Turning the Corner: Improving Law Enforcement Perception through Media

– Executive Summary

Law enforcement continuously strives to maintain its public image to provide better service and establish meaningful community relations. Over the years, the law enforcement community has been adversely affected by the wayward actions of a number of individuals. These actions have had a snowball effect and have led to negative public perception for some community members. To combat this image, several law enforcement entities have begun utilizing social media to promote their image.

The research question is: How can law enforcement develop positive social media exposure to improve police–community relations? To answer this question, I examined Twitter data from the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC; the Portland Police Bureau; and the Boston Police Department. During the timeframe of my analysis, I studied the week immediately before and after the murder of George Floyd. This timeframe allowed me to analyze the social media strategies of large-scale police departments during normal operations and times of civil unrest.

The research for this thesis required a comparative analysis of all the tweets sent by each organization during this time. This analysis consisted of categorizing and separating the tweets by subject, delivery style, and reactions they generated from their Twitter audience. After categorizing and separating these tweets, I examined the factors contributing to the tweet’s “success” and exposure level. In addition to analyzing the tweets during this timeframe, the number of crimes reported were compared to the number of positive messages displayed on Twitter to determine any correlation.

By conducting this research and analyzing the data, I found that the protest-related activities increased the exposure level of any related tweets. This trend remained consistent among all three case studies and was illustrated by the number of likes, retweets, and comments generated. Additionally, this increased level of exposure for all protest-related tweets was constant, even though each agency had its own delivery style, tone, and cadence. When evaluating these tweets to determine which were the most successful in developing positive social media exposure, I found that the Boston Police Department had the single most “successful” tweet. This tweet conveyed a sense of solidarity between the city of Boston and its police department.

During the analysis of the tweets unconnected to protest-related activities, there was no conclusive determination of the best practice for developing positive social media exposure to improve police–community relations. Some well-received examples, however, involved the police departments’ highlighting positive interactions with the community, recognizing individuals and organizations, and soliciting help from the community. These tweets were often accompanied by embedded media that provided pictures of these uplifting moments. Another consistent theme observed between each agency was their commitment to delivering updates relaying pertinent details and information that would benefit the community.

In summary, the law enforcement organizations studied had varying methods in which they attempted to develop positive social media exposure. These variations were found in the frequency, delivery style, and categories posted. One consistent trend revealed that each organization did not have community policing as one of the top three categories tweeted. This thesis concludes there is a substantial opportunity for growth in this arena. Highlighting these actions on a more regular basis may create a better chance to improve police–community relations and bolster the reputation of the department in the eyes of many.

As a result of this research, I recommend law enforcement leverage Twitter to improve its police–community relations due to its ability to reach many people quickly. The relayed messaging should be frequent and utilize all available tools, including embedding videos and creating hashtags for consistent themes. Furthermore, law enforcement should dedicate resources to measure and evaluate the current success of their tactics within social media. By doing so, law enforcement organizations increase their likelihood of developing positive messaging that resonates with the community and strengthens future relations.

As this research was limited and scope and size, subsequent research can build on this data through several different means. One form of research could explore how law enforcement utilizes other social media platforms besides Twitter to develop positive social media exposure. These platforms, which are constantly evolving and being created, can potentially reach different audiences. Another avenue in which future research could be conducted is examining a period when no significant nationwide protests are occurring. This method would provide a better opportunity to determine the best practices for creating positive social media exposure during normal operations.

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