Tag Archives: United States

Censorship vs. soapbox vs. call to action

Where is the line between protection and censorship?

Where is the line between protection and censorship?

A few months ago one of our Twitter law enforcement contacts, a community relations officer, tweeted that she was thinking about starting a blog for her agency. Scott replied: Portsmouth PD had tried it, but the number of negative comments forced the agency to shut it down. They couldn’t block the negative comments or else they, as a government agency, would be censoring free speech. So they shut down the blog entirely.

They’re not the only department to have faced this problem. Baltimore PD is dealing with it currently, not with a blog but with its Facebook page. Police reporter Peter Herrman discusses the wide variety of civilian reactions, and police responses: from bland “thanks for a good job” to outright attacks, which some agencies circumvent by not allowing any kind of commenting access.

Dealing with negative comments

You could, of course, close comments. But this doesn’t allow for the true two-way interaction which social media demands. You could also do what Kansas City Police Chief James Corwin does, and allow comments via email sent directly to him.

Or, you can set a comment policy, as newspapers do: something like “Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned.”

Still, as Hermann points out in his article, “The big questions are, what line and who decides whether it has been crossed?… Should government bureaucrats be making these decisions at all?”

The best comprehensive example I’ve seen of a blog policy comes from none other than the U.S. Air Force. Its flow chart makes it easy to visualize every possible response to a blog, and what the blogger’s counter-response should be (if the choice to respond is made).

Then there’s Lakeland Assistant Police Chief Bill LePere’s comment policy. He concisely shows that a government representative can, in fact, moderate without censoring.

True free speech inspires action

Free speech works both ways: not just allowing haters to have their say, but canceling out heat in favor of light so that, as Le Pere says, “We will continue to moderate [comments] and willingly publish those that my be contrary to our position on a topic but yet are beneficial to the public discussion we hope to generate here.”

Indeed, Herrman quotes Baltimore Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi as saying, “What we’d really like is for people to get engaged in fighting crime, to step up and become part of the solution.”

As a writer, I know I think best when I put words down. For me as for most people, it’s hard to act unless I have thought through something. Allowing blog comments does more, then, than allowing people a forum to state their grievances: done right, by allowing them to “think out loud,” it allows them to clear their heads. Clear heads can plan action.

So yes, it’s OK to delete the truly negative comments, the lies and attacks that do their own damage to others’ free speech. But if law enforcement truly wants community involvement in crime prevention—and what agency wouldn’t, given the limited budgets most are working with these days?—then they have to be prepared for the kind of criticism that tears down so that it can reconstruct.

Image: Mr.Enjoy via Flickr

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Can social media help guard against vigilantism?

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

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

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

A PR opportunity for police

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

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

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

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

When they don’t want to collaborate

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

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

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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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Guest blog: No more excuses

Image: Nixle.com

Image: Nixle.com

Awhile back I asked for guest bloggers, and tonight I’m pleased to offer the first: Brandon Perkins, chief of police in Tyrone, GA (not far from Atlanta). Brandon and I connected on (guess where?) Twitter (he’s @brandonperkins), and he blogs at Chief Daddy, where this originally appeared.

No More Excuses

If one were to ask any given selection of police departments across the country what they are doing to stay in touch with their citizens, he would receive a mixture of responses but my guess would be that a few or more of them would be that they don’t stay in touch. When asked why, they would provide more mixed responses such as: “why should we?”, “we can’t fund the required technology”, “we don’t have the time”, etc.

A new community information system available at no cost to every law enforcement agency in the U.S. invalidates any excuse. The new service, Nixle.com, allows law enforcement agencies to send emergency alerts and other information to their citizens via email, SMS (text messaging), online posts, and Twitter all from one very easy to use web based application. Sending alerts really is as easy as sending an email and the citizens can select how they receive their messages based on the level of alert sent by the agency.

On the backend, an agency can choose to broadcast their message to their entire jurisdiction or they can enter an incident address and then select a broadcast radius. This is extremely helpful during incidents requiring evacuations, missing persons cases, and in sending alerts to areas that are being targeted by a specific MO.

The system also allows the agency to setup multiple users, which would allow alerts to be sent 24/7. I am in the process of training all of my field supervisors on the system so that they can log in from their MDTs to send messages as needed.

One item that I found to be particularly helpful is that Nixle provides each member agency with a separate test site that is not viewable by the public. This is a great tool and allows the agency to “play” with it and train their officers without worrying about sending a false alert and creating any misunderstandings among citizens.

Any administrator who may be skeptical about the system may find comfort in the fact that Nixle is the result of partnerships between several nationally recognized professional organizations including the IACP, the National Sheriff’s Association, the Police Executive Research Forum, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Verisign, the International Fire and Emergency Responder Network, the National Emergency Management Association, and NLETS. In fact, Nixle’s servers are housed in NLETS’ secure facility!

For those who think their citizens wouldn’t listen, let me point you to a 2008 study conducted by CDW-G, a nationally recognized government IT services provider, entitled “This is a Test – Updating America’s Emergency Alert Infrastructure“. This study asked residents of America’s 20 largest cities to rate their local government’s ability and performance in keeping them informed during emergencies among other things.

When asked “If your city had an emergency alert system in place, what kind of information would you be interested in receiving?”, respondents gave the following responses:

  • Impending Weather Threats: 82%
  • School Closures: 76%
  • Crime Incidents: 70%
  • Health Threats: 66%
  • Major Roadway Closures: 48%
  • Terrorist Threats/Incidents: 47%

Remember: over 1400 residents from America’s largest cities participated in this study, so this is fairly compelling evidence that your citizens would listen if offered the information – they’d also be appreciative of it!

Other interesting results included:

When asked “How would you rate your city’s performance alerting citizens?”, respondents gave the following responses:

  • Very Strong: 10%
  • Good: 26%
  • Fair: 22%
  • Mediocre: 6%
  • Weak: 3%
  • Can’t Rate: 33%

Why did so many respond that they couldn’t rate their city? Because 66% of the respondents advised that they were “unsure” when asked “Does your city have a modern emergency alert notification system
such as mass e-mail or text messaging in place?”

I highly recommend reading this study as it provides a lot of useful and interesting data.

The title of this post says it all, cities no longer have excuses for not providing this service to their citizens. Nixle is provided at NO Cost, it is extremely secure, it is easy to use, and it allows an agency to use a variety of methods to get their message out.

Go to Nixle.com to learn more, watch a video, and get started!

Need help or have questions? Post a comment or send me an email – I’ll be glad to help or offer my assistance.

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Social preparedness

Image: .rGz via Flickr

Image: .rGz via Flickr

Controlling public information during a critical incident used to be, if not easy, then at least somewhat predictable. Police and other emergency responders’ relationship with the media could dictate whether reporters transmitted (or did not transmit) the appropriate messages—or rumors.

The Internet, and especially the advent of social media, has changed that predictability. The best relationship between authorities and local media now has no bearing on what civilians transmit—for better or worse.

Human interaction, or manipulation?

A number of bloggers put this into relief following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. There, civilian use of Twitter not only documented the catastrophe for the rest of the world, but also told the terrorists where and how the police moved. Security researcher Nitesh Dhanjani took this a step or more further, speculating on how terrorists could actually have used Twitter to manipulate civilian responses.

Still, social media is far from a “necessary evil.” Consider, for example, that it can reduce the sense of panic among those who are involved, and those who are outside waiting for news. “Others weren’t locked down. We were told limited information, and this helped us learn what was happening outside of the room,” said instructional technology specialist Jim Groom of a lockdown at the University of Richmond.

“We could bounce off each other what we had known and what we had been told and find out what was going on at the campus at large.” This, he found comforting. “People were sending advice with what to do in a crisis situation, with links. Some friends wrote that they were doing a ‘safety dance’ for me. That stuff helped break up the tension.”

The balance of communication

Presumably this is the kind of response that can relieve some of the public-relations burden for incident responders, though it can create stress too. Of a bomb threat at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the student newspaper’s editor-in-chief wrote,

“We had a few computers and we were posting breaking news to our website. We were having folks call any spokesmen or all the various police units and so forth to figure out what was going on. We had people walking around in pairs trying to figure out where, exactly, the barriers were where you could and couldn’t go.

“Over time they pushed further and further out on campus. By 10 I could tell we wouldn’t be able to wander around campus. There were a lot of police with big guns and they were getting increasingly irritated with us. They were trying to do their jobs and we were a bunch of kids trying to figure out what we could do.”

Making an all-hazard plan

No emergency response plan—large or small—should be made without taking social media into account. The Kennebec (Maine) Journal noted that schools now need “all-hazard” plans to deal with threats ranging from hostage or active shooter situations to chemical spills.

Given that many students have Web-enabled cell phones (even when school policy forbids them), it makes sense for an all-hazard plan to account for student Twitter use and text-messaging. So too for any other regional plan. Social media analyst Jeremiah Owyang has an excellent blog entry on how to do just that.

Has social network use during emergencies been discussed in your department? What are your thoughts?

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What Gen Y means to law enforcement

Image credit: NCinDC via Flickr

Image credit: NCinDC via Flickr

I got to thinking about this last night as I wrote a comment on this post. What does Generation Y really mean to law enforcement?

It was already on my mind as I recently finished an article on police recruiting and retention in this economy. (Shameless self-promotion: it will be out in the March/April issue of Police & Security News.)

Two of my sources had brought up Gen Y and their unique needs, suggesting that Gen Y’ers really don’t need all that much to be happy on the job. They’ve been portrayed as selfish and needy (isn’t every generation of young people?) but in reality, because they seek a better quality of work-life balance than they saw their parents get, it won’t take much to get—or keep—them. Think flexible work days instead of lucrative signing bonuses. Or the ability to install XM satellite radio in their take-home cars.

Not their parents’ social change

So what does this have to do with PR? Again, Gen Y really doesn’t demand much. As I wrote last night: “They are asking for information. They want to understand. They want to fix what’s wrong. They seek collaboration with authority to do it. That’s a striking counterpoint to their parents, the boomers, who protested against authority in all forms.”

Think about that. These kids were raised to seek input, to look up to authority rather than to tear it down. I think this makes it less likely that this generation will continue to repeat their parents’ and grandparents’ mistakes when it comes to police-community relations. Sure, some will: those trapped in the endless rut of groupthink bred in many neighborhoods (and no, I’m not just talking about inner cities; I see just as much of it out here in the sticks).

Go with their flow

What law enforcement needs to target with both public relations and recruitment, then, are the Gen Y’ers who want to be part of something better. Recruit them with intangible benefits rather than the salary-and-benefits packages their parents expected. Retain them by allowing them to use social media to reach out to their civilian peers, to take community policing to the Internet.

Sure, it means establishing strict policies on exactly what kind of information can be released, and it also means carefully guiding officers (with discipline as a last resort) as they blog or tweet or comment on MySpace and Facebook. There’s another blog entry or two right there.

But bear in mind that many corporations, which have at least as much of a reason to want to withhold information as police departments, are more and more allowing their employees to build relationships online. They understand that human connections, when people believe they are valued and trusted, make sales.

What “building relationships” could mean

How does this translate to public agencies? Maybe it’s as simple as cutting the police department some slack in cases like the BART shooting, when information cannot be immediately released during an active investigation. Imagine officers jumping online in the moments after the incident, not necessarily to talk, but simply to listen as their peers react—essentially providing a kind of critical incident “debriefing” to those who have just seen a horrifying video, who seek reassurance that they can still trust their police?

No, social media is not a cure-all. Some problems will never be solved, online or off. But I do think police departments have a unique opportunity to connect with civilians in ways they never have before. Social media tools are free and easily available. The question is not why should you–it’s what do you have to lose?

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