The Crazy, Cool and Unsettling Ways Police Are Using Social Media

You can't fault the organization for staying current. But does live tweeting a sting operation go too far?

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By Laura Entis

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If you want to successfully run an organization, you can't afford to ignore social media. That's especially true if you're a running a police department.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest: For police departments social media is as valuable, if not more valuable, a resource than it is for traditional brands and businesses. It helps humanize the force by allowing departments to connect and converse with the general public, but more importantly, it provides a platform for police officers to share information quickly and respond to tips from civilians (who are often more forthcoming over social media than they'd be in person).

In many ways, social media and the police go together like chocolate and peanut butter. It just makes sense. A 2013 social media survey from the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 96 percent of police departments use social media in some capacity, more than 80 percent say it has helped them solve crimes, and 73 percent of agencies said it helped improve police-community relationships in their jurisdiction.

It's encouraging to see our men and women in blue taking to social media with suchgung-ho enthusiasm. Unfortunately, as most of us know by now (if not through personal experience, then through internet horror stories) social media can be a double-edged sword with one heck of a blade. We see it all the time -- poor unfortunate businesses and civilians alike impaling themselves on their own well-intentioned tweets, posts, or hashtag campaigns. (Here's looking at you, NYPD. But more on that later).

Related: Can Twitter Be Used to Predict Crime?

Police departments, which already generate high levels of both emotion and controversy, are particularly susceptible to social media misfires. That's because, at least in part, while most businesses and brands have a solid grasp on what you should and shouldn't do on social media in a professional context, the do's and don'ts in the context of law enforcement are less established.

Here's a look at the recent ways police departments have used social media. How would you describe each case? (Smart? Dumb? Unethical?)

Live tweeting a sting operation

When is it appropriate to live-tweet? At the Westminster Dog Show? (Sure.) While giving birth? (Questionable.) At funeral? (Probably not.)

What about a live sting operation?

In what has to be a first, Prince George's County Police in Maryland is planning on doing exactly that. The date and time are still unknown, but the department will be tweeting from @PGPDNews using the hashtag #PGPDVice in the near future. Appropriate?

Department spokeswoman Julie Parker told USA Today that the live-tweeting will target the men soliciting prostitutes (not the prostitute themselves); @PGPDNews will potentially tweet out specific names, charges and photos.

Why they're doing it: "We're hoping the advance notice we've provided acts as a deterrent to would-be johns who choose to engage in this illegal behavior. This is another example of our department's commitment to transparency. We'll give our community real-time access to the PGPD's Vice Unit which is dedicated to shutting down this type of illicit business and seeking help for its victims," the department wrote in a blog post.

Related: The Ethics Coach on Handling Social Media Attacks

Potential concerns: "This seems to be a reality TV show masking as law enforcement," Cyndee Clay, who works at a D.C. area group that assists people in the sex work industry, told USA Today. "There's a sensationalism there that is exciting there for people but quite frankly these are real societal issues and again these are real people's lives we're dealing with."

In addition, should resources be expended live tweeting a sting, instead of being used to, you know, actually make anarrest? Is this a good use of tax-payer money? Is this a good use of social media?

Asking twitter users to post pictures of themselves with New York officers and hashtag it #myNYPD

Why they did it: To spread goodwill. The intention was clearly to circulate a stream of photos showcasing smiling officers next to smiling New Yorkers.

Reaction: Some people did exactly that. Others, not so much: Photos of police brutality took over the hashtag (some of them truly disturbing). Despite the immediate and intense backlash, the NYPD stood by the hashtag campaign; NYPD spokesperson Deputy Chief Kim Y. Royster told The New York Times that the department was "creating new ways to communicate effectively with the community" and that Twitter provided "an open forum for an uncensored exchange" that is "good for our city."

Using Pinterest as a lost and found:

Why they did it: Gloucester Township and Mountain View have found that the photo-based social platform allows residents to easily locate lost or stolen items that have been recovered as a result of criminal investigations or have been turned into the Department as lost property.

Related: How 122-Year-Old General Electric Is Killing It on Social Media

Before the creation of the Gloucester Township "Pinterest" website, for example, residents had to make an appointment to come to the Police Station and at the lost or found property. Now, they can surf the Pinterest board online at their own convenience.

Reaction: Seems like a pretty ingenious way to use social media. Check out the #GTPD Recovered Property board.

Publicly firing officers over twitter: In 2013, twenty-seven officers and employees were fired from the Dallas police department; each departure was accompanied by a termination Tweet from Police Chief David O. Brown stating the name of the employee and the reason why he or she was fired.

Why he did it: Brown said his actions (fittingly, he did so in a tweet) were motivated by transparency, and a desire to "engage the public on social media."

Reaction: Mixed, judging from our reader's comments. While a few expressed their support for Brown's unconventional tweets, many found them unnecessarily humiliating.

"I love to see the law enforcement community embracing change…but this seems to be something a PR/Social Media professional should have handled rather than the chief," wrote one commentator.

And what would have happened if the information Brown tweeted out was wrong? "This policy will open many cans of worms," wrote another commentator.

Related: Use These Twitter Guidelines to Avoid a PR Nightmare

Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a reporter for's Venture section.

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