Tag Archives: Online Communities

Ssh… hear that?

Listening provides insights, sometimes unexpectedly

Listening provides insights, sometimes unexpectedly

This blog by a Portsmouth (Virginia) civilian points up how valuable the concept of “listening” is to modern police departments—all departments, not just those who are engaging the public on social networking sites.

At the very least, rudeness is a common complaint among civilians. “That cop acted like he didn’t get his donut this morning,” they might say of an officer who stopped them for speeding. Worse, even acting totally within policy might land you in USA Today.

Either way, there is no explaining that officers have good and bad days like anyone else, that policies are in place for good reasons. The uniform is all they see. And as one Twitter followee put it: “When customers complain, they are first looking to be validated. Remember that before saying ‘sorry it’s policy.’”

It’s easy to get defensive, to use misunderstanding as an excuse to insulate oneself and one’s agency from legitimate criticism. But the beauty of the Internet is that no one has to know you’re listening.

Value in listening alone

Listening doesn’t only enable you to gauge your agency’s general reputation both within and outside of your community. It also helps you assess current events. Take, for instance, this rundown of the recent Toronto storm. I was struck in particular by these paragraphs:

As weather stations forecast the storm earlier in the day, there was a brief spike in conversation in the morning. Conversation related to the tornadoes themselves began to erupt around 6pm….

Another noticeable feature is the second spike in conversation later in the evening. The storm was well away from Toronto by this point; this spike represented people discussing their experiences and posting photos and videos they had collected during the episode.


Not surprisingly, with Twitter being the golden child of the moment, especially for time-sensitive updates, micromedia comprised almost three-quarters of the conversation relating to tornadoes. Blogs made up 13 per cent, while images captured by people comprised 10 per cent of the conversation.

This is a substantial departure from the day as a while, during which nearly 40 per cent of the conversation about Toronto occured on blogs and a similar amount occurred on Twitter. A useful reminder that while Twitter is high-profile, on a day-to-day basis much conversation happens elsewhere.

(I bolded the text above.) Click through to the full post—it comes complete with graphs showing usage patterns.

Given that people now rubberneck incident scenes with camera phones in hand, listening has immediate value to most everything a law enforcement agency does. So how do you listen?

Listening tools

Chris Brogan’s method of aggregating RSS feeds (described in two separate posts, here and here) may be the simplest.

Still too complicated? Plan to move towards aggregate RSS feeds, but start with Google Alerts. They’re easy to set up for mentions of your town: Greenville + “South Carolina,” Portland + Maine, Pittsburgh + G20.

Tack on the words “police” and/or “crime” or some other related term if you wish, but consider staying general, getting a feel for what’s going on in the area as a whole—or at least, online public perception of what’s going on.

Search Twitter and Google News on local issues: police contract negotiations, discontent with a political or business issue (say, Wal-Mart moving in), public reaction to a high-profile crime (and police response to it), even traffic patterns (especially if you’re running targeted patrols in certain areas). Monitter allows you to search Twitter on three simultaneous terms; Backtype allows you to track blog comments via keywords.

Whether Google Alerts or targeted searches, remember to refine your efforts. Some search terms may be too narrow, others too broad. Change them up as your needs change, as new issues arise.

Need more? A comprehensive (and regularly updated) list of monitoring tools is available. Take a week or two to explore each site, then propose which solutions would best fit your agency.

What needs listening to in your community?

Image: keela84 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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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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Twitter: Not If, but How

Image: <a href=CNN.com recently reported on how police departments are using Twitter, while it garnered a mention on PoliceOne. Twitter is, without a doubt, a great tool. But don’t jump on it just because a lot of other departments are. Jump on it because it’s a powerful means of connecting—and don’t restrict yourself to just one use.

Most agencies use Twitter to broadcast. They tweet police logs, traffic reports, dispatch calls. They are frequently followed by a number of people in their communities. They use it, in short, as another communications channel like TV or radio.

But Twitter is part of the “social” web. Most people who use it expect and intend to talk to other people: to network, share news, discuss things (yes, even in 140 characters or less). And while they may not expect their police department to follow them back (much less have discussions with them)–how many cops do that in real life?–it doesn’t mean tweeting officers shouldn’t do just that.

Consider what one of my favorite social media experts had to say about Twitter:

When I say be human, I mean that I’m a person, not a company. I run a company, but I’m a person. Thus, I get cranky, or I tell jokes, or I run at the mouth sometimes. Whatever. It’s part of the tapestry, not a flaw. If you’re not treating Twitter like a personal communications device that also happens to be a business tool (or some mix of the two), you’re missing what makes this fun and vital.

How can a police tweeter use Twitter to best effect?

  • Follow followers back. Not necessarily all of them; feel free to be judicious. (The more people you follow, the more “noise” you’ll see; the more difficult it will be to listen and talk to people.)
  • Following followers back enables them to direct-message you. This can be a valuable channel if they have a question or other issue they need to discuss privately. Even if you can’t help them yourself, a DM shows they trust you enough to believe you will get the ball rolling.
  • Pay attention to your “@” replies. This is a key function of Twitter software as well as twitter.com. They will tell you when someone is talking to you. Software like TweetDeck will also access Twitter Search, telling you when someone merely mentions your username. (Be sure to check Twitter Search periodically for misspellings.)
  • Broadcast department news, but also consider “retweeting” relevant community news (many local media outlets are beginning to join Twitter too). This is easiest when you follow those outlets.
  • Consider following other interesting people: other cops, private investigators, other government bloggers, or people who blog about government bloggers.

Finally, if you or your administrators are uncomfortable with “@CityPD” talking more personally to people, consider establishing a personal account, whether or not you connect it to the agency account.

Likewise, if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of followers “@-ing” or DM’ing you, put a policy in place. Decide how you plan to deal with requests, what you will and won’t deal with. Most reasonable people will respect reasonable explanations.

Information sharing

A personal example of Twitter’s networking power: several weeks ago I was online, working late at night. One of the patrol officers I follow posted a question asking whether anyone could help him recover video evidence of an assault from Facebook. I follow a number of digital forensics examiners, both sworn and not, so I “retweeted” his request.

Within minutes we were getting responses. Some suggested tools he could use. Others warned him to be careful with whatever he used to get the video; collecting online evidence must remain legally defensible, and most tools aren’t made for this purpose. And at least two offered their assistance. He was able to get the video that night.

My point: Twitter is a place to exchange ideas and information with other cops, with concerned citizens in your own town—and beyond. If you want to try something, chances are someone else is also trying it or has tried it, and will be able to offer advice and insight. Even opinion can help shape policy.

So by all means, now that traditional media have shown other departments trying out this “new media,” feel comfortable jumping on board. Just don’t be afraid to flex its muscles even if other departments aren’t—yet. It took only a few agencies to start a trend; a few more taking it in another direction can be models for a kind of community involvement that many feel has been missing for too long.

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