Member Login
The Social Media Effect

For many of us in public safety, the advent of social media has been a really great way to engage the communities we serve. It aids in government transparency, connects us with community and helps us message those things that folks should or need to know about their community like crime trends, wanted/missing persons and other related public safety info. Many of our agencies/municipalities have hired personnel specifically for increased social media engagement and info sharing. That is all positive and great stuff.

On the flip side, because of social media we have had to author social media policies for agencies and personnel. These policies, like the plethora of other regulations and guides we work with are written and adopted to protect our personnel and agency. Its not been easy. We have made mistakes. We have done some really dumb stuff in public safety/government if I am being honest, including me.
Today though I want to address a very specific thing I’ve seen for years on social media and would love to hear some input from either public safety personnel and the general public.
Police departments, sheriffs, marshals, troopers—whatever color uniform, shape of badge—all types are on social media. I personally eclipsed the 10 year mark as a police officer on social media awhile back. When I first went on social media, I did not hide my occupation. I didn’t really hide anything, still don’t. I wanted folks to know who I was and I was there to listen and would always try to help. Being a new form of engagement and contact, it was clunky and clumsy starting out. But from day one, I was asked questions, mostly general law enforcement stuff, but sometimes really specific questions on a on-going public safety matter or active investigation.

I knew discussing active or ongoing things was a minefield of danger. So I always answered with information that was releasable or was just benign information that would not affect a case’s prosecution or out come. I found it a really nice vehicle for communicating my jurisdiction’s comings and goings. I learned how to share our press releases and even started using some other engagement tools for disseminating newsworthy events/reported crimes.

Now you see, crime has been relatively unchanged. Its mercurial, sometimes higher in depressed economic times, but for the most part it ebbs and flows with the passage of time. What I noticed after social media got up and running was this persistent thought from the public that crime was getting worse when it in fact was actually going down at the time. This new communication channel, social media, was sort of misrepresenting—or at least there was the perception that crime was increasing—because of the public access to press releases and other related information. Press releases use to be sent out to the news media exclusively. If the news thought it was interesting, they would send a reporter out to interview our press officer and it would become a headline in print or maybe lead story at 6 PM. Now with social media, the public had the potential to receive these same press releases 24/7 and we were, as an industry, unprepared to deal with the volume of information.

Public safety/government leaders we need to do an even better job of explaining and engaging the public. Has crime increased? Sure there are certainly times during the last 10+ years that crime has increased and also decreased. Providing context to the public is the key here. My suggestion to counteract “The Social Media Effect” is to include statistical or empirical evidence on any pertinent news release where it makes sense.

An example headline and copy: “Homeless Campsite Caused Fire.” You could add at the end if applicable “. . . the last three years a homeless census was conducted locally. 351 individuals were identified, a decrease of 32 individuals total from the previous census in 2017. Reductions were credited to the new job training programs, relocation assistance and the new all-year shelter.”

Its transparent, it sends the message that there is some mitigation efforts and gives the reader context for the issue that is being reported.

Help me battle the “The Social Media Effect” by keeping the public informed with factual data and information.

This post was originally published on July 22, 2019 at Chief Westrick’s blog.

David Westrick
Chief of Police
Hollister Police Department, California