’re hungry for saleable stories. So while police and media may have reached a communication standoff in many communities, helping media understand the specific agency’s point of view is key to helping citizens understand.
The messages they themselves are transmitting — intended or unintended — to their communities. After I posted the LE Today article to my Google+ stream, I received this response from a civilian:
The article alludes that there is a “problem” with the video taping of police?… Why is it a “problem” when citizens do it, but its “for protection” when the all-seeing-eye is on a cruiser’s dashboard? If you’re doing your job honorably, and following protocol, in many cases, that tape just became (or should have) “your protection”, no?… These [four items] sound like things [police officers] should ALWAYS be doing (esp. #1 & 2), regardless of any “problem” or “fear” of recording.
In other words, a “do as I say, not as I do” approach will not encourage the kind of relationship-building which most chiefs agree is essential to community policing.
Open government and officer safety need not be at odds
Officer safety is a real concern, but to my knowledge, no one has been able to point to ambushes that happened because attackers had been studying videos of police tactics. Some of the highest profile ambushes have been crimes of opportunity: four officers killed in a coffee shop, several shot as they sat in their idling cruisers, an officer killed during a traffic stop.
Governments at all levels pay lip service to embracing transparency without understanding what it entails, which is usually a path full of thorns involving personal privacy, sometimes ugly truths, and the hard work needed to fix problems (often despite tight budgets). However, many Americans, both left and right, express fear that we are sliding towards — or living in — a police state. Officer safety is as much a function of public trust as it is tactical prudence. Law enforcement agencies that champion transparency, starting with public scrutiny for their officers’ actions, will go a long way towards assuaging that fear.