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 partnership. The birth of community oriented policing and all of the offshoots of that opened up communication with citizens like never before. Law enforcement held community meetings to talk about crime, disseminated information via e-mail 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 exhibited by most law enforcement agencies combined with less than ethical behavior exhibited by a small minority contribute greatly to the distrust of the police in many communities. Of course, there is information, activities, and investigations that law enforcement engages in that should remain confidential. Transparency does not involve divulging privileged information. Instead, being transparent means empowering citizens with information so they can understand, appreciate, and trust their police agency and staff to do the right thing for all citizens in their community.
How can this transparency be accomplished? One simple way is to disseminate information on the department's Web site. Some agencies have records management systems that electronically link each call, report, accident, or citation to a citizen portal on the department's Web site. This has proven to be a very effective communication tool. The use of social media is widely being used by many departments to effectively communicate with citizens and provide a high level of transparency.
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 BOLOs 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 solvability rate for crime, 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.
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. In time, your commitment to transparency will become your department's best friend, creating a community full of goodwill ambassadors who become your agency's biggest advocates and loudest supporters.