In a relatively short time, social media has made its way into every part of our lives. Not only has it become a core requirement for police to communicate, it has changed public expectation regarding transparency, timeliness and dialogue around police activity.
This new form of connectedness is helping close the gap between the public and the police; a citizen can contact us through a variety of avenues, all with the understanding that their voice will be heard, their concerns dealt with or, on some occasions, their compliments of our work published in the public domain.
At the beginning, there were fears in policing regarding social media, namely our inability to control it. A lot of questions were asked of our Delta Police Department’s media section: How will we manage a crisis? Will it harm investigative integrity? How do we keep up?
Luckily, our fears were very different from the reality of this new social phenomenon. In fact, I look back and wonder how we ever worked without these tools, recognizing now that they are an irreplaceable asset in our attempts to build and maintain public trust.
We now have the capacity to push out real-time, factual information. When there is a traffic event causing gridlock, we communicate with pictures, constant updates and options for alternative routes until such time as traffic is flowing freely. If there is a serious criminal event, we may use social media to help reduce fear and keep rumours at bay. We also use it as a recruiting tool and to keep the public informed of our day-to-day activities.
One of our big fears was whether we would be the victims of social media “lynch-mob.” The reality is that, on the whole, the public is very supportive of the work of police and social media communities exist mostly to help, rather than hinder the role of police. We have been criticized through these channels but we deal with it.
Interestingly, social media has also helped us with our relationship with traditional media outlets. We share information through a variety of channels, allowing journalists to gather the information they need to do their job.
As an example, we recently had a rolled tractor-trailer unit on Highway 17. We tweeted images to give the public an idea of what we were dealing with. On this particular day, it was righting a flipped semi. On another day it may be used to explain why there is large police presence in a quiet neighbourhood or to disseminate the image of a missing person.
As is the nature of our work, there are times when we are not able to share information with the public. I believe that because we are transparent and consistent in how we communicate, that when those occasions do occur, the public trusts that we are doing our jobs and that we will put out information as soon as we are able.
We live in a new age of information sharing and although there were fears at the beginning around the unknown, I believe that social media communities and the public have embraced how the police are using these new tools.
Jim Cessford is the chief of the Delta Police Department and has spent more than 40 years in law enforcement.