Tweets, Likes, and Hashtags: The New Language of Law Enforcement?

Tweets, Likes, and Hashtags
October 01, 2013

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are just for fun, entertainment, and catching up with friends, right? Think again. Research by Lori Brainard demonstrates how social media sites are providing law enforcement new ways to inform and collaborate with community members as never before.

In ongoing studies, Brainard, an associate professor in Columbian College’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, is looking into how police officers in Washington, DC, and nine other large U.S. cities use social media to interact with the public. She found that ordinary citizens are responding to the digital platforms in droves.

“Police agencies are hierarchical, and social media is flattening,” said Brainard, who taught a class on social media governance and civic engagement last year. “It’s a forum that is conducive to increased public engagement.”

She found that most of the police posts were informative in content; however, there was some interaction from the community, such as tips about drug activity in a neighborhood. And, the most often used response by officers was that they “would investigate”.  

“Collaboration was rare, but police were taking positive steps to build a relationship with members of the community,” she added.

Brainard is focusing much of her research on the presence and activity of police forces on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Yahoo! Groups—an online collection of discussion boards used primarily by the DC Police Department. To date, YouTube has proved to be especially helpful for collecting tips on fugitive criminals. Citizens are contacting police departments with information after watching surveillance footage of the offenders on the video sharing site. Facebook has been more useful for conversation, as was the Yahoo! Groups in DC.

And some of her findings seem to dispel the idea of a “digital divide,” or a lack of internet access among low-income populations. “Most of the helpful collaboration with police in D.C., for example, has been in Ward 8, which is a low-income area,” she noted.

Brainard’s research reveals another interesting tidbit about the nation’s capital: Residents from DC’s different precincts perceive or interpret the same issues in different ways.

“On a recent 4th of July, for instance, the residents living in the poorer districts were notifying police that they had heard gunshots, whereas people in Northwest DC—a more affluent area—heard firecrackers and reported them as a nuisance that was keeping them from getting their sleep,” said Brainard.

Brainard is currently working with undergraduate students Andrew Beauregard and Jessica Clarke on a broader study that encompasses social media use by police in the 25 largest U.S. cities. The students will be involved in coding and synthesizing data and comparing new findings with previous research.