Technology, Social Media, and Law Enforcement (Pillar 3 in Pillars of Justice Series)

Pillars of Justice is a six-part series covering the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The full report can be viewed here.

 By Emily Patton

The last few years have seen an unprecedented rise in the number and types of social media Web sites and applications (apps) now widely available for public use. From building and maintaining social networks to sharing vital news information quickly with a vast audience, social media has unquestionably become an integral part of most people’s lives. It makes sense then that criminal justice agencies would seek new and innovative ways to incorporate social media resources to their benefit. These Web sites and apps are an effective way to communicate with the public, share agency initiatives and law enforcement efforts, and find and prosecute criminals.

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing highlights several core components for law enforcement agencies to implement when integrating technology and social media into their agencies. The goal of all of these Task Force recommendations is to successfully incorporate, regulate, and use technology and social media across all law enforcement agency activities.

The Task Force listed seven recommendations and key action items that agencies can and should implement when using social media technology as a resource and tool. Their recommendations heavily emphasize creating and adopting best practices as well as establishing national standards for use across the justice system. They also highlighted the need to increase community access and build trust between law enforcement agencies and the public, as well as ensure civil and human rights protections. Law enforcement agencies must establish the effectiveness and practicality of such technology, foster social media resources that fit every size and type of agency, and use their social media accounts in proactive meaningful ways.

A prime example where law enforcement agencies used social media platforms to their full potential was during the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013. The Boston Police Department already had an active presence in the online community, with multiple Twitter accounts and an official Facebook profile. After the attacks, the Boston PD was able to successfully use these accounts as a tool to quickly relay accurate information. They used social media as a constructive resource not only to keep the public informed of their progress, but also to answer questions from the media and the public, express condolences to the families of the victims, share vital information about street closures and search grids, and confirm and offer updates about the coordinated effort with the FBI to find the individuals responsible. This case highlights how effectively local and Federal law enforcement agencies have used social media to engage with the public in meaningful and constructive ways.

Communication goes both ways. While law enforcement agencies can use social media to interact with the public, the public can also use these Web sites and apps to interact with the police. There has been a massive increase in the number of citizens using social media and technology to report on questionable policing activities within the community. This has never been more relevant than in the past year, with several highly publicized incidents where unarmed black males were killed by police. Many of these incidents were filmed by members of the community and then uploaded to social media sites, where the videos went viral, prompting riots and protests. In these cases, social media resources are being used to hold law enforcement accountable for the actions of its officers. This has also led to increased discussions and actions on the critical issue of disproportionate minority contact within the criminal justice system.

Social media are just some of many tools that law enforcement agencies should use to promote a positive relationship with the constituents they serve. As law enforcement agencies increase their use of social media and technology and use these tools to demonstrate consistency, fairness, and openness, citizens will in turn be more likely to recognize the legitimacy of officers and trust in their actions while they work to protect the community.

Emily J. Patton is a criminal justice research associate at CSR, Incorporated. Emily has spent much of her career studying forensic psychology and how it intersects with the criminal justice system. She has more than 5 years of experience conducting research studies, data analysis, and behavioral analytics. Emily earned her master’s degree in abnormal and clinical psychology from Swansea University and her postgraduate diploma in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Edinburgh.