Knowledge is power. For the police agency AND the citizen. It's all about what you know, when you know it, and who it's from. At least that's the way it is when it comes to law enforcement using social media.
First, you're empowering your community, from the single citizen to the business owner to the civic association. This means you're giving each citizen the important information they need to better plan their day and know what's going on around them, both in their neighborhood and their city or county as a whole. From a wanted person to a big event that closes streets, you're "entrusting" them with information that both better informs them and helps you as a police agency.
Everyone benefits from a better-informed society. Citizens are happy to know what's going on (even when there's a delay so an investigation is not compromised) and police have more eyes and ears in places they could never be otherwise.
This leads to the second reason knowledge is power. Police agencies, no matter how big or smart, can't be everywhere all the time. By informing your community, you're essentially creating potential witnesses across your jurisdiction. In the case of a wanted person, you have told people who you're looking for, why you're looking for them, and how they can help. In the case of a big event, you've told people what's going on and how they avoid it. What better way to find someone or inform people? Thanks to social media, you can do this instantly. You no longer have to wait until the 6 p.m. news or the next day newspaper. That information can go directly to the public, the average citizen, right now!
Third, citizens know what they're hearing/reading is reliable because they can see it is coming straight from the source - the law enforcement agency itself. With few exceptions, most social networks are verified so that citizens know where their information is coming from.
For example, take the recent VCU men's basketball celebrations in light of their victory taking them into the NCAA Final Four for the first time. Thousands of VCU students and supporters took to the city streets surrounding campus to celebrate. Though the department
was well aware this could happen and worked with VCU Police
and Virginia State Police
to keep things orderly and everyone safe, we were also able to monitor the situation via Twitter. People posted photos, videos, and comments galore as things unfolded. Even after the celebrations ended, people still tweeted us videos of what occurred because they thought we might need it, as well as compliments for how well the three police agencies handled the crowd of more than 5,000 people. Twitter also allowed us to respond, in real time, to comments about the situation, and to retweet or share information with our followers from those who tweeted to us.
In conclusion, the use of social media really helps both police agencies and communities by giving them both something very powerful: knowledge.