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A new direction for policing: 3 social media themes

Defining privacy, blending policing with social media, and embracing the changing nature of information

Gordon Scrobbie

By Gordon Scrobbie

I’m pleased to say that my experience as a presenter attending my first SMILE conference has genuinely expanded my knowledge and understanding of social media and its positive application to policing, and I have taken away a few standout issues for law enforcement.


1. The Generation Gap

What came through in the early part of the conference was evidence of a clear generational divide. This was not just in terms of the use and understanding of technology, but in attitudes to privacy. What does this mean for policing?

Some professional standards departments take the stance that social media is bad or incompatible with being a police officer. While I can accept some foundation for this view, younger officers and those described as ‘digital natives’ do not recognize it. They are totally comfortable with social media, and their appetite for sharing personal information with others is quite different from the non-digital generation. ‘Privacy’ is not as much of an issue for them.

The conclusion I came to was this: Officers who understand the way social media tools can enhance policing are an asset to be utilized. Strategic leaders need to accept that the learning in this field will come from the bottom up – namely, we will have to learn new skills from junior officers.

Equally, experienced ‘non digital’ officers can help the ‘digital natives’ understand the risks around privacy and the consequences of revealing too much personal information. When it comes to officer safety and organizational reputation, they can help decide where the line needs to be drawn.

2. Convergence of social media and policing skills

Some people are doing great stuff around social media in policing. They are using multiple social media platforms to communicate with the public, and they understand how the technical capability of hardware and applications can be used to best effect in a policing context.

Convergence is apparent in the breadth of use of social media in policing. We saw great examples in community policing, crime prevention, Crime Stoppers, gang prevention, and crime detection using open source information and forensic examination of web based material.

Constable Scott Mills from Toronto Police excelled in his presentation on the use of tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare to engage with night time economy participants. He demonstrated the power of blending physical public engagement and community reassurance with real time virtual public engagement. Using social media in this way — to compliment traditional policing methods — is a very efficient and cost effective method of increasing visibility with the public.

Convergence then, for me, is not just about the widening scope of social media across traditional areas of policing, but how we blend an understanding and application of social media skills with an understanding and application of policing skills.

3. Public first for information

Social media is a game changer for how we deal with managing media related information, reinforced the need for the police to revise its traditional approach to media relations from one of giving everything to the press first to one of making information public through ‘news releases’.

The changing nature of news, driven by digital and social media, requires the police to be more proactive and speak directly to the public instead of traditional news media. Captain Mike Parker of the LA County Sheriff’s Department spoke about how his department now places ‘news’ in one place on their web site, essentially giving it to the public and the press simultaneously. Mike agrees that there are challenges with this approach, but he firmly believes that there shouldn’t be separate channels for media relations – the need to connect video, Twitter, Facebook and the web site is clear.

Mike stressed that police generating their own content is crucial during periods of negative publicity when the media might choose to present a partial story to the public. Police can present a more balanced view, perhaps through additional video material. This has become more important due to the increased availability of publicly generated online video content.

There are two key things to remember in this regard. First, the police have never been good at providing timely information, and we must improve in this area if we want to be a credible source of information. Second, our information must be accurate. If we are communicating directly to the public, we will not have news editors tidying up our sloppy work.


Lauri Stevens did a great job in bringing together some fantastic speakers at the SMILE Conference. I got the feeling that most people got something useful from the conference and will make some changes back in the workplace.

Our strategy looking ahead, it seems, is themed around 3 areas:

  • Keeping up
  • Joining up
  • Leadership

All the content convinced me of the need for policing to keep up with current advances in social media and technology or risk losing credibility and legitimacy in some core areas of business.

It also highlighted the need to join up and take a more holistic view of the impact of social media across the broad range of policing activities, not just public engagement.

It was also clear that many of the challenges are ones of clear strategic leadership that gives our people the permission to release the full potential of the digital world to deliver better policing for our communities.

This article was previously published on ConnectedCOPS.net.

About the Author

DCC Scobbie presented as the opening day keynote at The SMILE Conference in Chicago and keynoted the first SMILE Conference in Washington, D.C. in April of 2010 via Skype. He is the Social Media Lead for Policing in the UK. Gordon joined Strathclyde Police in 1980, serving operationally in uniform and CID through the ranks, as well as in other areas of the business including Force Personnel; introducing a national performance appraisal system for Scotland and being the first police force in the UK to achieve accreditation for investors in people. He then served for 3 years at the Scottish Police College delivering leadership training before returning to force to establish a disclosure bureau to provide conviction and non conviction information on those wishing to work with children and vulnerable adults. He then served as an operational Chief Inspector before transferring to West Midlands Police on promotion in October 2004 as Superintendent, Operations Manager at Coventry City Centre. He was then promoted to Commander at Solihull in August 2006 and following completion of this years Strategic Command Course he was successful in his application to join West Midlands Police as Assistant Chief Constable in June 2009. Gordon joined Tayside Police in the fourth quarter of 2010 as Deputy Chief Constable. Follow Gordon on Twitter: @DCCTayside

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