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

June 16, 2014

By Jane Bornhorst, Columbian College Director of Communications

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are just for fun, entertainment, and catching up with friends, right? Think again. Research by Lori Brainard and two Trachtenberg School doctoral students – Teresa Derrick-Mills, PhD ’12, and Mariglynn Edlins, PhD ‘12 – demonstrates how social media sites are providing law enforcement new ways to inform and engage with residents and stakeholders as never before.

In ongoing studies, Brainard is looking into how police officers in Washington, D.C., and 24 other large U.S. cities use social media to interact with the public. So far, she’s found that ordinary citizens are responding to the digital platforms in droves.

“Police agencies are hierarchical, and social media is flattening, which makes it such an interesting intellectual and practical puzzle” said Brainard, who taught a class on social media governance and civic engagement in Fall 2012. “It’s a forum that is conducive to increased public engagement.”

Similarly, what makes Brainard’s research so fresh is that nobody else is really doing it. Data collection is difficult (technologies keep changing) and analysis is slow given the amount of data, so most studies focus on Twitter and are simple content analyses.

She has found that most of what goes on is informational in content; however, there is some interaction with the community, such as tips about drug activity in a neighborhood, and some of that is collaborative, including police and residents working together to shut down drug houses.

“Collaboration has been rare, but police are 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 D.C. 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 and Yahoo! Groups (the latter in D.C.) have been more useful for conversation and collaboration.

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 truly helpful collaboration between police and residents 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 D.C.’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 more affluent areas heard firecrackers and reported them as a nuisance that was keeping them from getting their sleep,” said Brainard.

Brainard started her research with help coding copious amounts of data from Sarina Rosenberg, MPA ’13, Molly Callaghan, MPA ’14, and currently works with graduate student Brittney Seiler, MPA ’15, and undergraduate Honors Program students Andrew Beauregard and Jessica Clarke. They look at all Facebook, Twitter and YouTube posts for a three month period from 25 police departments.

Brainard has presented numerous papers at conferences and has published three articles from her research so far. She co-authored an article, “Virtual Government-Citizen Relations: Informational, Transactional, or Collaborative?” in a 2010 issue of Administration & Society. “Electronic Commons, Community Policing and Communication: On-Line Police-Citizen Discussion Groups in Washington, D.C.,” co-authored with Teresa Derrick-Mils, appeared in Administrative Theory and Praxis in September 2011. And, “Top 10 US Police Departments and Social Media,” co-authored with Mariglynn Edlins will appear in a forthcoming edition of American Review of Public Administration.