To Fully Embrace Social Media, Cops Must Open The Thin Blue Line

05/10/2010 03:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Lon S. Cohen Lon is a new-media journalist. @obilon on Twitter.

Police seem to have intentionally selective memory, a trait I must I share with them because it's something my wife accuses me of all the time. It's not really that they don't know or don't remember things. They've been trained to be observant, to see details that many of us might not pick up on. The real deal is that police officers have been conditioned for various reasons to keep certain things to themselves or better, inside that venerable thin blue line. It's an imbedded behavior.

Many cops also have an adversity to going on the record. It's something they've been taught since police academy. Talking to the press is not good for you career-wise. Many police officers I've come across have relayed this to me. "Don't quote me." "This is not for the record." "I can't really verify that information."

"Police are generally secretive in nature and that leads to a public perception of mistrust," said Constable Scott Mills, Social Media Relations Officer for the Toronto Police Service.

In truth a random group of cops is probably as much a sampling in diversity as another industry like accounting or even journalism. That said, there are similar personality types in any chosen profession, especially one that requires you to potentially put your life on the line every time you go to work; to be proactive in your duty and charge into unknown situations against the real possibility of facing a deadly adversary. And just like every other type of job, there are those who are good at it and do what is expected of them and there are bad seeds. Overall the best intentions will outweigh the bad.

The problem is the public generally doesn't get excited about the average cop's daily routine of driving around the streets on patrol, writing summonses and doing paperwork.

We like action, adventure and a slice of controversy. Those are the stories that make the headlines and capture out attention more than parking tickets and routine calls.

Add to that the fact that many if not all investigations need to be done under cover of secrecy. Police can't expose their leads, their operations or their tactics for the bad guys to see or it will undermine all the work. Social media is diametrically opposed to the way cops have been conducting business for a hundred years or more.

"We get such an opportunity with these new media tools," said Chris Brogan, President, of New Marketing Labs. "Yes, TV has primed us to want nothing but drama and bullets, but the social web allows us to get even more of the story."

The concept of complete transparency and two-way communication sometimes dictated by the user more than the producer is downright frightening. But it may be the best friend law enforcement ever had in communicating to the public.

"Think of the reality show mindset of developing cops and their careers and what they face for challenges that aren't just bad guy duties," Brogan said. "To me, that's the opportunity that you can cover with video, with social chatter, with a place to provide the best of all that."

In theory this scares the pants off of your most hardened gumshoe and really you can't blame them. But if police want to really tap into the power of social media, they're going to have to let down their guard just a little. In fact, it may just be the remedy that many police agencies have been looking for.

Ex-LAPD Assistant Chief Mike Bostic said at the SMILE conference: "If I could go back and do this all over, I'd be grabbing this social media stuff with both hands."

In the past, law enforcement was at the mercy of the main-stream media's editorial agenda and schedule. Important information may get cut from a breaking story or facts skewed and presented in a less than flattering way. With no other way to tell their side of the story directly to the public the one tool they could harness was a press conference, yet that still relied on main-stream media to show up.

Mills thinks that social media is a great place to start getting the message out and connecting the police to the community.

"The world population is transient and networked in social media. Police work must also be transient and networked," he said "Social media is a good way for law enforcement to maintain relations and improve trust with their communities."

He also hopes that by using social media law enforcement will learn how proper education and execution of social media strategy can help with crime prevention in police work.

"It is not about marketing it is about engagement," he said.

Social media provides one of the most powerful tools to come along in a long time for police to engage with communities. Not only to change the public's image but to actually solve crimes, if and only if they don't shoot themselves in the foot so to speak.

"I foresee many police agencies adapting restrictive social media policies that are ineffective and don't foster the dialogue between individual police officers and community members," Mills said. "That dialogue needs to occur if social media is to be used as an effective tool to prevent and solve crime and locate missing persons."

Definitely part of the reason why cops tend to shy away from being quoted in the media is that wrong information can be dangerous to innocent people in ongoing investigations or damage a case. Should communications at police forces be more open on social media? Why and how should the thin blue line open up more in the future?