Social Media Monitoring: More than just a "nice-to-have"
Social media use in law enforcement has gone from being seen as a nice to have to being recognized – rightly – as an essential part of an officer's tool set. Awareness of value is growing but actual use may be lagging behind. Why is that?
Police around the world will use any available legal method of gaining information and evidence in the investigation of crimes. It is a matter of personal and professional pride that, once an investigation has commenced, all avenues will be explored to capture the potentially vital piece of the jigsaw puzzle that may close the case and secure a prosecution. Both human and technological resources will be engaged, which nowadays includes scouring social media.
Social media has been on the scene for a few years now and we have seen attitudes towards its use, as evidenced by some responses to my presentations over the last few years, from, "Yeah, but what does that have to do with policing?" to "It's a nice to have," and now. "We need this – tell me what we can do".
The value of using social media has gone from a difficult to define, ethereal recognition of a potential additional information layer to factual statistics and real world use over and over again. So everybody is on board, right? It seems not quite yet.
It's evidence, but not as we know it
With anything new it takes a little time to go beyond the 'This is cool let's get into it' phase, and operational investigative use no doubt introduced some hesitancy and questions such as, 'How is social data actually introduced as evidence?', 'What is the audit trail?' and even a suspicion that introducing new types of evidence, possibly never before put before a court, may in fact deduct from the judicial perception of strong evidence and weaken the case.
All these concerns are reasonable and, with time, will drop away (just as we saw with worries around prosecutions that historically tested new legislation) as information derived via social media becomes common and is treated at face value, like any other type of evidence.
But are agencies slowing down the potential pace of assimilation of social data into common practice due to procedural blinkers? A study of social media use in law enforcement has identified some interesting facts about adoption.
A few years back, an online study of 1221 U.S. federal, state and local agencies was undertaken to assess operational use of social media. The results provided some unsurprising and positive statistics such as:
- Four out of five agencies use social media for investigative purposes.
- Identifying people and locations, discovering criminal activity, and gathering evidence are the top activities done via social media.
- The role of social media in investigations will continue to become more mainstream.
- 83% of current users expect to use it more over the next year.
- 74% of those not currently using social media intend to do so in the future.
However it seems that the barriers preventing even wider use are, to a large extent, internal. These included:
- A lack of access during working hours.
- The need for mobility in the field. Prior user studies indicated that law enforcement professionals value portability and mobile devices, enabling the use of data in real-time.
- Knowledge levels and training – a lack of social media skills is a primary reason for non-use.
- One-third of law enforcement users of social media are uncomfortable with it, possibly due to a lack of training.
- Even those users who are comfortable are so because of self-initiated training.
- Law enforcement professionals are predominantly self-taught in social media. Very few have had any formal training. Only 8% have received assistance from a vendor.
- Leadership support – only half of law enforcement professionals in command positions support the use of social media. Contradicting this finding, those in supervisory roles are heavier users of social media than those in non-supervisory roles.
Small steps (in the right direction)
So, like with anything new, it is taking time to work out the kinks of how to effectively integrate social media into law enforcement activities due to a mix of human and procedural reasons. New concepts and capabilities meet enthusiastic early adopters and dogmatic nay-sayers. Policy, training and procedures take time to be implemented, tested and trusted and, without executive mandate and consistent management engagement, are realistically always going to lag behind such a dynamic paradigm as social media.
Most importantly, the value of social media continues to be seen as real and each effective use during an incident or in support of a successful prosecution will drive value recognition and understanding, enable integration into policy and ongoing empowerment of officers through effective training.
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