Tag Archives: relationship building

Victoria Police Department: Strategic planning that integrates social media

In my last post, I blogged about how public opinion—and trust—is formed according to the way police use (and communicate their use of) technology. This week’s post isn’t a direct sequel, but more of an exemplar: how one agency has implemented a strategic plan that integrates social communication.

Having participated in a client’s strategic planning process this past summer, I took notice of a tweet from the Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) Police Department in mid-November:

Strategy that involves public opinion

To some degree, VicPD’s strategic plan reminds me of Boca Raton’s VIPER program. Visibility, Intelligence, Partnerships, Education, and Resources are, however, more public relations-focused than VicPD’s five-step plan, which takes into account both internal and external issues: operation effectiveness, recruitment and retention, communication improvement, regionalization, and partnerships with other community groups.

Constable Mike Russell, VicPD’s public affairs media spokesperson and social media officer (as well as a former community resource officer with Edmonton, Alberta Police Department), says the plan had been in the works for nearly a year before its launch.

The result: a strategy that spans 8 years rather than the typical 3 to 5. Developed into a 16-page, image-driven brochure, the plan is “a living document,” its online counterpart a bare-bones microsite. That’s because it seeks to crowdsource direction: for community members to collaborate with the agency, helping to determine how their police will function.

To that end, Russell says, the agency intends to use QR codes and social media to establish an ongoing dialogue with the public. They will also update the microsite’s videos, goals and action steps four times a year.

Brainstorming ideas that lead to action

“Our chief and the planning facilitators took us on a different journey than we’re used to, a peer to peer process where rank doesn’t matter,” Russell says. “It was about the questions rather than the answers, so we were given carte blanche for brainstorming.”

Indeed, Russell says the feedback has been made intentionally informal in the plan’s early stages, in order to encourage relationship-building and to avoid bureaucracy within the public forum. “We divided our community into sectors, with people made responsible for each,” he explains. “Then, we began to encourage the citizens to bring their ideas to the working groups.”

Each working group has a lead manager who oversees four police officers and one civilian. The managing inspectors are ultimately responsible for implementing action items, but act as facilitators for their groups to find the right avenues to go down.

Part of that is police differentiating between service provision, rather than delivery—and asking citizens to think in the same terms, basing their ideas off that distinction, which puts police in much more of a “helping” rather than transactional frame. This allows everyone to talk about problems in terms of solutions.

Finding community-specific solutions

For example, within three days of beginning the planning process, Russell says certain themes had begun to emerge. “Regionalization [Step 4] was the biggest,” he says. “And while we didn’t set out to create silos, we found ideas running up the middle with outliers on either side.”

This is particularly important in a community where demographics are shifting. Baby boomers, who are retiring from the workforce in greater numbers, will shift their public safety priorities accordingly. Meanwhile, young people need a format in which to participate effectively.

That’s why planning involves best practices research, including who should do it and how to adapt, train on, and implement their recommendations for police.

Another important piece: recruitment and retention of people who can mirror the community itself. As Russell says, “The organization’s makeup hit a bubble where 1/3 of the people are all retiring in a short timespan. When that happens, all their experience goes away.”

VicPD seeks to hire and train people with many different communication styles, the better to move public relations forward. And, because the agency wants to ingrain social media throughout its operations, it wants people who can focus on taking part in conversations (rather than being technically savvy), which Russell says “brings empathy” on all sides.

Publicizing VicPD’s new focus

Russell says that in lieu of a traditional ad campaign, news media have been helping to generate awareness around the plan—but that word of mouth and social media have been especially crucial in spreading the plan’s content around.

“We’ve changed the way we’re doing social media from a newsfeed, to tweetups and other ways to create personal connections,” Russell explains. “Some of the best conversations happen off hours, in the evenings and weekends.”

VicPD has not yet seen these conversations translated into an offline space; coffee dates, announced on Facebook and Twitter, have not gotten much response.

Finally, Russell says, although VicPD plans to learn from police in other countries, “We’re not looking to do the same thing as everyone else. For example, we’ve seen both right and wrong examples of how to handle the Occupy movement worldwide. The key is to be open and honest with people, not contrived, which many people find offensive.”

Has your agency ever participated in strategic planning for its future? What did that process look like for you?

Raw video: Tactics + strategy for a YouTube age

Police filming students during the anti-cuts demonstration in London 26.3.2011A Law Enforcement Today article recently covered the question: what do you do when a civilian starts recording you for a YouTube video?

Regardless of whether your jurisdiction’s policy is to view videotaping as Constitutionally protected free speech, or a danger to officer safety, stated author Jean Reynolds:

Criminal justice experts suggest the following guidelines can go a long way to head off liability problems arising from citizen videotaping:

  1. Always identify yourself immediately as a police officer.
  2. Speak clearly and courteously, avoiding inflammatory slang and street talk.
  3. Use positive words like “cooperate” and “protect” whenever possible.
  4. Describe what you’re doing and why.

One problem: memory in high-stress situations is a tricky thing, as the Force Science Research Center has shown. That’s compounded by the fact that online video is as easily edited as it is recorded.

Weeks following the pepper-spraying of UC/Davis student protesters — once the damage had been done to both agency’s and officers’ reputations — an “extended cut” of the incident surfaced. In fact, the officer responsible for pepper spray use, along with his colleagues, had communicated extensively with students before spraying them.

Emphasize strategic as much as tactical messaging

Telling officers to “behave professionally at all times,” regardless of what they’re doing, where they are or whether they’re being videoed, is important… but overemphasizes the tactical aspect of a situation. Department commanders should also consider strategic aspects, including:

Community culture. Watching the full UC/Davis video was almost like watching newsreel from 1968. The protesters were organized, using professional activist tactics to push the situation in the direction they wanted it to go. Police commanders need to be not just aware of activist organizations in their communities, but also in regular contact with them before, during, and following events — acting “as facilitators rather than a force to be confronted.”

The nature of journalism. Traditional journalists have argued that “citizen journalists,” who are not beholden to the same ethical standards, can edit video, text and images with impunity (among other issues). Professional media, however, are not immune; their businesses are suffering, and they’re hungry for saleable stories. So while police and media may have reached a communication standoff in many communities, helping media understand the specific agency’s point of view is key to helping citizens understand.

The messages they themselves are transmitting — intended or unintended — to their communities. After I posted the LE Today article to my Google+ stream, I received this response from a civilian:

The article alludes that there is a “problem” with the video taping of police?… Why is it a “problem” when citizens do it, but its “for protection” when the all-seeing-eye is on a cruiser’s dashboard? If you’re doing your job honorably, and following protocol, in many cases, that tape just became (or should have) “your protection”, no?… These [four items] sound like things [police officers] should ALWAYS be doing (esp. #1 & 2), regardless of any “problem” or “fear” of recording.

In other words, a “do as I say, not as I do” approach will not encourage the kind of relationship-building which most chiefs agree is essential to community policing.

Open government and officer safety need not be at odds

Officer safety is a real concern, but to my knowledge, no one has been able to point to ambushes that happened because attackers had been studying videos of police tactics. Some of the highest profile ambushes have been crimes of opportunity: four officers killed in a coffee shop, several shot as they sat in their idling cruisers, an officer killed during a traffic stop.

Governments at all levels pay lip service to embracing transparency without understanding what it entails, which is usually a path full of thorns involving personal privacy, sometimes ugly truths, and the hard work needed to fix problems (often despite tight budgets). However, many Americans, both left and right, express fear that we are sliding towards — or living in — a police state. Officer safety is as much a function of public trust as it is tactical prudence. Law enforcement agencies that champion transparency, starting with public scrutiny for their officers’ actions, will go a long way towards assuaging that fear.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Cleaner Croydon

Occupy policing, Part II: Setting — and conveying — the right tone

Occupy San Francisco RallyOn LinkedIn last week, I posted an item to several of my groups about how the Philadelphia Police Department cleared the city’s Dilworth Square of Occupy protesters. I received a LinkedIn message asking me what it had to do with social media or the Internet, and rather than respond one-on-one, I thought it would be valuable to go into greater detail here.

To start with, PPD actually did use Twitter to get its message out to Occupiers. More than that, though, was the way PPD commanders engaged in careful planning, including:

  • Reciting the First Amendment at each roll call.
  • Restricting officers from carrying pepper spray or Tasers, and assuming sole authority for the decision to use force.
  • Reminding officers to be ready for citizens to film them.

These measures were notable enough, but what also stood out to me was the way communications planning took into account the way protesters themselves were communicating:

During the trip to Center City, Karima Zedan, the department’s director of strategic communications, monitored the chatter on social media of a building police presence at City Hall. Zedan and Ramsey discussed whether they should send the occupiers a message through the department’s Twitter feed, which they knew the protesters monitored.

“What we should say is just what our goal is, and that’s to safely remove people so construction can begin,” the commissioner said.

As Ramsey’s Car 1 arrived at City Hall about 1 a.m., Zedan sent the tweet.

Indeed, PPD’s Twitter feed from that day was filled with tweets about, and to, Occupy:

It was not all that dissimilar to an October 10-11 effort in Boston, where police moved protesters from an unapproved encampment near an original, agreed-upon site:

Boston Police communicated to protestors the request to vacate the 2nd encampment and return to the original site numerous times throughout the evening via Twitter, flyers and in person [as well as its blog]. The required police action resulted in the arrest of 141 individuals who were charged with Unlawful Assembly or Trespassing.

The agency’s Twitter feed, while more repetitive than Philadelphia’s, similarly used hashtags and other community-oriented language and tone:

For BPD, which has been on the forefront of social media use (including a personal approach rarely seen in law enforcement tweets), this style of communication was not unexpected… although I believe it could’ve been less defensive. See the difference between BPD’s messaging tone, and PPD’s?

Defensive, derisive or merely dismissive: How tone affects your message

Again, simply using Twitter to communicate with Occupy protesters is not the point. While I do, as I said in my last post, wish police were using their feeds more proactively, the fact that communication is being built into encampment removal plans at all is important.

The New York Times’ graphic of the evolution of riot gear shows that communication with protesters was poor and inflexible in 1968, but had given way to negotiation and flexibility by 1995. Although communication is, unfortunately, not mentioned by name in 2011, indirect forms of communication are: managed protests via the permit process, along with “regular use of intimidation.”

It’s these indirect forms of communication that can affect a blog post or Twitter feed, too. In contrast to Boston and Philadelphia police tweets, @RichmondPolice’s appeared to want to downplay any mentions of Occupy by limiting their tweets — even as police bulldozed encampments on Halloween. (Three of those tweets were directed to people who had addressed them first; several of those, directed to the same person.) No Occupy hashtags were used, and the tone (“We’re sorry you have an issue…”) borders on dismissive.

These kinds of nonverbal communication speaks volumes about police officials’ collective approach to people in a certain situation. Look at the way officials in each of these three cities spoke about protesters:

“These people are not criminals,” said Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan, who oversaw the operation. “They are not our enemies.” (Philadelphia)

“We continue to encourage the leadership of Occupy Boston to maintain an open dialogue with authorities in the spirit of coordination and cooperation.” (Boston) (To be fair, less than two months later, Police Commissioner Ed Davis was quoted as saying, “[There are] drugs, vandalism and assaultive behavior. [$723,000 in police overtime is] a significant amount of money…. [which] would be much better spent in neighborhoods where there is firearm violence.”)

Meanwhile, a brief Google search revealed that Richmond police had little to say beyond the fact that nine arrests took place. Again, it would appear that they were trying to downplay the protests in their city.

The work of relationship building

Some believe that police are not there to understand or to communicate with Occupy protesters; rather, their job is to investigate crime and remove encampments when ordered to do so. Indeed, PoliceOne.com reports that police went undercover at Occupy Los Angeles, collecting intelligence on any potential threats to law enforcement.

Even at that, according to the L.A. Times: “From the outset, department officials had struck a collaborative, friendly stance with protesters, and believed they knew what to expect from them [when police stormed the park]…. ” That work paid off; the LAPD was widely praised for its restraint in removing the encampment.

It’s notable, as the Times further reports, that police invited clergy and legal observers to witness police-community interactions. That is not the mark of a police state, nor are agencies that seek to understand the mistakes of others in order to avoid them.

What Philadelphia’s effort showed was that, if police want to avoid reinforcing this belief, any communication plan should not just include logistics — who will communicate, via what channels, how often, etc. — but also careful assessment of:

  • What emotions they may inadvertently convey. Even something as short as a tweet can read sarcastic or condescending. Professional police shouldn’t allow this to happen, but are still human, still experience frustration and irritation. Make sure your bloggers, Twitter users and videographers understand how miscommunication can hurt relationship-building efforts, especially in sensitive parts of your community.
  • Whether the right people are communicating. Most law enforcement agencies would rather maintain control over their messages by restricting the number of people who can send them, but think about officers who know particular communities or issues better than any other. Consider having them contribute to, if not outright create, content on behalf of your agency.
  • How much information you can reasonably transmit, taking into account ongoing operations. Law enforcement agencies are no different from other organizations in their desire to avoid liability. However, a tight communication policy won’t protect your agency from a lawsuit if there are deep systemic problems, and citizens value information — the more of it they have, the more comfortable they feel. So consider sharing what you can about what you do, even if this requires a sustained effort with long-term planning.

Occupy protesters may be, compared to other areas of a community with deeper and longer-standing problems, a nuisance to be dealt with before moving on. But they remain members of the community, and they’ll remember how police approached them — via Twitter, in person, on a picket line or even as part of their group. Whether their memories are positive or negative will drive how they interact with police in the future to solve public safety problems. And so, even when police stick to their core mission, the tone in which they communicate their efforts remains critical to their success.

How has online or in-person tone shaped your interactions with people in your community?

Creative Commons License photo credit: breyeschow