The rapid growth and evolution of online social media in the past few years is redefining many different industries and agencies. And none more so than law enforcement and public safety where many are beginning to see how social media can be an effective crowdsourcing tool as well as an outlet providing open communication with a vast online community.
In November, 2011, a Florida deputy used Facebook to negotiate a standoff by communicating with a potentially suicidal individual over Facebook messages and establishing common ground with him by learning about the individual’s likes and interests from his profile page. Some larger police agencies have established units within their police departments that are focused on providing real-time intelligence using data aggregation and other similar tools. The New York City Police department, specifically, has begun a social media unit as a part of their intelligence division (Mashable, 2012).
Using social media, law enforcement can use social media sites, like Twitter, to send emergency notifications that often will spread virally, reaching millions of people in mere seconds. This is one form of outbound communication that agencies can use. Twitter is one social media site that can have an enormous impact by distributing large amounts of data and information to millions of users. For instance, during the final three minutes of the Super Bowl this year, Twitter experienced a record 12,233 tweets per second on what was happening in real-time during the game(LA Times, 2012).
Many individuals will often take photos, usually with a mobile phone, of incidents as they are occurring and post them on social media. Law enforcement can then utilize these posts to locate and stop the incident or turn them into evidence in a court case. This summer we saw this unfold on a large scale with the riots in Vancouver (3VR Blog, 2011). If a situation dictates it, public safety agencies can also monitor social media streams to engage with users or to flag possible illegal behavior. Crimes like flash robberies are often coordinated online over social media like Twitter and Facebook and many criminals have been caught purely for boasting about their illegal acts online to their social network. Social media is beginning to play an integral role in law enforcement and public safety. As it grows and as information sharing between citizens and public agencies increases, the overall safety and security of many local communities can benefit greatly.