In years past, many police departments operated in almost complete secrecy. The community knew very little about what the department was doing except in the most extreme cases involving terrible tragedies. The culture of law enforcement perpetuated this belief that citizens were better off, and so were police departments, if citizens were kept in the dark. As times changed and the thought process of law enforcement leaders evolved, we began to see the value of community involvement and partnerships. The birth of community oriented policing and all of the off shoots of that movement opened up communication with citizens like never before. Law enforcement held community meetings to talk about crime, disseminated information via email lists and was more open to sharing information than ever before. Today, thanks to social media, information sharing and transparency have become synonymous. This transparency is truly law enforcement’s best friend.
Who can argue with the need for transparency? The work of law enforcement is scrutinized like no other profession. It is under the microscope 24/7 and every decision made is second guessed. In addition, the past culture of secrecy demonstrated by most law enforcement agencies combined with less than ethical behavior exhibited by a small minority of officers contribute greatly to the distrust of the police in many communities. Recent high profile officer involved shooting events across the country have contributed greatly to this growing distrust of law enforcement.
Of course, there is information, activities and investigations that law enforcement engage in that should remain confidential. Transparency does not mean divulging privileged information that may undermine an investigation. Instead, being transparent means sharing information with citizens in a timely manner demonstrating a commitment to openness.
How can this transparency be accomplished? One simple way is to disseminate information on the department’s website. Some agencies have records management systems that electronically link each call, report, accident or citation to a citizen portal on the department’s website. This has proven to be a very effective communication tool. Another great tool to use is social media. Members of your community, the media and others interested in your department’s activities are all on social media. According to a 2014 Social Media Survey conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, over 90% of police departments are using social media. There is no better way to demonstrate transparency than to use social media. It is immediate and there is a ready audience.
What kind of information should be disseminated using social media to provide that high level of transparency while protecting privileged information? A great place to start is with day to day activity. Unusual arrests, accidents of interest, crimes in problem areas, unusual crimes and bolo’s for suspects are a great place to start. In many cases, what is posted online will be dictated by the size of the agency and volume of activity. You should also include safety tips, announcements about community meetings or safety classes you might be offering as well as great news about staff accomplishments. Additionally, it is important that Part 1 crime statistics and comparisons are posted, at least monthly and other stats are included as well such as annual report, annual use of force report, and other reports the department generates that demonstrates the high level of professionalism, customer service and accountability being exhibited by the department.
One of the highest demands for transparency today will come when there is an officer involved shooting or other high profile use of force. In many cases, this moment in time will forever define your department. It is important to release as much information as possible as soon as possible prior to rumors and speculation becoming fact on social media. Of course no department should release any information that could undermine the investigation of the incident or interfere with an officer’s due process.
The use of social media to share information and demonstrate your transparency will not necessarily change the perception of your department, at least not immediately. However, a consistent message day in and day out using social media will definitely highlight for the community your commitment to transparency, professionalism and high ethical standards. When this commitment is demonstrated in a time of crisis the communities’ perception of the department will only improve. In time, your commitment to transparency will become your department’s best friend, creating a community full of goodwill ambassadors who become your agencies biggest advocates and loudest supporters.