Police Departments and Social Media: The Need for 'Official' CommunicationsIt is no secret that police departments across the nation are adopting social media. The likes of police officers and sheriffs are signing up for Twitter and Facebook for a variety of reasons, some of which include the ability to better track crimes and catch criminals. The success of such programs, though in their infancy, is well-documented.  However, these police departments also recognize the importance of social media for broadcasting important information that directly concerns the safety of the community. Police officers are there to protect citizens, and due to the shifting nature of how citizens learn about the news, it is nearly imperative that police departments have a social media presence today. In fact, ignoring social media can make police departments the target of imposter accounts that put the safety and reputation of the community at risk.

For example, in Austin, Texas, an account with the Twitter handle “@AustinPD” impersonated Austin’s actual police department. The fake account had about 450 followers and sent out fake updates such as “we’re going to make more stops at SXSW [festival] this year than last.” Luckily, the real Austin Police Department was able to report the account and have it removed before anything defamatory occurred. But, nevertheless, because the Austin police department was absent on Twitter and was so easily impersonated meant that potentially mean-spirited users could take advantage of the opportunity to mislead and possibly scare the public.

A more malicious example of impersonation occurred in Portland, Oregon. Posting under the handle “@PDxPolice” and using the police bureau’s badge, this fake account tweeted much more damaging content to the police department’s reputation while harming the police department’s relationship with the community. Some of the tweets openly mocked officers when a TASER and firearm were stolen from a police vehicle, while another tweet photoshopped the Police Commissioner’s face into sexually-charged photographs. Although the account was taken down due to a request from the Portland Police Department to Twitter, the damage was nevertheless done. Without an official presence, Portland’s police department fell victim to an impersonator that had severely negative consequences for the department’s reputation.

So, for those police departments weighing the options about whether or not to join social media, just remember that the theme of “official” information sharing remains a key point to keep in mind. Social media is now the main news source for many citizens, and an established social media presence can not only prevent against damaging imposter accounts, but also ultimately provide informative and timely updates to an engaged population.