Social media has become a useful and ubiquitous tool of modern policing. After a slow start, policing organisations worldwide have embraced the medium’s potential for engaging with the pubic, adopting an imaginative array of policing strategies based around Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other social media platforms. Scholars too have turned their attention to the topic, finding that police are using social media for the right reasons but are struggling to achieve their own strategic objectives. This article uses the example of the Australian-based Project Eyewatch social media strategy to consider why police are struggling to realise the full potential of social media and to outline a way forward for policing organisations. The article is based on a recent research project that evaluated the efficacy of the Project Eyewatch strategy (Kelly, 2013).
The development of Project Eyewatch
Project Eyewatch is a community policing strategy marketed by the NSW Police Force as an online version of Neighbourhood Watch (NSW Police Force, 2012). The NSW Police Force established its first Facebook site in 2008 and now has more than 117 sites operating under the banner of Project Eyewatch. Both Neighbourhood Watch and Project Eyewatch rely on police engagement with local communities but where the former engaged the public at school halls and the like, Project Eyewatch uses Facebook to engage people online, in the comfort of their own homes and on mobile devices, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Project Eyewatch aims to:
- give the community greater access to police;
- foster real time engagement;
- seek a consensus on a problem;
- provide accurate up to date information;
- facilitate forums to find solutions;
- create an ability to provide feedback; and
- develop a high value community network (NSW Police Force, 2012).
From the outset, Neighbourhood Watch was measured against crime statistics and crime reduction targets, and on that basis the strategy was widely regarded as only ever having limited success (Rix, Faye, Maquire, & Morton, 2009; Fleming & O’Reilly, 2007; Fleming, 2005; Weatherburn, 2004). It is possible that the strategy would have been more successful if it had been measured from the outset against the modern policing objectives of enhancing public confidence and trust. Studies have shown that police organisations can enhance public trust and confidence by being interactive, visible and engaging, and by keeping the public informed of local crime issues (Quinton, 2011; Hohl, Bradford & Stanko, 2010; NPIA, 2010; Rix, Faye, Maquire, & Morton, 2009; Bradford, Jackson & Stanko, 2009; Jackson & Sunshine, 2007; Skogan, 2006; Tyler & Fagan, 2006). Project Eyewatch is an example of this modern approach, where policing services are delivered in new and innovative ways that enhance public trust and confidence.
Historical and current issues of social media
The pace of integrating online social networking services into everyday policing functions has been varied, with many jurisdictions adopting it as a strategic or operational imperative, some reluctantly entering into it because of the need to take over sites impersonating police and others maintaining a limited or no web presence (McGovern, 2011). Most police organisations have a website and are involved in the investigation of online crime but relatively few are using social networking services to their full potential, partly because of concerns about resourcing, reputation and liability (Vrielink, 2011; Cohen, 2010; Stevens, 2010). The limited amount of research that exists on the police use of the web has found that police are generally performing old tasks in new and different ways, using the web to push out information to the public while largely ignoring the need to engage the public in meaningful dialogue (Rosenbaum, Graziano, Stephens & Schuck, 2011; Brainard & McNutt, 2010; Welch & Fulla, 2005). Indeed, the use of the web and social networking services by police has not yet brought about the transformational change to policing culture and practice that was expected by some (Crump, 2011).
Kelly (2013) evaluated the dialogue, interactivity and responsiveness of police officers on a sample of 10 Project Eyewatch Facebook sites, finding that none of the sites were operating to their full potential because of limited police engagement. Resourcing appears to be a problem as police very rarely responded in a timely manner to the issues, questions and requests posted by members of the public on the sampled sites. There also exists a lack of consistency across the various sites in the way crime and policing information is shared with the public, something that the NSW Police Force has recognised and is working to improve (Au, 2013). The strategy’s early struggles are possibly due to its relative infancy as a community policing initiative, with community participation levels currently low and unrepresentative. As public awareness of the initiative increases so too should its efficacy as a community engagement strategy, provided that police themselves become more engaging and interactive. The bold move by the NSW Police Force to cede control and administration of individual Project Eyewatch Facebook sites to police officers at the local community policing level should also reap benefits in time as relationships with the community are developed, networks built and the benefits of community engagement are realised.
The way forward
There can be little doubt that social media should and will continue to be used by policing organisations as a tool for engaging with local communities. The question of which social media police organisations should be using is not as important as the need for police to choose services that help them to realise the benefits of real-time dialogic communication with citizens. So far as possible, police should be using social media to replicate the experience of face-to-face communication. It is also important for police to take the next step and use the public feedback provided on social media to inform and improve their operations and policy.
There are a number of steps that police organisations should consider taking in relation to their use of social media. First, it is important that police develop a strategic approach to the use of social media so as to avoid multiple and ad hoc initiatives springing up across the organisation, each with their own objectives and with little or no relationship to the organisational strategic direction and harmony. Project Eyewatch is a good example of how a well-developed social media strategy can be implemented pervasively and effectively to all parts of the organisation, reducing the opportunity for rogue social media sites, which are often established by enterprising police officers with the best of intentions but can have the unanticipated effect of diverting attention away from key organisational messages and confusing the public when they are searching for police or emergency-related information. Many police organisations have developed social media policies for both internal and external audiences and this kind of guidance is vital for providing clarity on social media engagement.
Project Eyewatch is an exemplar of the objectives that policing organisations should be striving for in their social media efforts. The strategy’s objectives are clearly outlined on the organisation’s website and linked to modern policing priorities, such as delivering better customer service, enshrining police legitimacy and enhancing public confidence and trust. However, having the best of intentions will amount for little if policing organisations fail to support their own initiatives with adequate resourcing. Support is also reflected in being able to unite all levels of the organisation in understanding, accepting and implementing the strategy, as well as integrating and normalizing the strategy into everyday policing.
Finally, it is vital that police organisations not only engage better with the public, something that social media is helping to facilitate, but that police actively listen to what the public is telling them and act on that information. Social media is an ideal vessel for sharing crime and policing information with the public, for soliciting information and feedback that can help police operationally, and for raising awareness of the police purpose and value to society. Project Eyewatch and similar social media strategies will struggle to meet their own objectives unless police establish a more interactive, engaging and responsive presence on social media. While there are real risks for an organisation engaging online, these risks are outweighed by the benefits of engaging citizens at a personal level. In any case, as more people choose to engage through social media it will become increasingly necessary for police to establish a presence on these social networks or face the consequences of being on the outside of mainstream society.
There is no doubting the willingness of policing organisations to use social media and plenty of evidence to suggest that embracing social media has led to improvements and efficiencies in operational policing. The proliferation of social media has reached a point where police organisations probably need to take stock and consider how they are using social media and how they should be using it. It is not enough for police to simply embrace the idea of change and the need to be part of social media networks without properly implementing the strategies that support change. Project Eyewatch is an example of a strategy that has the potential to bring about far reaching benefits for a policing organisation but for those benefits to be realised it will be necessary for police officers to improve the way they operate on social media and become more active, visible, engaging and interactive.
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Andrew Kelly is a lecturer and researcher with Charles Sturt University’s School of Policing at the NSW Police Force Academy, Goulburn, Australia. He worked as a police officer, journalist and corporate communications manager with various federal and state government organisations before commencing his academic career. He is currently involved in police recruit training and in the development and delivery of media-related university subjects to students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate policing courses.