Tag Archives: Law enforcement agency

Guest post: The social media officer

Coralville PD community relations officer Meleah Droll tweets as @CoralvillePD; can a social media officer position be far behind?

Coralville PD community relations officer Meleah Droll tweets as @CoralvillePD; can a social media officer position be far behind?

When Mike Vallez launched his social media blog a few weeks ago, I was struck by a comment he made in one of his first posts: “I would venture to guess that in the future you will have a social media police officer or many social media police officers that will be involved in “the conversation’”….

I asked him to elaborate on that comment: Should they do ALL of the social media for a PD, or should they simply monitor all the channels and direct outreach efforts? What role would they play during critical incidents? What experience should they have? How would they interact and cooperate with other officers doing public outreach?

Mike’s answers, reprinted with permission below, provide much food for thought:

As time goes on and social media continues to become more prevalent in people’s lives, law enforcement is going to have to deal with the Goliath known as social media.

I firmly believe that if there are not already full-time social media police officers; that there will be dedicated social media police officers, communications officers, etc. in the very near future. Is it outlandish to consider positing a police officer on the computer 24/7 to monitor and Tweet or Facebook out information? I don’t think so.

Social media management

As social media changes, so does the management of social media. Police departments are going to have to include social media into their communications policies or standard operating procedures (SOP). Communication for law enforcement agencies usually falls to the Public Information Officer (PIO), but is usually managed by the chief or his executives.

Law enforcement needs to embrace social media and investigate what benefits they can realize. These may include better communication with their customers, cost savings, and gaining respect from the citizens they police through authenticity/honesty.

On the flip side police, departments are going to have to find knowledgeable individuals either inside or outside their departments who have social media experience to implement these policies correctly. If a social media policy is not implemented correctly then it probably won’t be understood by the community or the agency. Hence the agency in question will realize a social media failure and will be hesitant to use this powerful communication tool going forward.

The social media officer’s duties

Most law enforcement agencies will adapt and embrace social media over the next few years as a valid communication tool, out of necessity. You will see social media police officers that monitor the bigger social media websites like Twitter and Facebook.

A few duties these officers may have is to monitor what is being said about their agency (Twitter side search box) so they can respond to possible discrepant information or help a citizen with a problem proactively. These officers can Tweet out or send Facebook messages on a variety of things: traffic accidents, crime prevention, crime patterns, videos of crimes, etc.

Another duty would be to have a blog about their department, covering human issues within the department to reach out for that personal touch with the community. Does this position have to be a sworn law enforcement officer? This could be up for debate. Maybe this position would fall in the PIO’s area and then again maybe not. [Christa notes: some community relations officers fill this role. Cops 2.0 partner Scott White is his agency's IT manager.]

The social media dispatcher

When people start to report crimes on Twitter and Facebook, which has already happened, I think there is a good argument to have a sworn law enforcement officer tracking this information. The officer would be able to communicate tips, suspect descriptions, etc. to his fellow officers from a trained police officer’s perspective.

[This creates] the argument that Twitter and Facebook communication should fall under the onus of the communications section (dispatchers). Dispatchers are trained how to handle stressful situations, specifically communicating with victims.

But, why not have Twitter and Facebook fall in all of these areas? Use the department’s main Twitter account as the feed and have the different sections monitor this feed. You can have a SOP, which points out what Tweets or Facebook communications will be handled by whom. This is called Social Media dispatching, which is not too much different than regular telecommunication dispatching.

Social media is here for now and growing at an exponential rate. Law enforcement agencies that turn a blind eye to social media will eventually be caught in a firestorm. This will most likely happen when social media could have been used for prevention or warning of real time incidents, but was not and a negative outcome results.

Social media police officers, social media dispatchers, social media community service officers are all going to be on the horizon due to the cultural changes that are occurring in how people communicate using social media.

How might your agency benefit from a dedicated social media officer?

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Getting help with social media’s day to day

Consider hiring an intern for day-to-day social media tasks

Consider hiring an intern for day-to-day social media tasks

In the last few weeks I’ve explored why more law enforcement officers and agencies are not jumping on board the social media bandwagon; the dangers of official or unofficial officer use; and the importance of a good social media policy, whether or not your agency is officially using social media.

What now?

Social media is overwhelming. The number of sites, the numbers of people, the amount of information. Even administrators who want their agencies involved may be unsure of where to start. This may be why so many departments focus on Facebook and Twitter: they make it easier to manage it all, make interactions one-way.

But agencies need more. As I’ll explain in the next few weeks, Facebook and Twitter don’t make an entire social media program. For one thing, agencies have to be able to hear what’s going on in the community—not just use a new medium to reach out. And they have to know how to build a strategy, not just rely on the latest tools.

Whether you’ve found a good, reputable social media consultant, or are reading the best social media blogs and learning as you go, at some point you are going to have to implement the strategy. When it comes to day-to-day maintenance, because many law enforcement agencies no longer have the personnel to commit to extra duties, what can they do?

Professor Carter F. Smith has an interesting idea: use interns. While this idea has met with criticism in corporate circles, Smith proposes supervised social media outreach. In effect, this would make the intern part of a social media team rather than “in charge” of a program:

Under the guidance of an experienced academic, and directed by the agency itself, interns would:

  • promote the police department using a variety of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Yahoo!Groups, etc.
  • maintain the Twitter account with posts reflecting arrest trends, wanted persons, Amber Alerts, and other police information needing immediate public assistance.
  • maintain the department’s Facebook Fan page, to include promoting events and monitoring communications
  • inform the department representative of any problems exposed in the social media domain so the department can determine how to respond appropriately.
  • monitor police-related communications (comments regarding the department or criminal activity in the jurisdiction) may also be included.

Fit the intern to your agency

Smith’s plan follows the formula many law enforcement agencies have begun to follow, but a wide variety of possibilities exists according to an agency’s needs—including the need not to be directly involved in social media just yet.

Some of the most important takeaways from this particular article:

(Social) Media Research: Which social media platforms are your main media contacts using? Are they blogging? Using Twitter? Do they want to be contacted through any of these by your company? This is a long term project, but might be really helpful to some of your colleagues who are apt to “pitch first and ask questions later.”

(For police departments, “main media contacts” doesn’t just mean reporters—it means the community, too. If you’re concerned that only a percentage of your citizens are using Twitter, find out what else they might be using.)

RSS building: I’ve said before that an RSS feed is one of the most important tools for any communications professional. If you’ve never taken the time to set up an RSS reader to monitor social media activity around your brand, your client or your industry, this is an awesome task for an intern. Once it’s set up, though, you have to use it! Here’s a good place to start.

Blog monitoring: There are hundreds of millions of blogs, and probably hundreds that reference your brand or industry. So how do you choose which ones to follow? I’ve written about this before, but perhaps your intern can conduct some research and report back about the most important blogs in your niche.

These two items have to do with “listening” to what is being said about the agency online. The foundation to social media success, it means the ability to communicate with citizens about what concerns them the most—not what you only think are their biggest concerns.

Social media doesn’t have to be overwhelming, and neither does finding someone to help you implement it. It also doesn’t have to be costly or add too much to someone’s workload. If you can find the right intern from the right college, putting an intern on a department’s social media team makes sense—for the intern, the college, the agency, and ultimately, the community too.

Image: NIOSH via Flickr

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Transparency vs. anonymity

Does transparency sacrifice honesty in blogs?

Does transparency sacrifice honesty in blogs?

An interesting debate has cropped up over on ConnectedCops.net about whether police officers should be allowed to blog anonymously.

It started with Lauri’s point in her post on elements of a social media policy (cross posted here and on her blog):

3. Identity. Some bloggers work anonymously, using pseudonyms or false screen names. Law enforcement agencies should absolutely insist that in blogs, wikis or other forms of online participation that relate to the department or the city, or activities or issues with which the department is engaged; department employees use their accurate identity.

Which stuck with me because of the number of excellent cop bloggers who are anonymous. You can read mine and the other comments there. At the debate’s heart: whether anonymity allows more honesty (yes, honesty, not bravado or bigotry or any other negative connotation) than they perhaps otherwise would use.

Positive perceptions

I emailed one of the anonymous bloggers to get his opinion. He doesn’t hide his workplace from his readers, and I wondered whether he was working with his administrators’ blessing. If so, I asked, how was anonymity decided upon?

I just started blogging on my own. I decided that the ‘net was full of the cop sites complaining about bureaucratic and political incompetence so I thought I’d do something upbeat. I figured if it was positive it would be harder for the big shots to complain about it.

A few weeks after starting I was contacted by one of our command staff through the site asking who I was. I was honest about it and didn’t hear anything else…. I was told that they see it as my right and they aren’t intervening….

My anonymity is an open secret at work. It’s a small enough agency that it wouldn’t be hard to figure out from my stories. I’m more concerned about Internet privacy and not being stalked over it. I’ve had some interesting hate mail through the site and I don’t want to give anyone a target.

Again with the officer safety

He continued:

I do think that the Internet opens you up to a whole world of cop haters hiding behind their computer screen. The problem is you don’t know which ones are willing, or capable, of carrying out the threats. I know these people don’t like me, and I don’t care. If I wanted to be liked, I would have been a fireman.

However, I don’t want them having my real name to attach to my blog so they can figure out where I live or otherwise target me. My administrative policies can’t override the first amendment if one of these wack jobs decide to target me because of my blog and post my home address on some cop hating site.

Especially if the hater is clear across the country. At least if some local crazy starts stalking me through work I have a chance of filing charges or otherwise working it out. Imagine if an Internet stalker on the other side of the country does it online, my department would be powerless to stop it or protect me. I’m definitely not putting my name on my blog.

Department-sanctioned tools

Lauri rightly points out that this is the reason why social media policies should cover the tools that are and are not sanctioned by the department. Although I am concerned that this might remove an otherwise important “coping” mechanism for officers, sites like the Experience Project may cover this issue.

Perhaps the real problem lies not in whether law enforcement must sacrifice honesty for transparency, but in whether citizens are comfortable with their police officers having a voice. One chief, who does not blog anonymously, wrote me a few months ago that he was going dark for a time:

One of my illustrious citizens came across my accounts and made a complaint to the Mayor and Council. Of all the things I’ve posted on Twitter, he or she was hung up on a post I made about people acting stupid—alluding to the fact I was either speaking about my officers or my citizens. That particular comment was directed at a vendor I had been dealing with….

City administrators were supportive, but the chief chose to avoid conflict—a shame, because I haven’t heard much from him since.

Honesty vs. liability

Ideally officers can be honest about what they see daily. It might encourage citizens to change their behavior: not calling 911 when their children refuse to go to bed, or to help them take their pills. It might even go as far as citizen journalism. In prior generations, officers with serious concerns about department corruption went to the media. Now, they can be the media. As my contact notes:

If you want to publicly criticize your agency or city management, anonymity is the only thing [allowing you to keep] your job. Look at bloggers like Inspector Gadget–I have no questions he would be fired, or drummed out of his rank, or transferred to some terrible assignment if they found him out. Same thing with Second City Cop. The Chicago Political Machine would probably make them disappear like Jimmy Hoffa.

Indeed, many administrators fear the liability bugaboo. However remote the possibility of a successful lawsuit over “emotional distress stemming from embarrassment” might be from an unnamed citizen who nonetheless recognizes him- or herself, nothing would stop a lawyer from trying—and causing considerable expense, not to mention stress, in the meantime.

Should cop bloggers be allowed their anonymity, or should they be required to be up front about their identities—even if it sacrifices some honesty?

Image: thelastminute via Flickr

Why cops shouldn’t use social networking

Networks of "friends" on a social site

Networks of "friends" on a social site

In response to my question, “Do you think more LE don’t get on board w/ social media b/c they fear the inability to size ppl up as they would in person?” I got another response besides those from the previous entry:

@cmouser:
There are folks telling officers it not safe for them to do it…false claims posted about them or for them
I have 2 SRO’s that just got back from training and they were told that Twitter [Facebook] etc. are the worst things an officer can do
one of them deleted his accts due to this training.

This surprised me. What better way to connect with students than to reach them in their own social spaces away from school? So I found out the trainer’s name: Lt. Joe Laramie, commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for the state of Missouri. Someone with a lot of experience online, in other words, who was not simply reacting to technological changes.

Parts of Lt. Laramie’s interview are also included in my article “Social Networking Officer Safety,” due out in Police & Security News in September. For the purposes of this blog, though, I want to focus on his input regarding school resource officers. Whether you agree with him or not, the points he raises are good ones, and should be discussed among administrators and officers alike.

Who’s reading your profile?

It is possible to get too caught up in social networking’s positive aspects. Naivete can lead to situations like the one NYPD Officer Vaughan Ettienne found himself in. This is, in part, because most people focus on the “social” aspect of social networking.

But Laramie, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who teaches school resource officers and vocational counselors a class on social networking, says law enforcement should focus more on the “networking” aspect. “You may be able to control the people you friend, but not the people they friend,” he explains, calling this a “pyramid” effect.

Even if you can control the people you friend—by “ignoring” requests from people with questionable content—you can’t control what existing friends post on their own pages. “Photos and blogs they post can reflect badly on you,” says Laramie. “And these materials are constantly being changed, so it’s impossible to enforce a ‘friend policy’”—following or unfollowing based on appropriateness.

This is true of everyone, but even more so for school resource officers. Laramie says SROs are susceptible to more problems than a regular patrol officer or detective would be, because of their closeness to middle and high school students. Such problems can include emotionally needy students with few boundaries; students who take for granted online interactions; and even students who intentionally target law enforcement officers or agencies.

In fact, Laramie likens an officer “friending” students online to a teacher leaving a cell phone on or in a desk. “The student can easily take the phone to the bathroom, send a suggestive text message or picture to another student, then put the teacher’s phone back. You can’t defend against that,” he explains, “but you can control it—by keeping the phone with you, not giving them access.”

This is the reason why Laramie’s Missouri ICAC Task Force Facebook page has an emblem rather than his photo on it. “It’s easy to take an officer’s official department photo and superimpose his or her face over that of someone wearing fewer clothes,” he says. He himself is featured in two YouTube videos—neither of which he posted. “They’re of a speech I gave, so I’m not embarrassed about them,” he says. “But I had no control over their posting. That’s why it’s important to search on your own name, see what’s being posted about you in the different environments.”

No privacy, no control

When Laramie teaches teens about social networks, he has them “write” just one way to reach them online on an imaginary business card. “Then I ask them if they would hand that to a stranger driving by their school,” he says. “They haven’t thought about that. There is a disconnect between their online world and the real world.”

Both teens and police officers mistakenly believe that making pages “private” will protect their information. However, says Laramie, “When teens argue this, I ask them if they’ve ever seen a site they didn’t have permission to be on,” says Laramie. “They often have—if they were with a friend who had permission.”

This can be a problem when that friend is someone unknown to, or even an enemy of, the user. “The two most misused words when it comes to social networks are ‘private’ and ‘friend,’” says Laramie, adding that he doesn’t know most of the “friends” on his task force page. So, while it’s possible to limit access to a site, nothing is ever truly private.

This problem is exacerbated by inadequate privacy protections on the social network sites themselves. A Cambridge University study published in July showed that 90 percent of sites required unnecessary information, such as birth date, for membership. Eighty percent did not protect sensitive data using standard encryption protocols, while 71 percent reserved the right to share user data with third parties.

Officers may also believe that anonymity will protect them, but can leave enough details that administrators, other officers, and even the public can figure out who they are. This has been the case for several well-known law enforcement blogs, deleted in recent years on pain of their authors’ termination.

The need for cyber ethics training

Police officers who are unaware of these pitfalls could be disastrous for a law enforcement agency. “Defense attorneys who do their homework will come after them,” Laramie says. “They’ll start out by asking whether a posting on a social site was the truth, or made up. And who wants to defend their bragging in court? But if they say they made something up, they’re subject to being impeached as a witness. And if they say it’s the truth, that opens the door to every inappropriate thing the attorney found.”

Laramie believes that training in cyber ethics must begin at the academy level. “Personal ethics is already taught, but there needs to be a cyber component to it,” Laramie says. “This generation is so used to the technology that they don’t think twice about what they are doing.”

For instance, says Laramie, “Teens don’t see what the big deal is about sending nude photos to each other or saying inappropriate things. They don’t understand that when adults do it at work, we get fired.”

Thus a student’s “harmless flirting” with her school resource officer could land him in hot water, as could her risque photo in her Facebook profile when they are connected as friends. “If a parent finds those things, it’s guilt by association,” says Laramie. “Even if the officer hasn’t been online in three days and had no idea the photos were posted.”

Balancing safety with usage

Professionally, Laramie says school resource officers and other investigators do need to know how social networking sites work. “I’m not sure all SROs understand it as well as they should,” he says. “Many are still struggling with how to deal with it. Some have very sophisticated knowledge, but others have no idea how to use it or communicate with it, or even how to use it as a search mechanism. They have to be able to get online and see what’s going on in the school, among that community.”

The challenge is in doing so without jeopardizing the relationship-building that community policing demands. Whether undercover (which most social networking sites discourage) or using their real names, Laramie says any communication on the officer’s part should be one-way only—no friend requests.

This flies in the face of social networking culture as well, which demands two-way communication. “Students can feel the officer is only there to spy on them,” says Laramie. “They already stay away from social networking sites their parents are on, and they’ll stay away from those the officer is on.”

Yet savvy SROs may take the opportunity to lead by example, encouraging prudence in posting content. As Larry Magid of SafeKids.com pointed out in a June blog entry:

Internet safety is more than just the absence of danger. It also includes finding ways to use technology for learning, collaboration, community building, political activism, self-help and reaching out to others…. [L]ike fences around swimming pools, the use of filters at home and school can’t protect them forever. That’s why we teach kids to swim. Not only does knowing how to swim help prevent drowning, it empowers them to thrive in the water instead of fearing it.

Likewise in police departments, where gripes among officers may offer administrators the chance to consider whether employee point of view is accurate. In the social web, companies monitor what customers are saying, whether good or bad, and use the feedback to build on the good and improve on the bad. Comcast, for instance, uses Twitter to great effect to connect with its customers, as does the Ford Motor Company and others.

“You have to protect your name, your identity, and your reputation because you own those for the rest of your life,” says Laramie. “But it isn’t possible to control your reputation totally, because it’s what other people think.”

Image: matmorrison via Flickr

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Social media doesn’t bring a changing of the guard

Image: <a href=The Munhall (Pennsylvania) News Watch posted this Pittsburgh Tribune Review article recently:

While police departments elsewhere turn to Web sites such as Twitter and Facebook, some local chiefs are sticking to automated phone messages as the best way to get fast alerts to many people at once.

“If you want something right away, a Web site isn’t fast enough,” said Ross police Sgt. William Barrett. “Manpower and media are quicker.” Pittsburgh police have used an Internet-based alert system for two years and many departments post information about crimes on municipal Web sites. But officials say phone systems remain most effective.

Ross police are installing a reverse 911 system, an automated system that can make hundreds of calls in a few minutes.

Missing from the article were examples of other agencies that had either made a total switch to Internet-based services, or were using both.

People aren’t just on the phone… or online

A key to social media is that it reaches people where they are. Lots of people are on Facebook and Twitter, and that’s why so many companies and government agencies are there, too. But as marketers point out, Internet marketing isn’t about the tools. It’s always, always about the people.

I commented to the MNW blog: “Doesn’t reverse 911 only work for landlines? I think it is advisable for agencies to use both phone and services like Nixle (which can be pushed to Twitter) – some people have only cell phones and no land lines, and others may prefer text or email alerts (say, a working parent who would want to know what’s going on in their child’s school neighborhood).”

Note that I think both services should be used. I had an eyeopening moment this week when I read in an email from the Mountain View (California) Police Department‘s PIO, Liz Wylie: “[W]e have over 1000 followers on Twitter, but over 75000 people living in this city and a HUGE number who work here (especially given Google’s headquarters is here). [Thus] Twitter is really reaching only a few people within our community and we can not dedicate vast resources to such a specialized tool that only reaches a small segment of our target population.”

Know your community

Clearly, social media tools are not the end-all be-all of community outreach, even as the media hype them. “Reaching the people where they are” doesn’t just include Web-savvy youth; it also includes their elderly grandparents, people with physical disabilities who live independently, poor people, and others whose phone or computer usage is limited—for whatever reason.

This blog post points out that it is very difficult to measure the extent to which social media tools “should” be used, and ultimately is used in conjunction with other traditional means of communication anyway.

So yes, if it will bring value to your public, and you have the resources for it, use reverse 911; it clearly works. So do Nixle, Citizen Observer, Facebook, and Twitter. Make the messages consistent—and use these multiple means to get information out to the largest group of people possible.

Image: nicholassmale via Flickr

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In Fairfield, California, My #1 Friend is a Cop

fairfieldMore police departments are starting to develop presences in social network spaces. They ask for help locating suspects, tell community members about department-sponsored events, and interact via comments and messages. They may also drive traffic to a main Web site or warn citizens of nearby emergencies.

Many of these pages resemble the “cop on the beat” stopping to chat with passersby. Meeting casually may result in a citizen providing a tip, but it is not the same as, say, police actively soliciting feedback.

On “My #1 Friend is a Cop” pages, the focus is a little different. Less community outreach than crime prevention, these pages (mainly on MySpace) provide a way for young people to add police as a friend, so that prospective predators—pedophiles, bullies, or other offenders—know that this individual has a way to report suspicious behavior.

“The child can even tell anyone who asks that their dad or their uncle is a cop,” says Detective James Carden, a detective with the Fairfield (California) Police Department who is also attached to the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force.

Starting My #1 Friend

Carden created the Fairfield PD MySpace page after his 13-year-old son was approached, via MySpace, by an older man. “As a parent I wanted it to stop, but as a cop, I knew the local police department wouldn’t be able to handle it because it wasn’t criminal activity,” Carden explains. “I had no resource except to tell my son not to talk to him, and to use my son’s page to message the man to tell him to stop.”

Even that, he adds, was limited. “Kids are on MySpace all the time, and parents can’t be. Unless you go on your kid’s page regularly, you don’t know what’s going on, and there are no checks and balances to protect them.”

So Carden talked with Lauren Wagner, a high-tech crime training specialist with SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. Under an existing SEARCH program, she had already helped the Miami-Dade Police Department to create a MySpace page so that community children could “friend” the agency. (Law enforcement agencies looking for more information can contact lauren.wagner@search.org.)

The concept is simple: a police department representative spends a few hours uploading the agency’s official emblem—its patch or badge—as its profile picture and filling out its profile to give other users a feel for “who” they are.

When “friended,” the patch will show up in the user’s “friends” list; MySpace allows users to rank their friends so that specific friends appear on the front page all the time. “It’s like parking a cop car in a neighborhood that’s being hit by burglaries,” Carden says.

Preventing cyber crime

It’s also a resource for the public to work with the police department, even if a felony has not taken place. Policy is to take the same action with offenders that Carden took with his son’s: message the person to ask them to stop contacting the victim before police take official action. “That way,” says Carden, “we don’t have to use police time by taking a report, but we still have a way to deal with the problem, to make sure that the only contacts kids receive are wanted.”

This is not limited only to child predators. Cyberbullies are addressed in the same way. “In one case I had, some kids put up a fake page of a classmate,” says Carden. “They even stole pictures off her page, then started to message their other classmates pretending to be her. She contacted me, so after I told her to tell her parents and her vice principal, I contacted that page and asked the users to take it down before I started a case number on it. The page was down the next day.”

The My #1 Friend page has become an easy, secure way for informants to tell police about illegal activity, because it gives Carden the ability to respond to members of the public who are either afraid of police, or don’t want to bother them.

“There are many reasons why people don’t communicate with police,” he explains. “The MySpace page levels the playing field, puts everyone on neutral ground where the public can interact with police in a positive way.” He adds that he has been able to get investigations started by forwarding citizen reports to other units such as narcotics.

Public outreach

The program doesn’t just address criminal or borderline criminal activity. “We got a good response from the public, who started making suggestions on how to improve the page,” says Carden. “They would ask about things that were happening in the city, so I asked the department public information officer to email me press releases at the same time they emailed them to area media outlets.”

The benefit of this has been significant. “People who don’t watch the TV news or read the newspapers now see what’s happening in the rest of the city,” says Carden, “especially in the pockets of town they don’t visit.” This helps police as well as the public. “People who live in the nicer areas see the police department at work.”

So, while the page’s focus is still on children, it has “morphed” into a more interactive community presence. Like other agencies in social spaces, Carden plans to post a slideshow of criminals wanted in Fairfield, along with video of fraud suspects in area businesses.

What the page is not for: juvenile disputes, including problems between kids using peer-to-peer music-sharing or similar programs. “Once kids think you’ll get involved, everything becomes a police matter to them,” says Carden, a former school resource officer. “Those are the kinds of issues that teachers, principals, yard monitors, and parents should be handling.”

Publicizing My #1 Friend

Both Carden and the Miami-Dade Police Department used traditional media to publicize the page. “We didn’t expect a lot of coverage; we thought it would be a positive story for parents to see and start to use,” says Carden. “But after we contacted our local paper and television news, reporters from the Sacramento TV station [KCRA] came down. The story ran on the 10 o’clock news and on the paper’s front page. After that it became a matter of word of mouth.”

Still, Carden finds people who don’t know about the page; he educates them whenever he makes field contacts. Next fall, he plans to visit schools with the school resource officers to tell students about the page. “I’d like for all kids to friend us; I think most parents would get behind it,” he says.

Public education will become more consistent after May, when Carden expects the department’s computer crimes unit to be fully up and running. “At that point we’ll be prepared to take more complaints through the page,” he says, noting that patrol officers as well as school resource officers will be given a handout about the MySpace page and how it works.

As for whether kids see “My #1 Friend” as “uncool,” Carden says from what he has heard, the bigger concern appears to be privacy. “Some will think it’s uncool. Others will have more forethought and recognize how they can use the page to avoid trouble.” Carden believes the personal visits will help dispel many misconceptions about the program.

Maintaining My #1 Friend

Carden spends about 15 minutes per day reading and responding to messages. Because the page is proactive, not meant to be an investigative resource, it doesn’t take as long to maintain as spending time undercover would take. However, he currently has no plans to join sites like Facebook or Twitter, even though other police departments use them as alternative ways.

This is because the MySpace page is a project he’s pursuing in his spare time, and also because the community hasn’t asked for other pages. “The page is driven by public request,” he says. “Everyone in town knows about the MySpace page, so that’s what we’re doing right now.”

In the future, the page—and possibly other social network presences—could involve other officers. Depending on future success, Carden hopes to see an entire special-assignment unit, perhaps even the SROs, take the page over as one of their duties. “One could work on the MySpace page, another on Facebook, another on Twitter,” he says, “and do it during the school day.”

So while MySpace, in February this year, took the radical step of expelling 90,000 registered sex offenders from its membership rolls (following the 27,000 it banned in 2007), still more exist who haven’t been caught. My #1 Friend is meant to add another layer of protection.

Ultimately, Carden hopes every police department will start a “My #1 Friend is a Cop” page—not only to connect with the community, but also to share information with each other.“Kids need to be able to point to a deterrent as society and technology change,” he says, “and police need to be able to change with it. I think 99 percent of potentially dangerous activity would stop on these sites just by having a patch as a friend.”

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