Audience responses to online discussions lead to serious questions

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The Calgary Police Service wants to further embrace social media in the coming months and has been asking plugged-in Calgarians for advice.

After hosting public discussions on Twitter and Facebook in late August and early September, as well as sending out a mail-in survey to 800 Calgary homes in mid-September, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) say they are starting to see some emerging patterns in Calgarians’ responses.

“People just want to be more connected with the police in their community,” said Michelle Dassinger, communications advisor for the strategic communications section of the CPS, who oversaw the online discussions.

“Mostly what we’ve seen so far is that Calgarians pretty much fully agree that we should use Twitter and Facebook as our primary means of social media communication and that’s what we’ve been focusing on already,” said Dassinger.

“In terms of how each platform should be used, we got the consensus that Twitter should be used for quick updates directly from officers and communications staff, while Facebook would give more in-depth information.”

Police tweets

Calgarians are telling the Calgary Police Service that they would like to see officers posting direct updates to Twitter, and may even want to use Twitter to report crimes themselves.

Photo: James Paton/Calgary JournalExactly what the CPS should be tweeting about is a larger issue.

Many commenters on both Twitter and Facebook said they would like officers to tweet about crimes, disturbances or even road closures as they happen, thereby avoiding the need for media outlets to broadcast such news on the police’s behalf.

Meanwhile, a smaller contingent of participants suggested that they would like the ability to alert officers of crimes in their community through Twitter, were they to witness them directly, potentially replacing the current 9-1-1 service.

Direct police involvement

“I don’t like to think about the possibility of an officer having to stop arresting a criminal in order to tweet about it.”

— Doug Lacombe, president, Communicatto
While Dassinger said that such social media campaigns are worth exploring, police in other cities are questioning the worth and the potential dangers of using Twitter and other social media platforms in such a way.

“The question that keeps coming to my mind when I think about this [officers tweeting about crimes] is, ‘what benefit would this have to the public?’” said Michael James, supervisor of digital media for the Edmonton Police Service.

“The way we use social media [in Edmonton] is that we focus on success stories, what the police are doing right, and how we’re continuing to keep Edmonton safe,” he continued. “I think officers broadcasting about the crimes they are currently on the scene of or driving to … could end up drawing unnecessary attention to danger and create more fear than information.”

Doug Lacombe, president of Calgary-based communication strategist firm Communicatto, has mixed feelings about on-the-scene tweets from officers, particularly about how that could impact their actual jobs.

“I don’t like to think about the possibility of an officer having to stop arresting a criminal in order to tweet about it,” said Lacombe.

At the same time, he stresses the importance of transparency when it comes to corporate communications.

“If everything is behind a closed door, people start to wonder what you’re up to,” said Lacombe. “I think Calgary police should focus simply on opening the kimono as much as possible … just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the job at hand.”

Potential dangers for citizens

While the idea of direct crime reportage from officers can be seen by other police services as a possibility, they say the issue of using Twitter as a new platform for citizens to report crimes is much more problematic and dangerous.

“If you were to tweet about a crime that you are at the scene of, you are making yourself available as a witness and you are opened up to danger,” said Tim Burrows, a sergeant with corporate communications for the Toronto Police Service (TPS), who oversee their social media activity.

Burrows said the TPS has recently taken its own comprehensive look at social media, and before diving fully into its use developed a guideline of principles and good practices for those officers and staff members who tweet or post regularly.

“Any technology comes with good and bad sides of the coin, but these social media platforms are just vehicles, conduits for information,” Burrows explained. “And as with any tool or any vehicle, there are responsible ways to use them. I have confidence that the Calgary police will remember that.”

On the right track

Lacombe said he believes the CPS is moving in the right direction.

“To think the CPS could sit out from the social media revolution is naïve,” he said.


  • Number of tweets sent to #CPS during Aug. 30 Twitter chat: 650
  • Total number of users following CPS on Twitter: 7,818
  • Number of “likes” on CPS Facebook page following Sept. 8 Facebook chat: 200
  • Total number of “likes” on CPS Facebook page: 1,937
  • CPS September mail-in survey respondents who use Facebook: 70%
  • Amount of survey respondents that use YouTube: 40%
  • Amount of survey respondents that use Twitter: 20%

Source: Calgary Police Service
(Numbers accurate as of Sept. 30, 2011)

“It is very good of them to be asking these questions now, rather than play catch-up with the rest of the pack later. I applaud them for taking the time to dive into these new potentials and opportunities.”

Dassinger said results from the mail-in survey are still coming in, and staff members are continuing to analyze the responses from that survey as well as from the Twitter and Facebook chats (the full transcripts of which are available online). She said she and her staff would sit down later this fall to figure out where to go next.

“We want to get an action plan together and then roll it out in small pieces,” she stated. “There’s no sense setting up something that’s not effective, or that we don’t have the resources for.”

And it will come down to resources, said Burrows, in order for any increased social media campaign to be successful.

“I don’t know of any police service anywhere that is equipped with enough resources for 24/7 monitoring of these platforms, which is what many people in Calgary seem to be asking for,” said Burrows. “People need to realize that social media is not the end all and be all.

“After all, when in doubt, there’s always the phone.”

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