Social Media & the New Era of Policing

With the emergence of social media, often the first person on the scene of a crime is not a policeman or a reporter, but a person with a cell phone and twitter handle. Confronted with society’s changing ways of digesting information, the Palo Alto Police Department (“PAPD”) embraces the powerful tool of social media to connect with its community.

On February 6, 2015 the PAPD released a video documenting the 2001 unsolved murder case of Maria Ann Hsiao. Lt. Zach Perron was one of the first officers to arrive on the scene that horrific night. Now, he hopes this video and social media will bring in tips to help solve this cold case and bring peace to the Hsiao family. “People want to know about crime in their community and social media helps us update the public and provide transparency. We might not be able to release all the information, but social media allows us to release relevant details to keep the public informed,” says Perron. 


According to Police Chief Magazine, more than 62% of law enforcement use social media to assist in crime investigations and 40% use social media for community outreach and citizen engagement. The PAPD uses social media for both.  With their main sources being Twitter, Facebook and Nextdoor, the PAPD regularly uses social media to generate leads in investigations and get crime tips on neighborhood activity. The PAPD also uses social media to get information out to the community. They live-tweet from a crime scene and use both Facebook and Twitter to answer people’s questions or concerns.

No longer does the public rely only on the press for their news source. This can be both helpful and a hindrance for law enforcement. Just as much as social media can be used to help with an investigation, it can be a source of rumors. Perron says, “If you want your news covered, you must put it out yourself. Our hope is to grow our following so people get the initial community message from the police department and not from local rumors.” According to Perron, the key to growing that following is establishing a trust factor with your public and setting the right tone in your communications. He points to the 2013 Boston Bombing as a watershed moment for social media and policing. 

After two men set off bombs during the Boston Marathon, the hashtag #BostonMarathon instantly went viral. The Boston Police knew that conversation about the bombing was going to happen on social media with or without them so they decided to embrace those streams of communication. The BAPD, having been on twitter since 2009, had an established trust with the public, which quickly made them a main source of up to date information. Their twitter feed skyrocketed from 40,000 to 310,000 and it was not through a traditional press release but through Twitter, that BAPD first announced they had suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in custody. The Boston bombing is now considered a textbook example of how law enforcement can use social media as an outreach tool.

Having assumed the role of Public Affairs Officer, Perron is using social media to its fullest capacity. This cold case video has generated over 80,000 views and 1,020 shares on the PAPD’s Facebook page and over 8,900 views on YouTube. In this new age of community policing, social media has become an essential location for local law enforcement to interact with its community. Though he cannot confirm there is a definite connection Perron says, “We are putting out more information than we ever have before (and) crime has gone down during my 17 years of service.” 

Written by Katie Rentzke 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *