Lessons learned from Isaac: How law enforcement embraces social media

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - 11:00am

The rise of the fan page has transformed the social media landscape, creating a more diverse way for people to find critical information during a large scale event. When Hurricane Isaac slowly pushed its path of destruction across Louisiana, residents turned their attention to Facebook and Twitter as a way of keeping informed.

“This [Hurricane Isaac] would be the first major event that we’ve used all of our avenues of social networking,” Trooper Russell Graham, Louisiana State Police, said. “It did create more work, but we were able to get more information out quicker than ever before.”

Although the Facebook fan page feature has been available since 2007, many law enforcement agencies across Louisiana have only added it in recent years. Although the march towards progress has been slow and somewhat reluctant for some, others are now seeing a greater benefit after utilizing social media during Hurricane Isaac.

“We created a page awhile back,” Trooper Graham, noted. “We were posting small things about what we were doing and trying to learn what worked.”

It was not until the threat of a hurricane making direct landfall that the agency considered a new approach to its traditional methods of disseminating information.

“We didn’t want to cause information overload for people, but we did want to get as much information out there as we could,” Trooper Graham added. “Like everybody else, for the hurricane, we ramped up the number of personnel on duty. We had a group that was constantly monitoring Facebook. Troopers had specific duties and we maintained that 24-hours a day for that whole week of the storm.”

The increased activity attracted a larger fan base. Before the storm the Louisiana State Police Facebook page had 1,000 fans. Now, they’re close to 12,000.

The vast majority of their posts during the storm were related to road closures. That same information could be accessed via a telephone hotline, which is considered a traditional information source.

“At the height of the storm, we were receiving 200 calls per hour,” Trooper Graham explained. “Department of Public Safety Officers manned those lines. People who were calling that line would sometimes have to wait on hold for a long time.

“Another quick way to get that information was for us to post it on Facebook. After every post we would immediately get posts from people asking questions.”

Answering those questions directly provided safer avenues of travel for those who had to navigate during or after the storm.

“Thank you so much for your help,” one fan of the Louisiana State Police Facebook page, wrote. “My mom was up in Shreveport during Hurricane Isaac and my husband called you several times as well as checked on Facebook to know the best way to get home on Saturday. She had a perfect drive with no problems.”

Reporting conditions on smaller roads within city limits was a major focus for other law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Although East Baton Rouge Parish did not sustain the flooding that caused closures on state highways and portions of the Interstate, the area did see a great deal of blocked roads, downed power lines and damage due to fallen trees.

“Isaac posed a new need for frequent releases of information,” Casey Rayborne-Hicks, East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, said when explaining why the agency turned to Twitter during Hurricane Isaac. “Posting a road closure on Twitter was much quicker than frequent press releases sent to multiple media recipients.”

Although EBRSO had a social presence prior to the storm, like many, they are still hesitant on the ways to utilize it.

“We activated the Twitter account during Isaac primarily to reach the media, and in turn get that message out to the public,” she added. “While we were glad to have the public followers, and certainly welcome that, the media was our primary target audience. While we might have only been able to reach 2,000 followers, our media counterparts could reach many more through various modes of release – social media, website and broadcast.”

Reaching the media in an efficient and timely way may be the reason different agencies jump on the social media bandwagon, but for some, reaching the public is the thriving force behind a mode of operation.

“Our Mayor’s mandate is that we are going to be as transparent as possible, and I agree with that wholeheartedly,” Chief Scott Silverii, Thibodaux Police Department, said when asked about his philosophy regarding social media.

Since taking office in January 2011, Chief Silverii has implemented a great deal of change in regards to how the department not only communicates with the media, but with the public as well. He believes social media is a key element to improving those relationships.

“I think the public is tired of just listening,” he said. “By reciprocating communications, it ingrains us into the community we serve.”

Thibodaux, like most of south Louisiana, issued a mandatory curfew after the storm passed. The purpose was to maintain public safety as well as the safety of those who worked to restore the city. Preventing people from breaking that curfew then became a top focus.

“We look at it from the humanistic side,” Chief Silverii, explained. “People are locked up in a house without power, and it’s just human nature to be curious. That curiosity may be what causes them to break the curfew. We have the authority to be out on the roadways, so we posted a lot of pictures to Facebook and it helped satisfy that sense of curiosity for people.”

Now that the storm has passed, many of the agencies that increased social media activity during Hurricane Isaac have naturally reduced the amount of posts. However, most say that maintaining a presence will not be lost. In fact, the Thibodaux Police Department hopes to push the social side of law enforcement even further.

“Traditionally, only 41 percent of crimes are reported,” Chief Silverii, noted. “The old way of just calling 9-1-1 has gone to the wayside. I’m pushing to create and offer an app. The younger generation is more accustom to texting, and we want to remove any barrier that would prevent them from reporting crime.”

Ultimately, law enforcement agencies are dependent on the community to provide information relative to where help is needed. During Hurricane Isaac, many agencies noted that they received messages on Facebook regarding people who were trapped and needed assistance.

“We had people contact us via Facebook saying that they had family members who needed help, and we were able to pass that information directly to Homeland Security,” Trooper Russell Graham, recalled.

However, no matter the benefits, Chief Silverii notes that many agencies across the nation are reluctant to see the benefits of social media.

“There is a culture within law enforcement that has that thin blue line – many like to keep things close to the vest,” Chief Silverii, noted. “I think that social media is a threat to the old, traditional way of policing. I think they are going to begrudgingly move forward.”

Those who have already, however, certainly saw its benefits during Hurricane Isaac.

“I would say that based on the feedback we’ve received from social media users, it has been extremely successful,” Trooper Russell Graham, concluded. “We intend to keep learning in the hopes to further improve our social media outreach initiatives.”

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