Tag Archives: Law

Blending professional and personal in Aurora (Illinois)

Lt. Kristen Ziman, Aurora (IL) Police Dept.

Lt. Kristen Ziman, Aurora (IL) Police Dept.

I recently blogged about “expert branding” and how it could help a police department’s overall mission by drawing on officers’ experience and taking some of the informational weight off the PIO’s shoulders.

Around the time I was writing the post, I noticed Lt. Kristen Ziman (@Lt_KZ on Twitter) was tweeting some pretty funny stuff. I also realized that her blog, Think Different, has a lot of personality to it. Most importantly of all, I saw that she wasn’t hiding behind a pseudonym, as many officers do, and her agency’s location was out there for everyone to see.

Contacting her via Twitter, I asked: are you the department PIO? How did you get to be its voice?

“No,” she responded, “I am not the PIO of the Aurora Police Department. We already have a brilliant and competent man who does that job (Dan Ferrelli).”

So what was up with the blog, and the tweeting?

“About a year and a half ago,” Ziman told me, “I asked the Chief if I could implement an ‘ask the police officer’ column where residents could write in questions on topics of interest to them. The Chief gave me the green light and Dan Ferrelli got the ball rolling with our local newspaper.

“It quickly evolved into more than a question and answer column and it became the police ‘voice’ on controversial topics in policing (police brutality, search and seizure, us vs. them mentality, police suicide, etc.). It got enough positive feedback that the newspaper has continued to run it on a bi-weekly basis…. My blog is simply a copy of all the columns that run in the Beacon and those are approved by [the Chief] before print.”

And Twitter?

“I joined Twitter just before the boom of subscribers,” says Ziman. “In our department/city, we have W.I.G.S. (Wildly Important Goals). Each division head must come up with goals that must be achieved each year. As the Shift Commander of midnights, I thought Twitter would be a neat way for the officers to follow our progress instead of waiting for my bi-weekly reports to come out.

“Unfortunately, only 4 or 5 guys started following me. The rest looked at me funny and continued to say, ‘What is Twitter again?’. Despite my persistence, that idea never panned out. Instead, I started following police officers from other agencies (and vice versa).

“So technically, I’m not the voice of the police department on Twitter. I just speak for me and for my shift and try to combine my individual persona with my professional one.”

The social media team

Ziman’s column/blog offers an alternative to the traditional structured information “push” to the community, not just in and of itself, but also in the way she works with the chief and the PIO to make sure everyone’s interests are served.

The model works so well that more departments need to consider implementing “social media teams,” groups composed of several department members with interest in representing the agency on the Internet. “Our department has 301 sworn officers (not including civilian employees) and only 1 PIO,” Ziman explains. “Our PIO can barely take a day off without being bombarded if a major incident occurs. For that reason alone, there should be more than one designated person responsible for updating information and responding to the public in these venues.”

Logical choices are school resource and DARE officers, detectives who specialize in the kinds of offenses—identity theft, or domestic violence—that demand public outreach in the name of prevention, and even administrators who seek a dialogue with the public over budgetary or policy issues.

The biggest element? Trust. “I never actually asked the Chief if I could Twitter ,” says Ziman. “I do believe he trusts that I would never disparage our police department and I am very careful to keep my tweets professional. I don’t verbalize my political beliefs or any other personal viewpoints that would not be in line with our mission.”

A good social media policy, such as the one created by the U.S. Air Force, helps manage outgoing messages and makes it easier for administrators to trust the team members transmitting them. It also ensures consistency, a critical element in public trust.

“I have noticed that citizens from my community and other City of Aurora employees are following me [on Twitter] so I think it adds to my goal of bridging the police and the community,” Ziman says. “For some citizens (who don’t break the law), my column is the only “contact” they have with a police officer. My hope is that is humanizes ALL police officers and the residents learn that we are more alike than we are different.”

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Can social media help guard against vigilantism?

Image: <a href=This week, the Stockton (Calif.) city council approved a budget that will lay off 55 police officers.  If you recall, Stockton was the city where—when the likelihood of a significant number of layoffs was announced in April—an armed militia announced plans to “activate” should this actually occur.

City officials, as Stockton resident and activist Bill Ries-Knight noted in an e-mail exchange with me, distanced themselves quickly from both the idea and its supporters. Mayor Ann Johnston was quoted as saying, “Oh, no no no no, no no no. … We don’t want armed citizens out there who are not trained.” Other residents strongly dissented as well, and the news has been quiet on the subject since.

Still, WTOL, Toledo Ohio’s CBS affiliate, reported in May that 75 police layoffs appeared to be leading to an increase in gun buying. So while most communities are probably not facing as extreme an issue as a 270-member militia on their streets, vigilantism may remain a real concern.

A PR opportunity for police

Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from being against gun ownership, and I think the community should be actively involved in crime prevention. But the difference lies in whether they allow the police to do their jobs, or take matters into their own hands.

The implications for social media, in my mind, are clear. Police need to be able to take the public firmly in hand to support them in protecting and defending themselves, doing so without breaking the law. They need to address public fears directly, even guide them in examples of what they can and can’t do—perhaps enlisting the help of a district or department attorney.

The point is not to engage the vigilantes in a shouting match. For one thing, the desire to form a militia is grounded in fear. So the point is to engage, not in a way that says “You’re wrong!” but in a way that acknowledges fears and values.

In some cases, this could be a matter of inviting the militia members to advise the police department. The Safe Neighborhood Action Group is listed as a “business consulting service.” Given the state of the economy, they might be invited to do this pro bono, in exchange for deputized militia members. Deputies would be required to go through department training, including ridealongs.

When they don’t want to collaborate

In other cases, however, this may not be possible. The group may be more interested in generating heat rather than light, noise rather than dialogue. The key then would be for the police department to take the high road. As Ries-Knight put it:

Police can let the community know of issues and community concern, traffic issues, good things the citizens do, gentle mentions and reminders of safety matters. Paint a picture of reality, slightly guilded to the bright side.

Communications of information like 3 thugs are in jail, an extortionist was arrested, 2 rapists were convicted last week due to good police work… an so on.

If there is a militia group in the area, send reminders to limit all activities to observation only, and feel free to share those observations.

Your thoughts?

The Stockton Police Department, incidentally, has no social-media presence (a situation Ries-Knight is working to change). Readers: how would you use social media to quell fears and reduce the chance of vigilantism in your community?
Image: The Raggedy-man via Flickr

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Personal, or professional… or both?

Image via <a href=I work with a client, a 25-year veteran of law enforcement, who is really gung-ho about social media… except for the personal part. “I don’t want to get personal,” he tells me. “I’m a cop. We don’t get personal.”

Trust me, I get that. I can’t understand it the way career cops do, but I’ve worked with cops for too long—even called some friends—not to understand how critical it is to keep from getting personal. (At least, too personal.)

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that this is one of the major barriers to law enforcement jumping on board with social media, even if individual cops can’t or don’t want to name it. “Social” by its very nature must mean “personal.”

Actually… not so much

“Social” simply means being in a space, interacting with other people. Some officers are really good at this. Others aren’t. Some officers who are great at personal interaction are lost online. Others, who flounder among other humans, are wonderful online.

There’s a place for all of them in a police department. Those to whom online interaction comes naturally—who converse on blogs, forums, and other spaces as if they were hanging out at a backyard barbecue—are the officers who should be encouraged to represent the department online. That’s because they’re the ones who will know how to draw the personal/professional line.

Finding the middle ground

So what’s the happy medium between personal and professional? Take my client. He’s been attending a lot of conferences lately as a vendor. “Tweet the conversations you have with people at the booth,” I advised him.

He did—kind of. “TechnoSecurity was a great conference as always. Saw lots of old friends and even met some new Twitter friends in person” was certainly a start. Generic—and yes, permission is an issue, but contacts who are in social media probably won’t mind, and those who don’t know what it is may not care—but a start nonetheless. Here’s what I envisioned:

  • Names. Who’s saying nice things about your agency? Let the rest of us know.
  • Details. What did they say? What did you talk about related to the agency or police work in general? Details provide context.
  • Problems , too. Get more of the community involved in helping solve them.

And passion

Passion can be a surprisingly effective bridge. My client has a lot of it for his product, and his company’s value proposition. People start to believe in you and your organization when you transmit passion. It’s the thing that makes you the most genuine human being, the place where people can see what makes you tick without needing to know all the details of your life that you may not want them to know (kids, marital status, etc.)

If you’re not comfortable with others seeing how you tick, then perhaps social media is indeed not right for you. But that’s no reason to cut it off from the rest of your department. A lot of people can very effectively transmit passion online without divulging sensitive information, and even if some younger members of your agency—who may be used to baring it all online—need some guidance in appropriateness, it can be well worth teaching them.

If nothing else: humor

I take everything way too seriously. I admit that. But I like a good laugh as much as anyone does, which was why, as a zombie-movie fan, I was absolutely delighted to see this brief bit about the Boston Police Department on Twitter.

Whoever is behind BPD’s Twitter account isn’t named, probably because it’s a team. Also, it’s hard to get into “conversations” with people when you are trying to get important information out to the four and a half million people you serve.

But a few brief, choice moments like that can make all the difference in others’ perspectives of you. People respond to other people. They’re more willing to forgive mistakes and give you the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong, whether it’s a breach of social-media etiquette or a serious problem with your reputation.

At the very least, moments like that can help take the edge off, say, everything that goes along with selling a house and relocating 1100 miles away (in my case, from Maine to South Carolina). What public safety professional wouldn’t want to help someone else de-stress?

Image via clairity on Flickr

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Train for the cameras

Image via <a href=American Police Beat’s recent blog about police pursuits (authored by Sgt. Timothy Long) caught my eye because of this passage:

For the viewer, a police pursuit is a real-time drama with an unknown outcome…. But what if you are the one engaged in the pursuit? You and your decision-making capabilities are playing out for the world to see. You may not have asked for a featured role, but your actions will be scrutinized and evaluated, and so it pays to be prepared.

It’s not just about pursuits

Social media makes that last sentence true for every call an officer goes on. Nearly everyone has a camera phone now; even the freebies that service providers give out as part of their contracts now contain cameras. As this Tampa Bay article points out, they are showing up at ever more incidents.

It doesn’t matter whether the footage goes national or viral or whatever buzzword you care to use. The fact that it’s out there, probably posted on YouTube, makes it likely to gain public if not media attention—even (especially?) if it’s off duty.

(In fact, as more law enforcement agencies switch over to digital two-way communications—depriving newsrooms of primary information sources—those reporters are more likely to set up Google Alerts and other forms of “listening” for mentions of your agency.)

So whether it’s a pursuit, armed confrontation, traffic stop, crash scene, domestic incident, or even just “routine” contact with the public, follow Sgt. Long’s advice: “Study, role-play and critique to become a better decision maker. Expect that the unexpected will test you without warning. This mental preparation should prepare you to manage your pursuit with poise, professionalism and control.”

Prepare creatively

This is good practice anyway. But it should not be left up to individual officers; it should be routinely encouraged, even in departments facing budget cuts. Creativity is key. I have heard that 10-15 minute roll call training can be effective in some ways, and some medical schools are even using Second Life to train future doctors.  Other ideas?

Update: Google blog announces that YouTube has a new site. Says YouTube’s Olivia Ma:

We believe the power of this new media landscape lies in the collaborative possibilities of amateurs and professionals working together.

And so today, we’re launching a new resource on YouTube to help citizens learn more about how to report the news, straight from the experts. It’s called the the YouTube Reporters’ Center, and it features some of the nation’s top journalists sharing instructional videos with tips and advice for better reporting.

In a perfect world, this kind of resource will result in better, less biased reporting. But we live in an imperfect world, where video is easily edited. How can police positively respond?

Image via amyrod/Flickr

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Big Brother vs. public safety

Image via <a href=In a previous post I questioned the value of a Twittering police department not following its followers back. The response from @ShawneePD (actually the city of Shawnee, Oklahoma‘s Chief Information Officer, Stephen Nolen): most followers deem it too “Big Brother.”

Point well made. Especially in light of this article from the U.K. Overwhelmingly positive in its portrayal of social media’s ability to start groundswells of citizen support and action, the article made a brief mention of law enforcement protest monitoring:

The principles of “flashmobbing” – impromptu gatherings of people, arranged by text message, for mass pillow fights or silent discos – is now being used by protesters too. It allows large groups of people to gather in one place at short notice before the authorities have the chance to block their efforts.

… In the weeks leading up to the G20 summit, the police have been monitoring these sites in an effort to stay one step ahead of the protesters. One senior officer warned it could turn in to a “cat and mouse” game around the streets of London, with police trying to stop incidents, organised hastily and online, as they flare up.

So yes. I do see the point of not following your followers back. However much respect the public may have for police, however much they support enforcement of laws, a person’s choice to engage in activities based on deeply held beliefs is a matter of First Amendment rights.

The need for monitoring

Yet mass protests are still a matter of public safety. At the very least, large crowds have the ability to block traffic. At worst, you get the 1999 World Trade Organization riots. Crowd control is necessary, and to control it, you have to know where it is.

So, while it may not be advisable to follow the most vocal of tweeting protesters, agencies that anticipate a large crowd of any kind—missing-child vigil, or post-athletic event celebrations—may want to stay on top of Twitter.

This can be done using both hashtags and generic terms, such as the names of prominent hubs where people may be drawn to congregate (street and/or building names), event/individual names, and so on. (Remember that not everyone remembers to use a hashtag; generic terms can be misspelled; not everyone follows the same conventions, for instance using both G-20 and G20.)

Don’t have time to devote to staying on top of manual searches? Use a service like Monitter, which pulls in tweets based on up to three user-defined search terms. A brand-new service, Yahoo! Sideline, allows you to customize groups according to a variety of keywords. In other words, just as you might use TweetDeck to group “PDs” you follow, Sideline would let you group a series of keywords or phrases.

Protecting everyone’s rights

It’s likely that at least some members of the public will still call this “Big Brother.” But if using social media is about listening to your customers—the people who benefit from your products and services—then it should be possible to back up your reasoning with a well-thought-out blog entry or editorial. Monitoring a protest enables faster response to criminal activities that do take place; monitoring a vigil for a crime victim may help catch the perpetrator. In short, it’s a way to ensure everyone’s rights remain secure.

Image: Rev Dan Catt via Flickr

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The new agency blog: What to say?

Image via <a href=

Image via Jacob Botter/Flickr

Starting an official department blog can be intimidating, especially for those who don’t think of themselves as “writers.” As I wrote earlier, you should consider it another form of communication – talking to the public. But what do you actually write about?

Some blogs, like the LAPD’s, take the concept of newspapers’ “Police Blotter” a little further and more in-depth. Others, like the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department’s, Chief Casady’s blog in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the Lakeland (Florida) police blog comment on issues in the community and the department.

But where do you get ideas? In smaller communities, things may not happen frequently enough to discuss in-depth. And police blotters are often covered by “the local rag,” the small newspapers that publish them for entertainment as well as news value.

A good department blog accomplishes several things. Here’s what I recommend:

The About page

The About page tells readers who you as blogger are, what you intend to accomplish with the blog. This can be difficult to write; even writers struggle with our own About pages.

My advice: have some fun with it. Write a couple of sentences about how long you’ve been a cop and/or worked for the department, the different jobs you’ve held. Then maybe something about your favorite aspects of each job, or of police work overall. It doesn’t have to be long.

Who blogs?

Even if you’re the blog’s “sole proprietor,” get some of the other officers involved. Some may already blog (anonymously, but known among fellow officers) or have great information on certain problems: identity theft, Internet crimes against children, domestic violence. Interview them, ask them to write a guest post.

If they don’t want to blog, involve them by interviewing them—seriously or humorously. Ask off-the-wall questions if you think they’ll be well received; for instance, get detectives to tell you how their jobs are not like TV. And don’t think any of this has to be long. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

Who’s your audience?

Think community: seniors, teens, parents, business owners, home owners. Very few of these people will be offline. Think in terms of solving the problems they have, the problems they worry about. List 10 things you want the public to know about carseat safety, bike safety, going on vacation, any other trends you see coming through your office. Give them short lists – top 10s, or 7 Reasons to Ask for House Checks or opposites, 7 Reasons Not to Get Your Carseat Checked (as long as you can write tongue in cheek)!

More serious topics can include education on local and state laws, but this should be done in context of trends you see. Don’t just link to state statutes online; explain them in plain English (though perhaps ask a friendly attorney to look it over first). Civilians deserve to know how laws affect the way police treat identity theft or stalking or property damage.

When the blog first starts, it’s likely that not too many people will read it yet. This is okay. Use the time to build content, find your sea legs and discover your voice. Once you get it up and running, and everyone is comfortable with it, local media may be able to help you publicize it. You should also find local bloggers and Internet forums to comment on (providing a link to the blog). If able to, hand out flyers at community events and maybe to downtown business owners.

Accept comments

This is a tricky subject. Some departments have experimented with blogs, then had to shut them down because the comments were too abusive… but couldn’t be moderated without infringing on free speech. (An official blog represents a government agency; only private individuals have the right to moderate comments.) This is always a possibility.

But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start out accepting comments, which can be an important means of listening. Burglary may not be a significant problem in your community, for example, but it may be on citizens’ minds—enough that blogging about, and linking to, tips like these can go a long way toward showing the public you care about their fears as well as their realities.

Be human

Most law-abiding civilians want to relate to police. Some “old school” cops may be uncomfortable with this concept, believing it will undermine their authority whether civilians respect the law or not; anyone can become a criminal if the wrong buttons are pushed, and it’s harder to arrest people you’ve spoken to as friends.

But this may be the Internet’s advantage: it’s an extra layer between you and the public. So, in my opinion, you as department blogger shouldn’t be afraid to be yourself. If you have kids, talk about them with regard to whatever content you’re writing (say, if you write about bike safety, how are you teaching your kids to ride safely?). Be funny, show your sense of humor, don’t make it “official”; or balance “official” with a lighter side, perhaps even switching off with another officer.

Department blogs aren’t for everyone. For one thing, only interested officers should be blogging. (Those who regard it as a chore will broadcast that attitude loud and clear.) And administrators should be sure to set up a plan, including a list of alternative bloggers, should the main author go on extended leave or even depart the agency. A blog left hanging looks unprofessional.

However, blogs can be an excellent tool to connect with the public on a personal level, so they should not be dismissed out of hand. Explore all the social media options (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth); talk to other administrators of departments that have blogs or have tried them. Get everyone’s opinion, then base your decision on what you feel will work best for your agency.

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