Tag Archives: MySpace

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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Experts: Branding opportunities in disguise

Image: <a href=Much of the focus on law enforcement use of social media is on police departments as a whole. From a community-relations standpoint, this is important—but police departments may be missing out on a valuable opportunity to brand themselves and law enforcement in general. For that, they might consider turning to individual experts.

What’s an individual expert?

It’s the detective who, in addition to work with the PIO to “push” information through the department MySpace page, also allows the public to connect with him personally to end unwanted communications when they’re on MySpace.

It’s the cybercrimes investigator who’s actively involved on LinkedIn, connecting with other investigators through networking and even going beyond the law enforcement community to connect with counterparts in private industry.

It’s the cop who gives presentations to community groups, senior citizens’ homes, and schools—and posts them on SlideShare, where anyone can access critical information about identity theft, Internet crimes against children, and other high-profile crimes.

And it’s the patrol officer who’s on Twitter, or who keeps her own blog; who humanizes police work, shows the person behind the uniform and the real issues behind the 6 o’clock news.

Uncontrolled information?

To be sure, this idea is outside the bounds of traditional law enforcement hierarchies. Tightly controlled information has been—and still is, to some extent—crucial to the overall mission of preserving peace and public safety.

But social media has changed the way people look for information. They trust traditional media less, and each other more. That’s why individuals have a role to play in this century’s organizations.

CEOs of private corporations face the same issues as police chiefs. If “just anyone” can blog or tweet, doesn’t that risk the organization’s reputation just as much as the rogue on YouTube?

To some extent, yes. But the people who use social media tend to be there because they’re motivated to improve their own and others’ lives. Those who use it for malicious purposes are shunned—the implicit understanding among “hard core” users is that social media is there to help.

(For a look at a corporation that has allowed employees to blog freely, read this 2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article that went in-depth with Microsoft employee blogging.)

Thus the organizations that allow their employees free rein find success in the online social world. Likewise, the police departments that allow officers, within appropriate boundaries, to expand the reach of their overall community policing efforts can only improve their standing among the online public.

Image: Mai Le via Flickr

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Nixle adds stability to Tyrone, GA tweets

Tyrone PD's Nixle page

Tyrone PD's Nixle page

When I first read articles about Nixle, I was concerned. Yes, it’s secure and stable, and that alone makes it a vastly better way to broadcast information than using Twitter.

But the key word is “broadcast.” Social media enthusiasts are quick to point out that “it’s all about the relationship.” Communication is a two-way street; companies, for instance, no longer advertise—they build trust.

And police already do enough broadcasting. Traditional TV and newspaper media, for instance, work well for getting information out about both emergencies and community events and issues.

So why should a police department use a one-way tool like Nixle? Because it can be a critical first step in another important aspect of social media: engaging community members where they are—online, via their cell phones, even via email.

As Tyrone, Ga. Police Chief Brandon Perkins wrote in his Nixle review, not only will citizens listen to what you’re saying; they’ll seek you out because they want to know. And it will inspire future positive interaction.

Following up on Chief Perkins’ blog entry, which he graciously allowed me to cross-post on Cops 2.0, I talked a bit about it with him.

What Nixle is for

Police tweets commonly have to do with traffic problems, including crashes and closures; public information, such as crime patterns; and police log-type postings. The problem is, Twitter tends to crash. The “fail whale” that tells us “Twitter is over capacity” means that a lot of people stand to miss out on critical information.

And that means Twitter—for all its cutting-edge importance to those of us in the business world—can hurt a police department. Fail whale in the middle of a hostage situation or weather crisis? The public would wonder why you chose such an unstable medium, why something better doesn’t exist. And that can hurt long-term community relations as easily as twittering cops can help it.

Enter Nixle, a self-described Community Information Service built on the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS) platform. There are no “fail whales” with Nixle; it boasts a 99.99% uptime. Unlike NLETS, however, the easy-to-use interface requires no in-depth training.

As Perkins points out, Nixle isn’t just for emergencies. “We are using Nixle for community relations as well,” he says. “They have different levels for messages: Alerts, Advisories, Community, and Traffic.”

140-character community relations

If Nixle is a one-way tool, how is it possible to use for community relations—a two-way street? Moreover, how does it apply on the Internet, where communication is much more laid-back, less official than talking to a uniform or on the phone?

For starters, Nixle does integrate with Twitter. And its easy-to-read interface makes it crystal clear what kind of message is being broadcast. “The community messages can be used to send pretty much any kind of message,” says Perkins.

So how to encourage two-way communication? “I think posting regular community messages on Nixle and encouraging citizens to interact via email and Twitter would be necessary,” says Perkins, though he adds, “Believe me, if an agency uses Nixle to provide info, they WILL get feedback from their citizens—I’ve only posted [a few] messages and have received several positive emails about it.”

Thus far, Nixle interfaces only with Twitter, not Facebook or MySpace (though the company is actively soliciting suggestions for changes). However, Twitter interfaces with Facebook via RSS; so a Nixle post automatically going to Twitter would then go to Facebook.

Nixle’s contact information block is limited to one website, but TPD’s site is social-friendly: citizens are encouraged to sign up for both Nixle and the department’s RSS feed, follow on Twitter, and of course contact police personnel.

Media relations and critical incidents

A recent Twitter case study showed how a strong relationship between a police department’s public information officer (PIO) and reporters is even more crucial in the age of instant information.

“If the local PD is quick to post in order to keep the rumor mill at bay, then Nixle would be a good medium to do it,” says Perkins.

However, “quick to post” is the operative term. “We have been the victim of rumors too many times,” he adds. “I am adamant to my people that we are going to use Nixle to advise the citizens as often as possible after [field supervisors] are trained.”

In fact, Perkins anticipates that it will be easy to train the supervisors. “When you log into Nixle, there is a simple entry field [with a] button where you select the message type. Choose one and type your message and it then sends e-mail, SMS, Twitter posts, and creates a static online entry for you.”

Too easy? “Other chiefs say things to me about the amount of information I put out, but we are different generations,” says Perkins. “I am not willing to sit back and allow false allegations against my people, nor will I sit on something my citizens need to know I prefer to get the information in the open before they have time to ask. I think posting 24/7 as needed is what will make an agency the most effective; the stuff don’t hit the fan only between 8 and 5.”

But Perkins acknowledges that field supervisors’ posts will be limited to emergencies only, and that other items will be filtered. Training will involve not only how to use Nixle, but will also include scenarios. Initial training will be one-on-one, and will use the Nixle demo account to enable supervisors to get used to the system.

Finally, says Perkins, “I am set up to get posts, so I will know immediately if a problem exists and can take action.” Policy will also be an important part of the system. “[It] will cover various situations where use is approved and sample posts.”

He adds: “A lot of this is trust based. I think that is hard to swallow for some, but I think you train [supervisors] the best you can and give them access to the tools. We trust them with guns, cars, and the ability to arrest. Why not with providing vital info to citizens?”

The shallow end of the pool

Overall, Nixle may be just the “shallow end of the pool” that police chiefs need as they begin to wade into social media for their agencies. To be able to broadcast information on a level and in terms their citizens can understand would, in Perkin’s words, make such an agency “a real hero to their people.”

It would also provide a cushion such that administrators could begin to refine public information policies, duties, etc. for agencies that don’t have dedicated PIOs, or have limited public information going out.

However, says Perkins, “I also see it building momentum and becoming a ‘household’ name soon also—it is backed by too many widely recognized organizations, and they are going to be pushing it.” To illustrate his point, he points out that while TPD is just the 16th law enforcement agency in the U.S. to go live with Nixle, 600 more are in the process of becoming certified to use or test the system.

That makes it important for administrators to recognize that Nixle is but one channel in the wider social-media spectrum. Rather than use it as an excuse to hold off on learning Twitter and Facebook, administrators should look at it as a gateway.

“[Nixle] certainly wants to be part of social media, or they wouldn’t have offered Twitter integration from the get-go,” says Perkins. “Part of their material talks about social media, but states that it is not a secure platform, hence their partnership with NLETS.”

Perkins sums up his Nixle early adoption in terms of three reasons: “1. I have been using four platforms to deliver one message, 2. other all-in-one platforms are expensive, and 3. I am a huge advocate of public interaction. Nixle ties it all together at no cost and it is a secure and reliable platform.”

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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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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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Social Media vs Employer

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

Cop catches heat for profane blog entries

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

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

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

A little background

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

A little history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The meat of the article…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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