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Social media a challenge and opportunity for police

By: Amy Crofts

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Apr 02, 2014 06:00 am

GOING SOCIAL – Social media is a treasure trove of information for police officers, but also offers up new ways to connect with the public.
GOING SOCIAL – Social media is a treasure trove of information for police officers, but also offers up new ways to connect with the public.
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More and more people are turning to social networks to communicate, which is why law enforcement agencies are turning to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram and Pinterest to chat people up.

Over the last several years, police departments around the globe have devised social media strategies, not only as a tool to investigate crime, but prevent it.

Closer to home, RCMP are trying to find ways to connect with the community in the cyber realm.

A murder hoax involving the death of a teen that made the rounds on Instagram last month gave local law enforcement a taste of the advantages and the difficulties that social media present.

“If you look at the (hoax) situation, a lot of people were very upset in a very quick time frame by misinformation. In years gone past something that would have passed by word-of-mouth or telephone is now (spread) much faster,” said Cpl. Laurel Kading, media liaison with St. Albert RCMP.

Other than during investigations, the detachment does not have an officer solely dedicated to monitoring social networking sites.

It instead relies on “community helpers” to watch out for and report crimes such as cyber bullying and threats. The detachment has partnered with the city to get its messages out on social media.

Kading said their limited cyber presence isn’t out of lack of desire, but instead a lack of resources – according to the RCMP mandate, all published materials must be done in both official languages, English and French.

“Investigating into technology and social media can be very time consuming. For those kinds of efforts, we don't have a lot of manpower dedicated to that yet in Alberta,” she said.

Bigger cities

In the past five years, the way police forces have connected with residents has drastically changed.

Larger municipalities such as Edmonton and Victoria, B.C. are constantly experimenting with new ways to reach out to people.

About 16 Edmonton police officers are active on Twitter, tweeting about the things they encounter on shifts, crime prevention messages, surveys and answering the public’s questions.

“It's helped us to humanize our officers. Rather than being seen as a badge and a uniform, they're seen as actually people with families, lives and personalities,” said Carolin Maran, website and social media co-ordinator with the Edmonton Police Service.

Once that barrier is broken down, people become more comfortable.

“(Social media) allows us to reach a broader audience in some ways, an audience that is more tuned in online than to traditional media. We can hear people's concerns in a different light and more frequently,” said Maran.

Recently, EPS has begun using Pinterest to help return stolen items recovered by police to their rightful owners. The idea came from police in Victoria, a force that has tapped into Reddit, Flickr, Sound Cloud and blogging to chat up the public.

Const. Mike Russell, media spokesperson for the Victoria police department, said social media has been instrumental in getting the public’s help to solve crime.

In a drive-by shooting in downtown Victoria last year, the person who identified the suspect had come across the photo on the police Facebook page.

In October, the department unveiled an app to report non-emergency crime, the first one of its kind in Canada. The app also has push notifications, great for sending out missing person alerts, said Russell.

“You don’t have to go anywhere for the information, the information comes to you.”

When asked what is next in the social media strategy, Russell said he hopes there will be more community partnerships (to drive up traffic to Victoria police accounts) and open data – making the data available to the public so that they can “look at the data how they want to.”

Drawbacks

Social media is just another tool for police to engage with citizens, said Russell, but like everything, you have to take it with a grain of salt.

The potential for social media to harm is high, noted Kading.

In fatal vehicle collisions for example, identifying a vehicle or a person who has died in the collision, “can spread like wildfire and get back to the family who are completely unprepared to receiving it in that way,” said Kading.

“Sometimes people need to respect the fact that perhaps they don't need to be the first ones to get that news out, let the procedures happen as they should because there's reasons for it.”

Kading said verifying information is one of the biggest challenges police face with social media, a reason why reporting crime via text is still in the works.


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