Social media has become a critical part of law enforcement

By Kaitlyn Perez
Sarasota County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office Community Affairs Director

More than ever these days, people want transparency out of their policing agencies.

Here at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, we have found that being active on social media by showing the good – and the bad – is a great place to start.

That means showcasing the outstanding work that our deputies do on a daily basis. Just recently, we posted a YouTube video and Facebook photos of a deputy helping to corral an alligator found in a citizen’s swimming pool. The video went viral and recently passed 1.3 million views. 

It also means showing the negative, which is best done by owning the negative. While we’re lucky to have a strong, resilient workforce of nearly 1,000 people, in January, we arrested one of our deputies for attempted murder. We didn’t hide behind closed doors and wait for it to go away. We chose instead to live stream a press conference and film our Sheriff escorting the deputy to our jail. It was a message of accountability and ownership, which as you can guess, comes from high up in our organization: Sheriff Tom Knight.

None of our work would be possible without Sheriff Knight. When he came into office in 2009, he believed very strongly in the value of community outreach and the increasingly popular ways of social media. He saw and continues to see social media as a direct line to connect with the community we serve.

But what he is really excited about is putting our content out before the media, which has become one of my marching orders.

There is something to be said about being in tune with what the public wants, and these days, the public expects to receive accurate information as soon as it is possible. I remember reading somewhere that on average, Twitter users expect a response from companies within 1 hour. That means they are always on and always looking for information.

Given what is happening in the news media these days, cutbacks have meant we don’t really have beat reporters anymore. So much of my job is educating the media, and I don’t mind it but you work with them for six months and before you know it, they’ve moved on to other stations and other markets.

This makes ensuring stories are accurate a challenge. That’s why we focus on our social media strategy, which combines Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Facebook is our most successful platform, which is likely based on the population of Sarasota County. Demographics show many of the 400,000 residents are retirees, and as we have found, older populations are more familiar with Facebook.

Our Twitter audience grows steadily. I prefer the platform for a couple of reasons; it challenges me to be concise and direct while it typically reaches a younger audience, which we are always trying to connect with.

Twitter is also a powerful tool to connect with other agencies, not only around Florida and the U.S., but it opens us up to a global audience.

It’s the audience we have at home though, that really appreciates how we use it. Whether it be displaying deputies lining an overpass for an officer who died in the line of duty, or showing a deputy holding his tiny daughter after responding to the drowning death of a 3-year-old, or posting a photo of a mounted patrol deputy changing the tire on a colleague’s cruiser, our Twitter feed helps people relate to our deputies, humanizing them, and ultimately, bringing about a level of respect that will make our community safer for everyone.

Instagram provides for much of the same. We announce news, such as recently when we let the public know that a deputy and his K9 would be interviewed on a local news broadcast about the important topic of exposure to fentanyl. We post memes with important messages like on #TrafficTipTuesday when we remind drivers how to use roundabouts or what emergency equipment to pack before taking a road trip. We reveal the human element of law enforcement by wishing Happy Father’s Day to dads who miss soccer games and come home late. And one of my favorite things to do is tell the public about significant arrests.

Interestingly, YouTube is a platform that connects with just about all age groups. And these days, it has so many millions of users, we would be silly not to use it. We try and keep our videos short – about two and a half minutes is as long as you want to go to not lose people’s attention.

But it allows us to undertake some intriguing projects that again help us connect with our community.

We highlighted the retirement of a beloved mounted patrol horse, surprised teens with an impromptu kickball game, talked to inmates inside our addiction recovery pod, and enabled a deputy to talk about her excitement after running into a former arrestee who changed his life around.

But it’s a video we did with teenagers for our Rightful Policing Strategy Workshop that best sums up what is leading the direction of our social media effort, and to be honest, our entire agency as a whole.

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office did not coin the term, “Rightful Policing” – that came out of the Harvard Kennedy School a few years ago. But we have embraced it at our core, and the Community Affairs Office has taken on the branding effort.

In its simplest form, “Rightful Policing” means that citizens care more about their interaction with law enforcement than they do the outcome of it. A deputy can write a speeding ticket for $150, which isn’t a good day for anyone. But if the deputy treats the driver with respect and empathy, and uses the opportunity to educate, the driver will value that interaction. On the flip side, if the deputy is unpleasant, rushed and insincere, well – we know how that ends up. If you search #rightfulpolicing on Twitter, you will see that we essentially own the hashtag as part of our brand.

The effort that led to the workshop video came out of an event in which we put members of our faith-based community through a series of practical scenarios a line-level deputy might face during a typical shift. Scenarios ranged from traffic stops to domestic disturbances and heroin overdoses. When we debriefed and asked for input, the adults suggested we host the event for teenagers. So that’s exactly what we did.

We brought in kids from the community. Some were high achievers; some were not. It was a vast array of different students from different neighborhoods who, for one reason or another, a community leader felt needed to be exposed to the challenges of law enforcement.

It was a humanizing moment, showing the youth who these men and women are. I even gathered feedback from our deputies who said seeing the student’s reactions to the scenarios was eye-opening. One civilian employee even gleaned a new understanding of what it means to practice rightful policing.   

To be successful, it takes buy-in from the entire agency, which we have. You can ask from the top of the organization all the way to the line-level deputy, and you will get the same positive response about it: We are very proud of our efforts.

When I post photos and videos of deputies who might be a bit hesitant, I remind them that my main purpose is officer safety. I explain that by humanizing their profession and showing their vulnerabilities, their families, their smiles and laughs, I think of my efforts as an added layer of armor when they hit the street.

Thanks to their buy-in, social media and rightful policing has become who we are. If you pay attention to our platforms, you see that message, whether directly or indirectly, in just about every post.

Aside from our community, there is one more audience that is important: Our employees.

I see many agencies focusing on the good news coming out of their agency. But we feel there has to be a balance. It can’t all be feel-good stories. I believe we have to post mug shots of arrestees, photos of seized drugs and weapons, and recap compelling arrests to ensure that deputies – our boots on the ground – know how much their work is valued.

By combining all of these factors together, we have created a system that works for us. It’s not always easy, especially because law enforcement-types are typically private people who would rather keep to themselves and just get the job done.

I think it’s innate for cops to want to be private and I am guessing there are smaller communities out there where leaders of the local law enforcement agency won’t even consider sticking their toe into the proverbial water.

Just remember, change takes time. But I would encourage PIOs in those situations to stick with their efforts and go with their gut. Any law enforcement agency that isn’t actively using social media right now is missing a huge opportunity.

 

Kaitlyn Perez is the director of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Community Affairs Office, which strives to be responsive and professional in its activities. They act in full compliance with the Florida Public Records Law and in the best interests of the agency, the news media, and the people of Sarasota County. This office handles all media inquiries, issues news releases, responds to public records by members of the media, coordinates agency social media, special projects and other communications.

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