Law enforcement has a history of adopting new technologies to help solve crimes. Whether it’s fingerprinting technology or present day DNA analysis, police forces have always been open to trying new methods to catch the bad guys. Ask any good police officer, however, and he or she is likely to tell you that the best policing is still done through building trust, and interfacing with the public. That’s just as with any brand management, and that goes on social media platforms too!

We spoke to representatives of two very different police forces and asked them how they’re using Twitter as a means of integrating with the communities they serve. We also asked them what role Twitter plays in their wider goal of fighting crime. Here’s what they had to say about how Twitter is influencing police work for the better, and some takeaways you can bring to your own brand management endeavors.

Boise Police Department

The Boise, Idaho police department serves a population of around 210,000 people. It’s a large enough city to be affected by serious crime but small enough that its police department has chosen to focus on community engagement, rather than crime fighting, as its core Twitter strategy.

We spoke with the Boise PD’s Communications Director, Lynn Hightower, about how the account has helped the department integrate with the community at large. She said that among other benefits, Twitter has helped foster greater awareness, appreciation, and participation for public safety issues from the citizens of Boise.

Ms. Hightower says that the Boise PD was an early adopter of Twitter, creating its account back in 2009 before many of Boise’s residents even knew what Twitter was. Nevertheless, in less than five years, the Boise PD account has amassed just under 6,000 followers, an impressive number considering the relatively small population it serves.

In what sounds like something a commercial marketer would say, Hightower says that the popularity of the Twitter account is due to the fact that the police department considers itself “an integral member of the community, in the same way that local businesses, schools, and individuals help add to the vibrancy of our city.”

Hightower says that the strategy behind the department’s Twitter account is very similar to that of any business using the platform. “We’re not selling a product, of course, but we are selling a value to the community, and that value is public safety.” Hightower says that feeling safe is one of the primary factors people choose to live where they do. “Twitter has been a great tool for us to reiterate those values of safety, trust, community building and community involvement with the police,” she says.

One of the ways that the Boise PD supports its community is to promote what its citizens are doing on its Twitter account. “We post updates on what’s going on in the community, even it’s not a policing issue.” Hightower says that this sharing approach helps the police department blend seamlessly into the community as an equal partner, and as a stakeholder in its success.

The net result is that the community is actively engaged in an ongoing basis with the police department. “That way, when we do broadcast crisis communications on the platform — such as flood warnings, evacuation orders, and so on — we know that people are already paying attention to us on Twitter, and we know our messages will be seen and acted on,” she says.

Ms. Hightower says that the use of social media for her department is “still evolving” and that her department is willing to try new things to help increase the level of engagement with its target audience. “We like to think that what we’re doing here on social media makes a difference in people’s lives. As long as we’re part of this community, we’ll continue to pursue that goal.”

IHIT

The Integrated Homicide Investigative Team (IHIT) is an integrated policing unit that includes the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the municipal police forces of Abbotsford and New Westminster, in British Columbia, Canada. Serving over 26 communities, with a combined population more than 10 times that of the Boise PD, IHIT has taken a decidedly different approach to its use of Twitter.

“This is definitely an operational account,” says Sgt. Jennifer Pound, a Media Relations Officer with the RCMP who heads up the IHIT Twitter account. “We started the account in 2011 as another arm of our homicide investigations division,” says Pound, “and in that time it’s become an effective policing tool on a number of different fronts.”

As a media relations officer, one of Pound’s core responsibilities is to interface with the media, providing briefings on the status and outcomes of homicide investigations. “I found that having to make and receive calls to the media during operational briefings was very distracting. It would also be hard to reach me or get information out to the media if I was at a crime scene or working with other members of the IHIT team.”

She says that since establishing the IHIT Twitter account, the media outlets she deals with now know to look for updates there, as opposed to calling her on her cell phone — or worse, sending email. “The most important, relevant information about these crimes now goes out to the media and to the general public on Twitter at the same time. That’s a real advantage for everyone involved — especially if we’re seeking the public’s input on an active investigation.”

Just as with the Boise PD, Pound says that the IHIT Twitter account helps to build trust between the police and the public. “We’ve taken some cues from the business world,” she says. “We have a recognizable and memorable name for the account, and a powerful image to convey our brand. I also have my picture attached to the account, and my name right in the bio so that people can associate the account (and our unit) with an actual person.”

That personal touch, even with an account that deals with very serious subject matter, seems to be paying off. “We get tips from anonymous Twitter accounts, but more often than not we also get tips, questions and interaction on our account from people posting publicly under their own names,” says Pound. “Twitter has been instrumental in building these kind of trust relationships where people are familiar with who we are, and who really want to help.”

Know of any other police forces using Twitter effectively for investigations or public relations? Let us know in the comments.

[Image credit: West Midlands Police, Charles Knowles, waferboard]