The timeline in the Boston Marathon bombing story is startling.  Late on a Monday afternoon the crime occurred, resulting in death, horrific injuries and pandemonium.  Almost immediately, law enforcement agencies requested help from the public and within hours were harvesting an ocean of potential evidence – the general public’s digital records of the event captured on cameras and cell phones.

Marathon Bombing SuspectsOver the next three days the FBI, et al, poured through these images and late Thursday afternoon, summoning the full power of television and Social Media, released photos of two suspected perpetrators.  Approximately eight hours later – emphasis on eight hours – one of these murderers was dead and the other was attempting to elude a thousand law enforcement officers focused on a single target: him.  By early evening on Friday, he was in custody.

How often does a meticulously planned & executed crime occur on Monday and get closed before the next weekend?  My guess is…not often.  But swift resolution of major cases has occurred in the past – and certain similarities to the Boston Marathon case are telling.Whitey & Catherine

In 2011, Bad Guy #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, a mobster named Whitey Bulger (Osama bin Laden was the headliner at #1), had been on the lam for 16 years and was widely considered to be either dead or successfully hidden forever.  On a Monday in June, the FBI launched a public outreach campaign featuring pictures of Whitey’s companion, Catherine Greig (http://goo.gl/EF56w).  On Wednesday – two days later – Whitey and Catherine were in custody (http://goo.gl/POZNb).

In both these cases, law enforcement harnessed the assistance of the public.  This concept isn’t new – in fact, the FBI’s Most Wanted List, tacked to the bulletin board in the Post Office, started in 1950.  The use of essentially real-time television and Social Media, however, is new and, in a world of instantaneous data & information, crucial to success.  Sixteen years of Whitey’s face in the Post Office didn’t work.  Two days of Catherine on television and Facebook nailed them.

Harnessing Social Media for Local Law Enforcement

Because of its high profile and public safety success, the Boston case will unquestionably become a template for law enforcement in similar fast-moving, high-profile federal crimes.  But what about most cases, i.e., those falling under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement?  For most of these agencies, television coverage ranges from light to non-existent.  Social Media, on the other hand, offers a tremendous but largely untapped opportunity to enlist the active assistance of the public.

Local law enforcement agencies need to have a presence on Social Media for one simple reason – this is where their “customers” (the public) are.  In this regard, they share exactly the same rationale as any organization with customers.  The difference, of course, is that local law enforcement is providing Public Safety as its “product”.  A simple cost/benefit analysis makes a strong case for much wider use of Social Media by local law enforcement.

First, on the cost side, let’s dispose of the budget issues.  One of the greatest appeals of Social Media is its low cost, which is why it is so widely used by small businesses with limited resources.  After the initial set-up costs – which are nominal – about the only on-going costs for a law enforcement agency will be the man-hours required to create and post Alerts and Public Service Messages.  There also will be man-hours involved in managing incoming information from the public, of course, but those are law enforcement costs that simply reflect the price of success in asking for the public’s assistance.

On the benefit side of the ledger, a local law enforcement agency has HUGE assets that can readily be leveraged for a successful Social Media presence:

  • A precisely-defined “target market” consisting of the entire citizenry in its jurisdiction
  • High levels of familiarity & trust across its entire target market
  • Pre-existing high levels of reliance on its product, Public Safety
  • High levels of interest & engagement in its content, Alerts & Public Service Massages
  • Unparalleled response re: Calls to Action (tell them what you want & they respond)

The public has consistently demonstrated its willingness to assist law enforcement, but in order to reap the benefits from this civil ethos agencies must first and foremost get their messages out.   In today’s world that means using Social Media channels like Facebook and Google+ where the majority of the public can be found each and every day.

It boils down to one simple conclusion: Social Media provides a low-cost approach to massively increasing the resources available to local law enforcement.  Social Media works quickly, efficiently and, as demonstrated in Boston, effectively.  Local law enforcement agencies need to take heed and get on-board.