Connecting the Police to Communities

A Big Data Approach to Identifying Promising Practices in Social Media Engagement

The Urban Institute is digging into over 500,000 tweets from law enforcement agencies and 65 million tweets that mention police.

Law enforcement agencies are experimenting with social media to build stronger relationships with their communities. But are they using the most effective strategies?

The Urban Institute is using big data to answer this question, digging into 500,000 tweets from law enforcement agencies and 65 million tweets that mention police. We also surveyed police about how they use social media, through a 2016 partnership with the International Association of the Chiefs of Police.

These data will help us identify how law enforcement agencies can improve community policing and increase transparency and accessibility through social media.

Filling a knowledge gap on police use of social media

Finding: Some of the greatest barriers agencies face using social media are adapting to new trends, measuring impact, and training personnel.

In 2014, President Obama created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to make recommendations on how policing practices can promote public safety while building public trust. The task force recommended that law enforcement agencies adopt model policies and best practices for social media.

But little research exists on how to use social media for community relationship building in a law enforcement context. We are working to fill that knowledge gap, with reports that explore how social media can contribute to improved police-community engagement and relationships.

Behind the data: How we collected the social media data

Research Report

A national scan of practice among law enforcement agencies across the United States reveals that they use social media to notify the public of safety concerns, manage public relations, and gather evidence for criminal investigations. The Urban Institute and the International Association of Chiefs of Police partnered to develop a comprehensive understanding of law enforcement’s use of social media. A total of 539 agencies representing 48 states participated in the survey and answered questions regarding their use of social media, the management of social media engagement activities, barriers to success, and their future social media needs.

To download the full database, please sign up here.

2016 Law Enforcement Use of Social Media Survey

The millions of tweets shared on Twitter daily are a rich resource of public sentiment on countless topics. In the wake of highly publicized officer-involved shootings, many people take to social media to express their opinions, both positive and negative, of the police. We collected millions of public tweets and employed machine learning to explore whether we can measure public sentiment toward the police. Specifically, we examine how public sentiment changed over time and in response to one high-profile event, the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. While accounting for the larger trends in the public image of the police on Twitter, we find that sentiment became significantly more negative after Gray’s death and during the subsequent protests.

Public Perceptions of Police on Social Media

Social media can be a valuable tool for law enforcement agencies to disseminate information to the public and gauge community sentiment regarding agency policies and practices. We conducted a survey of law enforcement agencies and collected Twitter data from survey respondents to examine how law enforcement agencies currently use social media. Drawing from these data sources, this guidebook describes the importance of communication for community engagement and public safety, presents data-driven recommendations, and provides step-by-step strategies for agencies that want to enhance their use of social media as a community policing tool.

Fact Sheet

Social Media Guidebook for Law Enforcement Agencies

Many law enforcement agencies across the country use social media to disseminate information and engage the communities they serve. To ensure that a department has a clear vision for its social media use and effectively pursues that vision in practice, it is important to develop and regularly update social media policy and guidelines. As part of a survey of law enforcement use of social media, we collected agency social media policies. This brief reviews common themes in that sample of social media policies we collected from 70 law enforcement agencies, describes important considerations, and provides strategies to develop or adapt policies and guidelines to support community engagement.

Law Enforcement Social Media Policies