Information sharing: “social” police work

It's one thing to post surveillance video online and ask for public feedback, using the social space the same way you would traditional TV and print media. But it's another to share the same information with neighboring agencies.


In the flurry of discussion about “engaging our public,” “joining the conversation,” and “how do we keep our cops from getting in trouble on Facebook,” I sometimes think we miss the broader context of what social media means for law enforcement.

It's one thing to post surveillance video online and ask for public feedback, using the social space the same way you would traditional TV and print media. But it's another to share the same information with neighboring agencies.

A few items about law enforcement information sharing have caught my eye lately:

In Kentucky, a suspect in a string of bank robberies and assaults throughout five states was arrested because of sharing resources. By attending local detective meetings and using the website bandittracker.com, FBI agents were able to pinpoint similarities in a number of separate incidents. The suspect's personal and vehicle descriptions matched video surveillance images, tying all the cases together.

In Oakland (Calif.), meanwhile, regular bimonthly meetings held among local, county, state, and federal police, along with school and housing officials and BART, are part of a plan to focus on the 100 deadliest blocks in the city. Already the meetings have led to increases in arrests, probation and parole searches, and other key performance indicators.

And in tiny Cal City, (Calif.), Police Chief Eric Hurtado told the Bakersfield Californian that “his department is small, but officers were able to get a bunch of resources and network with other agencies and businesses and compile a massive amount of information.” That information included loan files, escrow files, broker files and title files, as well as documented cases of identity theft. Victimized companies cooperated fully, as did the bureau of investigation for the Orange County District Attorney's office and the U. S. Postal Inspection Service.

All this activity is inherently “social.” And yet, most of the activity in the three cases above took place in person or through other traditional means. While you would not want detectives to talk openly via Twitter about their needs, two aspects of techno-information-sharing bear thought and discussion:

1. In a formal setting, social media use doesn't function the way we anticipate.

2. Weak ties can lead to strong ties.

Social media functionality vs. productivity

In Canada, a recent Calgary Herald article noted that the country's Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS), first implemented in the 1990s, took awhile to gain traction:

“Two months ago, the force distributed a survey to investigators across Canada to get their views on ViCLAS and results should be known later this year, [ViCLAS administrator RCMP Insp. Larry] Wilson said.

“Asked why it took so long for the RCMP to solicit feedback, Wilson said the early years were bogged down with getting investigators just to buy in to the program and submit case information to the database.

“Now, compliance is 90 per cent or better, which speaks to the value that investigators see in the system, he said.”

In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, Tammy Erickson detailed why this sort of thing happens. Professional social media use, she wrote, is vastly different from personal use:

“Personal applications are finely tuned to the activities individuals already perform or would like to perform and to the people with whom they want to interact. They exude (even when it's not really there) a sense of control and choice.

“In sharp contrast, corporations often approach collaborative technology by:

1. Investing in technology with no clear intent or use in mind.

2. Not customizing the technology to relevant work processes.

3. Expecting people to collaborate within old organizational models and practices.

4. Believing that people will use it because senior management told them to.

“These approaches lead to poor adoption or sub-optimal use of collaborative systems in business. People either won't use the system or, if they do, it won't have a significant impact on the outcomes that count: productivity, innovation, and engagement.”

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