Lt. Andy Johnson is a 15-year veteran of the Hanover Park, IL Police Department. He currently serves as Commander of Investigations and oversees detectives, special operations, and crime analysis. Andy has served in a variety of roles within the Hanover Park PD including patrol sergeant, detective, special operations officer, and patrol officer. Andy led a committee tasked with developing a social media outreach initiative for the Hanover Park Police Department, known as the Police and Citizens Connected (PACC) Program. The PACC Program is a department-wide initiative which includes a presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other applications.
Much has been written regarding the hesitation amongst many law enforcement agencies to embrace the growing trend towards social media. While there are clear advantages, there are significant concerns for agency administrators to consider, ranging from privacy and confidentiality issues, manpower demands, technological capabilities of staff, and many others. These concerns existed within the Hanover Park Police Department as well. Our agency of 61 sworn officers serving a population of around 38,000 had sought a means to enhance community outreach as part of a wider policing strategy focused on community policing and partnerships between officers and residents. An inevitable foray into investigating social media as a means to accomplish this was conducted. The staggering statistics regarding the use of social media amongst all age groups shifted the question from ‘why social media?’ to ‘why not social media?’ quite quickly.
As we set forth, we knew that we didn’t want to simply open up a Facebook page or Twitter account just to say we did it—nor did we want to flesh out an idea that would become another dusty binder on a shelf. What we wanted was a program that would not only accomplish our outreach goal but also something that would become a lasting organizational philosophy. A committee was established to brainstorm and provide a framework for what would become the Police and Citizens Connected (PACC) Program. What we sought specifically from PACC was a means to enhance the flow of information both in and out—we wanted to enhance our ability to communicate emergency alerts, useful information, crime tips, and other messages to the public, while at the same time providing a more convenient, accessible avenue of contact for the residents to reach us. Facebook would serve as the backbone for the program, with a main page for the department’s overall message while each beat area would also have their own ‘fansite’ page, run by the sergeant in charge of that area. A Nixle account would provide a means for immediate communication of threats and emergency alerts. A YouTube account was also created to store larger video files, and we purchased the smartphone application known as MyPD to allow residents to send anonymous tips and more.
A little over a year later, our program has reached some milestones. We recently passed 1,000 ‘likes’ on our main Facebook page, and the PACC Program has been well-received by residents and community stakeholders. While we know there are always improvements to be made, we feel we are headed in the right direction. Below, I would like to share some lessons learned and discussion points for those considering implementing a similar program.
Avoid the “Man Behind the Curtain.”
We knew that in order for this initiative to become an agency-wide philosophy, we needed buy-in and participation at all levels. From the beginning of the project, officers from all levels of the department were included in its design. Additionally, the program is designed to include participation on a daily basis from many members of the department. In this sense, there is no mystery ‘man behind the curtain’ who is the only person responsible for PACC. This keeps engagement levels high, helps ensure quality and diversity of content, and prevents issues related to posting delays and stagnation. Reasonable and clear accountability measures were put in place for those responsible for running pages and posting to further ensure that PACC would become a part of everyday operations.
Be Prepared for Unexpected ‘Bumps.’
Social media applications can change in design frequently and with little or no warning. Part of the acceptance process of social media is realizing that we can’t control the entire process—something that can be difficult when we are used to maintaining control. Once applications are implemented, they must be reviewed on a consistent basis to determine their continued feasibility, and others may over time become better options than first thought. For example, PACC did not initially include Twitter; however, after listening to feedback from residents and other stakeholders, we implemented it several months into the program. There are also First Amendment considerations regarding the removal of posts, for which a removal policy was created and posted on the site. This brought about another area of need for relaxing control somewhat—sometimes posts that may not paint the department in the best light must stay up despite our natural impulse to remove them. However, communicating with ‘unhappy’ residents quickly—and providing them with an outlet for assistance with their issue—not only addresses the individual resident’s concern but it also shows everyone watching that we are in fact responsive to all resident concerns.
Be Prepared for Some Resistance to Change.
Resisting change is a part of human nature, and something law enforcement managers deal with on a regular basis. Moving into social media can be an intimidating departure for some agency personnel, and it may necessitate a process of education and training that will require patience. Officers may have privacy concerns and some less computer-savvy officers may struggle at first with their postings and participation. To confront this, HPPD staff involved in the project created training presentations and spent considerable one-on-one time with officers who needed it. Officers responsible for posting had to create generic ‘work-only’ Facebook accounts and personnel had to be educated regarding privacy concerns such as not intermixing personal and work accounts. We also realized that our agency lacked a written social media policy. Therefore, one was created and all personnel trained on it. As PACC gained steam and became a part of the daily operations of the department, these issues became a thing of the past.
Overall, we feel that the PACC Program has been a positive addition to the department and provides an excellent service to the community. It allows us to meet our residents where they are, and keeps officers interested and engaged in meeting our outreach goals.