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Case study: How Boca Raton PD responds to community needs

Visibility, Intelligence, Partnerships, Education, and Resources make up the Boca Police VIPER brand.

Visibility, Intelligence, Partnerships, Education, and Resources make up the Boca Police VIPER brand.

Last week I talked about the importance of “listening” to your community, including taking into account a variety of factors about the community itself. It won’t be the last I discuss this topic, but I wanted to take some time to examine what Boca Raton PD is doing with all that data.

Chief Dan Alexander, who blogs at BocaChiefBlog.com and tweets as @bocachief, talked with me about the Boca VIPER program as a branded crime prevention strategy. Granted, BRPD hired a public relations firm to help with branding… but even this itself was a response to realizing that community needs were bigger than the agency could accomplish on its own. As Alexander put it, “We needed to market, but cops don’t market very well.”

What were those needs? For starters, “listening” doesn’t just mean watching what is being said about you. From a law enforcement standpoint, it also means crime and calls-for-service analysis.

BRPD found from its number-crunching that the bulk of its crimes were being committed by people from outside the community. In addition, says Alexander, while community support for its police was high, and a number of programs had already been put in place to address problems, none of it was part of a cohesive strategy.

So Kaye Communications, a local PR firm, helped with conceptualizing and developing the new brand.

Branding crime prevention: Boca VIPER

The five elements of the Boca VIPER brand form the comprehensive crime-prevention strategy the department had been moving toward all along. As Alexander explains, these are “independent elements that overlap”:

  • Visibility allows people to see the police and connect with their brand.
  • Intelligence shows the importance of information, and how the community is impacted by “outside forces.”
  • Partnerships with local businesses and organizations help improve the agency’s reach.
  • Education via traditional and Internet-based media involve the public in crime prevention.
  • Resources including officer training, facility improvement, and operational tactics keep police constantly improving.

Where social media fits

As public relations professionals constantly remind each other, marketers, salespeople, and others, social media is not a strategy unto itself. Rather, it needs to be integrated into a broader communications strategy that includes all the different roles in an organization

At BRPD, this is exactly the case. “Social media personalizes us, helps us make a connection to get information to the people who need it,” says Alexander. “It’s logical to realize how social media tools relate to a unique constituency that uses them.”

The main point of social media, which is part of VIPER’s “Education” component, is to drive traffic back to the main VIPER Web pages. The agency has Twitter and Facebook pages (but not MySpace anymore because, as Alexander says, the strategy is constantly being tweaked depending on what works).

The VIPER site itself is being revamped, so that it will now include BRPD’s Twitter feed. The advantage here, says Alexander, is for all citizens—not just media—to be able to see “police blotter”-type information as it happens.

The department is also considering a video feed, which would allow the agency’s PIO to take questions twice a week, while mapping—complete with e-mail alerts—will continue to help citizens look at criminal activity in their own neighborhoods.

Web presences, says Alexander, do not have to be mutually exclusive, and in fact should not be. “These are all different ways to inform, promote transparency,” he says. “We don’t rely too heavily on any one tool because there’s ebb and flow. Instead, we use the tools to draw people to the content.”

Getting the cops involved

There’s listening to the community. Then there’s doing something with that data—creating the tools that allow police to respond to what they’re hearing. And then there’s choosing the people to help promote the overall brand.

Alexander’s blog and Twitter presences go along with the department’s PIO work, but he would like BRPD cops themselves to join in eventually. Officers bring a “unique street-level perspective” to incidents, which is why Alexander believes there is no reason why they can’t use social media together with traditional chains of command.

“It won’t be fast,” he warns, “and information will be filtered—not to keep something away, but to protect everyone involved including officers.” (Arguably, the agency’s openness in advance of a major incident will help critics understand its responsibility to keep some messages filtered.)

Still, getting to that point will be challenging. As Alexander wrote for ConnectedCops.net, five barriers often keep law enforcement from realizing social media’s full benefits. “Social media is wide open, and the idea of getting up close with people doesn’t jive well with who we are as police officers,” he says.

He hopes to start getting officers involved by asking those most comfortable with the technology to lead the way. Even so, the effort will be tricky. “We have to figure out how to control yet also decentralize our message,” he says. “For officers who do connect on a personal level with the public, the trick is helping them learn how to do it officially.”

And so, while his officers aren’t actively resisting the idea, he notes that they seem to be taking a “wait and see” attitude. Thus listening will become as important to them individually as it will to the agency as a whole.

Feedback for Boca VIPER

Indeed, as with any good public relations strategy, listening is still an important part of implementation. Alexander has blogged about feedback he gets, and the department is planning focus groups next month. Surveys helped the crime prevention unit determine what the VIPER site should focus on. For instance, identity theft is set apart on its main page because in Boca Raton, it’s a major concern.

Moreover, says Alexander, “This is a living, breathing process. Our strategy is a function of our connection with a number of different sources.” He likens it, in fact, to Boca Raton’s population itself. “Officially we’re a community of 85,000, but that number can swell to 300,000 during the week,” he says. “You can’t define our population. Likewise, social media allows us not to be isolated within our borders.”

Learning from Boca police

  • Listen first. Gather data from multiple sources: residents, business owners, visitors, your agency’s own activity stats.
  • Respond. Go where the people are, both online and off, to communicate with them.
  • Take it slow. Start with areas that have the most need, as well as the areas you’re most comfortable with.
  • Gauge. How are your constituents responding to your efforts?
  • Adjust. You don’t have to get it right the first time.
  • Broaden. Let feedback and experience guide you toward expanding your reach.
  • Repeat.

How can you integrate social media not just into your communications plan, but also your overall mission as a law enforcement agency?

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Summing it up in 25 words

Image: <a href=I read a number of blogs that have nothing to do with law enforcement: the ones that teach social media as a business tool, as a community relationship tool.

One of my favorites is Successful Blog by Liz Strauss, who challenges more creative and less analytical thinking (and I do mean challenge, because I am analytical). One example: her “25 Words” challenges.

This time around she asked for a 25-word sentence about “some social media thing you see too much or too little of.” That part wasn’t hard. I came up with:

I don’t see enough law enforcement agencies truly interacting with their publics.

But it was only 12 words. I needed 13 more: to flesh out the idea, provide more detail. And make it more positive. So I wrote this:

More law enforcement agencies need to hear what their publics say, ask their publics for feedback, without fearing the repercussions.

But not only was it 20 words, it expressed the idea in a way that required too much explanation. It’s difficult to hear what critics say, especially when those critics are so vocal. It’s hard to ask for feedback; the constructive tend to get drowned out by the critics. And the repercussions? I’m preparing to write several blog posts, plus a feature article, about those.

Plus, the sentence didn’t answer why agencies need to hear and ask. So I wrote this:

Law enforcement agencies can’t effectively prevent or investigate Internet crime without listening to, talking with, and coming to know the people who are online.

24 words! Where to add that last word? I changed “people” to “community members,” a much more specific concept. Agency representatives don’t need to get to know a broad spectrum of “people,” but they do need to know their community members who are in online communities. To join them in those communities, get to know them in that context—just as good officers learn the business owners on their beats, the homeowners where they live.

So, the final idea:

Law enforcement agencies can’t effectively prevent or investigate Internet crime without listening to, talking with, and coming to know their community members who are online.

That’s what this blog boils down to. The Internet comprises a community much like most physical communities. As those communities do, it has its own unwritten rules, its own culture, and its own mix of people.

As cops who police immigrant communities are finding out, it is not possible to be effective law enforcers without first knowing the culture, the social rules. You don’t have to abide by those rules—that is not realistic—but you do have to know them. You have to know where to ask people to compromise in the name of keeping everyone safe. And you have to know where you need to compromise.

Law enforcement agencies can’t effectively prevent or investigate Internet crime without listening to, talking with, and coming to know their community members who are online.

What can you do to start getting to know your community members?
Image: bradleypjohnson via Flickr

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Information or relationship?

Cornerstone, St.
Image via Wikipedia

Just after I responded to a comment here with the question, “I wonder if the cornerstone needs to be “relationship” rather than “information” or control thereof,” I read this blog entry from public relations strategist David Mullen. His view: information first. Relationship second.

The impossible dream

Although his post is about corporate public relations, who must often cultivate relationships with hundreds of reporters, the implications for a police department’s public information or community relations officer are clear. When dealing with a community of hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people, is it possible to build relationships? Is it wise?

There is no way, of course, to build relationships with every citizen. Even if every officer in the department were involved in the online world, this would not be humanly possible. Moreover, the majority of people who come in contact with the police do not want to have a “relationship” with them. So how can police effectively manage information, yet with the personal touch that builds credibility?

Quality over quantity

As a trade magazine reporter, my experience has been that the best stories grew out of the best relationships, which formed at random with certain sources over the years. The key was to watch and listen, to be open rather than shoehorning my work into an expectation of a “hamster on a wheel” cycle of monthly contacts with new sources.

So, too, in communities. The key is to build relationships with “influencers,” community members in the best positions to help develop the department’s reputation. Who are these influencers? Some may be reporters. Others are politicians and small business owners. Still more are de facto leaders in neighborhoods, people who seem to know everything about everyone. Whether they seek you out or you seek them out, you know them by the measure of respect you, and/or everyone else, has for them.

The relationship is the means—not the end

Mullen’s point was that PR professionals must carefully craft the messages they send to reporters, not to “spin” the companies they represent, but to ensure the information gets into the right hands. One of his commenters observed that her job as a PR person was simply to facilitate relationships between reporters and her clients.

So what does this mean for a police public information officer? Perhaps most of all, that the information going out to the public is crafted well enough that it encourages citizens to form relationships with each other. As commenter SpartanCops noted: “People don’t trust the PD or government or any entity. They can only trust the individual people in them.”

The ability to trust the PIO, chief, or others involved in community relations is a good start, but the real measure of strong public relations is citizen willingness to do something with that trust—to work with police to make a stronger community.

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