Tag Archives: transparency

High tech roundup: February 2012

iPhone 4 cameraIf you came to this blog by way of Twitter or Facebook, you know that for several months I’ve been using the Scoop.It bookmarking service to aggregate news items about how police are using high tech. One reason I like it: its magazine-style format is nicely laid out, easy to read and easy to digest. Monthly I pull out articles that seem to revolve around a few particular themes. This month: digital investigative techniques, and transparency through video and other content.

Digital investigative techniques

Should police receive training in low-level online crimes? The UK-based Commons Science and Technology committee thinks so. This kind of strategy, like “Broken Windows” for the online world, would encourage police to care about the small problems in order to help citizens feel cared about and willing to partner to stop bigger crimes.

Also consider whether you, even if you don’t consider yourself a “high tech” investigator, need to geolocate images from mobile phones. A good step-by-step procedure comes from digital forensic examiner Girl, Unallocated. Take the time to try it out for yourself, and think about robbery, stalking, and other cases you might need geolocation data for.

Data visualizations — graphs, maps, and so on — can be important in court; would you create them if you knew how? Pete Warden documents his methodology, a process he says came via trial and error. It includes choosing a question, sketching the presentation, crunching the data—and finding the surprises. (Don’t be afraid of surprises during an investigation. They mean you’re doing good work.)

Making police work more transparent

Dashboard and body-worn cameras are up for debate in Nevada after Henderson police were filmed striking a motorist in diabetic shock; unions want more say in their installation and use. But as the Las Vegas Sun noted, “The city of Seattle and its police department, facing accusations of excessive force, have been sued seeking release of video footage. The department has lost tens of thousands of videos, the station, KOMO-TV, reported.”

I’ve written before about the importance of content that can show the public a police department’s need for better training. But if police are unwilling to make themselves more transparent, they are likely still to face the issue from other quarters. A Forbes.com op-ed noted:

Technology doesn’t just provide citizens with a way to tell their own version of events, it gives police departments all over the country a reason to implement much-needed reforms that can improve transparency and public trust. This will make cops safer and their jobs easier.”

Indeed, Baltimore police created new rules for public recordings of police. Follow suit, and keep up with your training, which — despite its traditional place on the chopping block in hard times — may just be more important now than ever.

Transparency in digital investigations

Of concern to citizens: how German police used Facebook to identify citizens, and how Denver police record witness descriptions. In both places, the human memory under duress is at issue. Going deeper, however, is the question: how do we use technology? In our drive to understand and adapt it, do we overrely on it?

You can’t, obviously, be transparent about everything in police work… but online engagement is a start toward the kind of transparency that puts citizens at ease enough to listen to you. My January column for Officer.com discussed police departments as media platforms, and a related article from the Content Marketing Institute, “Creating Content that Serves Its Civic Duty,” provides several examples of government websites doing content right—encouraging public engagement.

As Luke Fretwell wrote just recently, “Creating sustainable, meaningful civic contributions to government” is hard to encourage much less measure. Yet government agencies can do it, as Cumbria (UK) police showed when they held a live webchat about Internet safety.

How are you communicating your agency’s use of high tech to the public?

Creative Commons License photo credit: jesus_leon

The future of policing: Public trust

Before I go into this week’s post, I want to draw your attention to a new project being undertaken by a college professor acquaintance who, like me, has worked extensively with law enforcement. In his Jan. 1 blog, he writes:

Seeking LE organization willing to work virtually with supervised university students.

The goal is to give students more exposure to real officers and police administrators and fewer TV cops.

Are you willing to partner with a handful of students with retired-LE professor oversight on a small project tailored to your department/team needs? All project ideas considered, prefer those reated to mobile technology, with no anticipated cost to your organization.

I got excited about this even before Carter referred his readers to Cops 2.0, so please head on over, read the rest of his post and let us know if you’re interested. Thanks!

Policing for a future generation

Carefully balanced, technology can lead the wayI find Carter’s work — bringing younger citizens into active law enforcement research — especially important because, as 2012 begins, I think we need to take stock of where policing currently sits. In recent months I’ve seen a couple of opinions that indicate community policing, as we knew it in the 1990s, is dead; meanwhile, technology provides police with ever-increasing amounts of data about private citizens. Law enforcement, along with the societies it polices, is clearly in transition as technology and privacy collide at unprecedented rates.

This is not just true of the kinds and amount of data an investigator can glean from social media, surveillance video, license plate readers, and so on. It will also increase as law enforcement becomes comfortable with technology such as:

How police use these technologies, the extent to which they use them, and what they do with the data will face intense public and legal scrutiny, as they should. Now’s the time to get comfortable with transparency; if you’re worried about the bad guys finding out how you use technology, then you need to get creative about understanding 1) what the public needs to know and 2) how to communicate it to reduce privacy fears without giving away too many details.

Transparency sits between accountability and exposure

This may be more important than you think. As Scott Dickson wrote the other day, some agencies remain steeped in politics, manipulating their crime statistics by asking officers not to take reports. This, as Scott writes, is a double public relations whammy: not only does it look bad to citizens, who are unlikely to support budget increases for such an unprofessional agency; it also hurts the agency’s ability to see (and thus respond to) emerging problem patterns.

That’s especially worrisome given the balancing act our culture finds itself in as we begin a new decade. This infographic from the Institute for the Future has an interesting item, a “critical balance” of exposure and accountability that notes:

In the face of growing demand for accountability, public exposure will emerge as as a multifaceted strategy for disrupting existing power structures, both hidden and obvious, both criminal and socially beneficial.

There is both danger and opportunity in that balance: danger to certain law enforcement power structures, like the kind that manipulate crime stats. But also opportunity, for innovative investigators to understand and exploit how criminal power structures are being disrupted.

Indeed, Tim Burrows made relevant predictions in his recent post for the IACP Social Media Beat:

  • The ‘love-in’ experienced, “just because” the public’s local police are using social media is over and the public will demand (and deserve) greater accountability.
  • There will be less tolerance for mistakes, faux pas, and ignorance.
  • Working partnerships with individuals of influence, community groups, professional partnerships, and other police agencies will be standard.

As arms of the government, it’s incumbent on police to provide fair leadership to their communities. The law enforcement commander who doesn’t believe he has to justify his agency’s technology use — who believes crime-fighting is justification unto itself — necessarily invites public scrutiny. So does the commander who takes advantage of grant money without a long-term strategy to go with it; both COPS and homeland security programs have seen this happen.

True transparency shows strength, not weakness

This month’s Officer.com column describes using content to serve an agency’s goals, whether related specifically to social media, or more broadly to relationship-building. Besides that column, nearly two years ago (!) I wrote about one example of this kind of activity. There’s a lot of promise for communication. But also a lot of agencies that are so focused on the status quo that they can’t get out of their own way.

Digital content shared through social media can show how police are relevant and important to civil society, as well as weaknesses that need to be shored up. This is the exact opposite of stat manipulation because it’s not trying to cover over weakness; it’s leadership in asking for help to solve the problem.

Yes, the public needs to know a strong police force can competently and adequately enforce laws; but that’s during personal or community crisis. If an agency can’t provide services, in or out of crisis, because it lacks the funds to buy the technology that would enable that provision, then the public deserves to know up front, and deserves to become part of the solution. That was the promise of community policing.

What balances are you striking in your police work?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Calm Vistas

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

Social bookmarking for law enforcement

Yeah, I know. “Social bookmarking” is a ridiculous term. Brings to mind a visual of tweens giggling uncontrollably in a library. Next I’ll be telling you to read reports out loud to each other around a campfire, right?

Actually, social bookmarking can be a pretty powerful branding tool. It can help law enforcement agencies and professionals alike curate important content that supports what they’re doing.

Say you’re an identity theft expert. Not only could you bookmark items from national news about ID theft; you’d also bookmark stories from local and regional media to show the problem in your area. And you might bookmark interviews and presentations from other detectives on the subject.

It does that by aggregating links to news items on a particular topic or set of topics that you want to draw attention to. That way, visitors to your site have a better context for what you provide.

How I bookmark

I didn’t really get the point of social bookmarking until I started using it for a client. That’s why his list of bookmarks is awesome, and mine is all over the place. (Until I get it cleaned up.)

I start with Google Alerts, sometimes Twitter too. Alerts pull in news items and blogs based on keywords I’ve specified, like “Internet evidence.” I go through the listed items in each email and click on the ones that seem most pertinent to my interest areas. If someone tweets an interesting-looking link, I click on it to read. Then I bookmark and “tag” (organize by keyword) the items I want.

This makes it easy for me to go back and find it again if, say, I plan to use it for a blog entry. For my client, it’s a way to build a portfolio of product reviews, news from around the world that supports his company’s mission, and media coverage.

How this works for law enforcement

PIOs can derive a lot of use from a tool like this. Day to day, bookmarking and tagging items can help support initiatives like crime mapping. Do media stories accurately reflect the statistics? Good reporters should already be referring to maps—many news sites post them—but media perspective will be different from police’s.

In an ongoing crisis, for another example, a PIO might bookmark all the news coverage—local and national. A high-profile issue such as a missing child or serial offender will result in dozens of media interviews, which may result in actionable intelligence.

Aggregating bookmarks in one place is important for the public, too. It promotes transparency, shows your agency is organized about paying attention to what’s going on in the community.

This is true even when there’s a scandal involving an officer. Just as an internal investigation must be fair and balanced, so must its presentation to the community. Bookmarking coverage, again, shows transparency, a willingness to face trouble head-on. It can be one part of promoting public trust.

Individual cops can use it, too. My introductory example was about identity theft experts, but the possibilities are limitless for investigators from all walks: gang officers, detectives assigned to domestic violence cases, school resource officers… the list goes on, and can include officers seeking to educate each other as well as the public.

Bookmarking tools

I use social bookmarking service Delicious, but the problem with that is when links become outdated. Many news sites remove their archives after just a week or so. (I’ve found TV news tends to stay up longer than print news.) Still, tags are limitless and you can make notes on your bookmarks.

Another popular service, StumbleUpon, is more about “social.” I’ve found it can be time-consuming, and recommending your own coverage can get you banned, sometimes unfairly, users believe.

Recently I was approached to blog about iCyte (no they didn’t offer me anything), free social bookmarking that doubles as a capture tool. Bookmarked pages remain intact even after the original host has deleted them, because they are saved on the iCyte server. You can have multiple projects, save some or all of a page, tag pages, make notes, and so forth.

What kind of information can your community benefit from with your bookmarking?

The cost of transparency

When transparency makes you want to hide

When transparency makes you want to hide

Those of us who applaud organizational use of social media talk a lot about “transparency.” A company or government agency that allows its employees to blog or tweet, under their own names, about their lives and jobs is said to make us trust them more. It’s humans caring about what other humans experience. What could be simpler?

Too much transparency?

In August I blogged, also with regard to transparency, about a police chief friend who “went dark” on Twitter because a citizen had complained about some tweets he’d made off hours, with regard to his life outside of law enforcement.

The other day another friend said something similar. His story went like this:

I had some citizens that were giving me info via Twitter [referring to] what they saw as a problem. I took the info and told them we were following up on it. We already were and it was drug related. When these folks didn’t see immediate reaction from LE they sort of took it out on me personally and my agency via Twitter posts. I replied with a professional, but possibly a bit stern reply….

That officer, Lt. Chris Mouser, is about as transparent as you can reasonably expect from a 17-year veteran of law enforcement. He tweets about his faith, his family, sometimes about his job as a patrol division commander. From what I can tell, he’s a good guy. Yet his human-ness was not enough for his critics.

Or was it too much?

Some people need authorities, not other people

I have wondered whether transparency is as valuable as progressive police chiefs, journalists, watchdog groups, and others tell us it is. While I think organizational transparency is absolutely valuable, personal transparency is a little more of a gray area.

Look at any log of 911 calls and you quickly see that many callers are looking for, in essence, stand-in parents. They want police to help them control their kids, take their medications, make sense of their lives.

And just as you don’t want to know about your parents’ sex life, many citizens don’t want to know that their police are anything but police. Personal details make them feel insecure, as if finding out that a cop has the same family problems they do makes him or her less able to handle their problems.

Says Mouser,

I find it much easier to speak with people on Twitter and [Facebook] when they are not from my town. When they live here they tend to turn it all into a work issue that I feel responsible for acting upon. They also expect me to talk/act a certain way…

Anticipating the haters

Social media can be a force multiplier. Cops can get the word out quickly and efficiently about problems in their communities. But when community members themselves are critical of those efforts, it’s all too easy for officers to develop “bunker mentality.” As Mouser puts it,

I just wanted to interact with people and see what was going on, and it got turned into me being on duty while on Twitter. I understand after nearly 20 years in Law Enforcement I am on duty all the time, but social media seemed to be a good outlet to interact with others without being in public. I literally avoid going out in public when I’m off as to avoid work when I’m off….

He’s not alone there. I’ve heard that said more than once by now. So rather than take up the old saw about “Take nothing personally,” law enforcement agencies should instead support their officers with policy and best practices.

Indeed, arguably Mouser’s agency needs a presence on Twitter, at the very least a policy in place for individual officers who identify themselves and their locations. How much should go into the policy? Start with questions like:

  • How do we handle tips via social sites?
  • Who will maintain the official presence?
  • What about when they’re off duty?
  • On or off duty, how much should they personally be responsible for, and how should they be responsible for it?
  • How should they handle unhappy citizens—especially if their personal and professional lives are blended in one account? (Should their lives be blended?) Can they block or unfriend abusive citizens?

Some citizens will never be satisfied, either because they didn’t like police to begin with, or because they’re just disagreeable people. But just as training officers prepare recruits to deal with them on the street, all officers need preparation to deal with them in the far less cut-and-dried online world too.

What else would you add to the list of policy questions?

Image: D.C.Atty via Flickr

How authentic is your recruitment message?

Going through my Google Alerts the other morning, I saw this news article from the Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) Sun: “Tech-savvy cop looks for recruits.” Curious, I went over to Cst. Jonathan Chan’s Twitter page and found:


My kneejerk: does it make sense for a new cop to be recruiting? Well… yes and no.

Recruiting with balance

“Authenticity” is one of the buzzwords of social media, ranking right up there with “transparency.” To be transparent means to show who’s doing the blogging and tweeting, not hiding behind a logo or using a team to do it all for you. To be authentic means you blog and tweet as yourself sharing your experiences.

Cst. Chan is both. He tweets under his own name, and he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a rookie. In this regard, to have a new cop tweeting as a recruitment tool is not a bad idea. They have the kind of fresh perspective on the job which only a new cop can have.

And it’s not as if Cst. Chan isn’t tweeting about realities like:


I just can’t help thinking that when he tweets about working with child intervention teams, or taking family violence classes, something is missing.

The Baltimore Police Department hits closer with its video, “Cop for a Day.”

From a traffic stop to, yes, a family fight, in just one minute the video manages to do an effective job at showing what police work really involves.

And yet, if most people join the force “to help people”… what’s the most effective way to show helping?

How painful are the painful realities?

Back a few months I was talking to Heather Steele, president of the Innocent Justice Foundation. At one point I asked her something like, “When you’re honest about the kind of work the Internet Crimes Against Children task forces do, doesn’t that put cops off working there?”

Her answer: an emphatic no. “Plenty of cops want to do what they can to get child predators off the streets,” she told me.

It makes sense. Some may apply, believing the bulk of the job is pretending to be a 14-year-old girl in a chatroom, but leave once faced with brutal videos.

Or not. Det. Sgt. Paul Gillespie, of the Toronto Police Service’s Sex Crimes Unit, pulls no punches talking about the soul-crushing realities of child pornography. But he also talks hope. A 2006 ABC News story quoted him as saying:

When we do start to feel sorry for ourselves or start to wonder how can we can look at one more picture, one more movie, we all of a sudden remember, how does it feel to be that innocent child who doesn’t know any better who has no way out?… When times are bad, and times are bad sometimes, you pick it up and have hope for the future,” he said. “We know when we take an offender off the streets or we rescue a child, we’ve ultimately rescued more children and you sleep well at night.

Recruit with honesty

Edmonton police are clear that their Twitter recruitment efforts are just an experiment, but I hope they’ll consider adding to it. I think it doesn’t hurt to have new recruits tweeting, but police agencies shouldn’t be afraid to temper the wide-eyed excitement with the jading of a 10-year veteran—as long as it’s done in such a way as to make new recruits believe they can make a difference.

Prevailing opinion about Gen Y is that it’s uniquely idealistic, believing it can and will make a real difference in the world. But it’s also a cynical generation, needing “proof” of this impact. As one opinion put it, “We’re terrified our lives won’t matter.”

So when it comes to police recruiting on social media, a tweet like Cst. Chan’s “Learning how child intervention teams and police services can effectively work together” is a good start. Stories like Sgt. Gillespie’s round out the picture.

How can your department balance energy with experience to create an irresistible recruitment message?

Image: Arenamontanus via Flickr