Researcher studies how police use Twitter to protect and serve
Police forces across North America are increasingly using social media to communicate with the public. Twitter, in particular, has proved to be a valuable source for tips and eyewitness accounts as well as a public forum to discuss community issues.
Assistant Professor Christopher Schneider of the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences at UBC’s Okanagan campus collected more than 100,000 tweets from the Toronto Police Service for a recently published study that examines social media’s impact on police work.
How are Canadian police forces using Twitter?
Police in Canada largely use Twitter to circulate crime-related information to the public and share other relevant matters like traffic updates or public service announcements. Police also solicit information from the public about unsolved crimes or missing persons.
The Toronto Police Service (TPS) is the leader in Canada with officers tweeting on official accounts both on and off duty. Some off-duty tweets discuss things like family matters, golfing on vacation, and even hockey and doughnuts. This suggests the expansion of police activities to include sharing information about the private lives of officers. Using Twitter in this way expands police strategies to include matters not related to police work.
How does Twitter help police do their job?
Evidence suggests that Twitter has been an effective tool to solicit information from the public. More interesting, perhaps, is how police use Twitter to encourage symbolic support from the public. For instance, the public often addresses TPS officers by their first names, which seems to be an acceptable, if not encouraged, practice. Along with doughnut and hockey-themed tweets, officers are presented as more personable members of the community.
What are some of the potential pitfalls of police presence on Twitter?
Problems can sometimes occur when officers post on their personal accounts. Some examples have been spotlighted in news media. Consider one post made by an RCMP constable to his personal Facebook account that read, “how come every chick I arrest lately refuses to put clothes on and they’re the ones you never want to see naked?”
The post initiated a professional standards review.
How has Twitter changed public perception of the police?
Police use of Twitter seems to provide a legitimacy conundrum. On the one hand, research indicates that police legitimacy relies on micro-level interaction with citizens and Twitter seems to fulfill this aim. This is, of course, good.
On the other hand, research also indicates that police legitimacy rests on impersonal authority. Official police Twitter accounts attached to individual officers can personalize them, possibly resulting in the erosion of impersonal authority and could have an adverse effect on the policing institution as a whole. In spite of this possibility, it remains certain that police in Canada will continue to use Twitter.
Schneider’s findings are published in an academic paper, Police presentational strategies on Twitter in Canada, that appeared in a recent issue of Policing and Society: An International Journal of Research and Policy.