Technological advancements and the proliferation of social media are placing law enforcement under increased surveillance and scrutiny, and presenting unique challenges for police-community relations. This new digital age could be the leading cause of distrust and disconnect between police and the communities they serve. According to a Gallup survey, only 58 percent of whites and 29 percent of African Americans trust police officers, up slightly from the lowest point it reached in 2015.
Social media and technology like body cameras are becoming essential tools to help law enforcement agencies gather intelligence, locate suspects and inform the public of potential concerns. However, these tools come with their own unique challenges. Today, nearly every action made by officers, whether good or bad, can be instantly recorded and shared on a global scale. To harness the positive power of social media and body camera footage, law enforcement officers must be empowered through improved education and training on how to use these technologies to their utmost potential. Additionally, they must recognize these advancements as tools to help rebuild trust and relationships within the communities they serve.
According to a recent survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 97 percent of agencies use social media in some capacity, with 89 percent of those agencies citing they use their social channels for criminal investigations. Body camera technology is also playing a significant role in our criminal justice system: use-of-force incidents dropped 53 percent among officers with body-worn cameras, and civilian complaints against those officers also saw a 65 percent decline, according to a recent study. Though these technologies are being used more frequently, just half of our nation’s law enforcement agencies provide in-service training on both the on and off-duty uses of social media, and just 60 percent provide training on its uses.
As a former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department captain and current College of Security and Criminal Justice campus chair at the University of Phoenix Las Vegas Campus, I recognize the need to close this digital skills gap by refocusing law enforcement education and training to include digital components from day one. However, while most industries are working to upskill employees with social media and cybersecurity best practices, today’s officers must go further by turning insights into strategic decisions. Officers need personal and professional social media training through a variety of lenses, including reputation management, privacy, communications etiquette and crisis response tactics. Agencies must also train officers to monitor and analyze social media conversations, particularly as body camera footage becomes increasingly available to the public.
While this undertaking will require increased labor, time and financial investments, improving digital education is necessary for the future of police-community relations in America. As we improve social media literacy among officers, agencies will have employees who are trained to strategically use these digital tools to connect with and reach community members, post team photos and events, inform civilians about incidents and demonstrate thought leadership on the latest policing innovations. During my 30 years as police chief, we used social media as an extension of our on-the-ground relationship building, and used channels like Facebook to connect community members with community improvement initiatives, like the Police Athletic League, which helped officers and youth bond through sports.
With officers trained in tools like social media analytics, agencies will also have the resources to learn more about and better connect with their communities. This is especially important this month, as the United States Congress designated March as National Criminal Justice Month. The month is meant to promote societal awareness for the causes and consequences of crime and better help civilians understand the strategies to prevent and respond to it. Ultimately, a major purpose of social media is to create meaningful and lasting connections with others, which is in harmony with the goals of officers and departments across the U.S. today.
By training officers in public outreach and engagement on social media channels, we’ll help encourage the human element of policing that has been missing from policing strategies for quite some time, giving officers a chance to build soft skills like communication and problem solving that are crucial for navigating face-to-face situations with civilians in the field. In fact, 84 percent of agencies state that social media has improved police-community relations in their jurisdiction.
As leaders in law enforcement, we should pursue every possible option for bridging the growing trust gap between police and civilians. We must do everything in our power to demonstrate that the police officers who are protecting and serving America’s communities are, at the end of the day, members of those communities, too. That may be why 74 percent of agencies not currently using social media are considering its adoption. Ultimately, in this digital age, social media is no longer an optional resource for departments to consider, but a critical tool we must develop expertise in if we hope to rebuild relationships.
– Daniel Barry, Las Vegas Campus Chair for the College of Security and Criminal Justice at University of Phoenix and former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department captain.