BY ANNALISE KLINGBEIL, CALGARY HERALD

When a 14-year-old girl with Down syndrome went missing earlier this month after walking away from her Calgary home, police used all the resources they could to find her.

A helicopter flew over Royal Oak and broadcast details about the missing teen to residents, officers searched for the girl and Calgary Transit and city hospitals were alerted. And, from an office in the Calgary Police Service’s northeast headquarters, a social media constable posted a description of the missing girl on the service’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Police services across the country are increasingly turning to technology to interact with citizens and as they navigate the ever-changing world of social media, they’re finding both success and challenges. “(Social media) is very powerful. You can get a message out to a lot of people very quickly relying on the fact that they share, re-tweet, re-post the information that you put out,” said police spokesperson Kevin Brookwell. “But the downside is that information, once it hits cyberspace, is there forever.”

In just 14 minutes, the Facebook post was shared more than 250 times. The girl was quickly found.

Despite a new Facebook post and tweet stating the girl had been located safe, the initial social media posts stating the girl was missing continued to gain traction on social media and were shared hundreds of times. Having citizens share information that’s no longer relevant is a small downside when compared to the huge benefits that come from embracing social media, said Brookwell.

“You would never get that kind of exposure through an entire community that fast through traditional media or just word of mouth. It would never happen,” he said.

More police agencies across North America are beginning to see the value in using social media, said Lauri Stevens, principal consultant and founder of LAwS Communications, a U.S.-based law enforcement consulting firm.

“If you look at the definition of community policing, social media enables every tenant of community policing. If really done well, agencies stand to build relationships with their community and build that trust from the community,” said Stevens.

The Toronto Police Service, Peel Regional Police and Calgary Police Service stand out as examples of Canadian law enforcement agencies which are excelling at social media, said Stevens, noting many agencies across North America are still reluctant to embrace new technologies.

“Social media is social and cops aren’t so social. It’s really counter to their entire culture,” she said.

As manager of strategic communications at the Calgary Police Service, Brookwell oversees the service’s digital efforts and social media constables.

The service’s first digital communications officer launched his Twitter account ahead of schedule during last June’s flood after the Calgary police account became victim to the site’s anti-spamming safeguards.

Today, the service has four social media officers and an increasing number of Calgarians are turning to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr to get information from police.

“It has been a real benefit for us,” said Brookwell.

Queries from citizens that a year ago would have tied up the complaint line, are now being answered via social media and initiatives such as live-tweeting a police ride-along allow the digital constables to engage the community in new ways.

“The value of those social media constables in answering those very basic questions that probably a lot of members of the community have been asking for a long time is multiplied exponentially just because there’s so much re-tweeting and sharing of information on those platforms,” Brookwell said. “It is really good value for dollar and it’s a really good way of communicating with the public in a very, very quick way.”

While there are no immediate plans to add more social media constables to the service’s roster, existing staff who work in the 24/7 real-time operations centre are being trained in social media so the service can increase the amount of time it is active on social media.

As the service’s digital department looks toward the future, staff plan to continue to experiment, while being strategic about what they post and ensuring they’re not overloading citizens with too much information.

“The platforms may change, the technology may change. We have to always be adapting and scanning the horizon to be aware of what’s new, what technology is out there, what people are using so that we can keep up,” Brookwell said.

Soon, Flickr will be used to post albums containing photos of stolen property that officers are trying to return to their owners, and the service is discussing how to increase technology so crime can be reported online.

“There’s a lot of folks that are frustrated they can’t report a crime on social media,” said Brookwell.

Stevens keeps a close eye on the social media efforts of agencies across North America and she believes as more police service’s embrace social media, as Calgary police are doing, stronger connections between communities and their police will form.

“Police officers tell me that there isn’t anything that they’re dealing with that doesn’t have some sort of involvement on social media. It’s everywhere. It’s part of our lives, it’s how we communicate and I think the longer (law enforcement agencies) wait to embrace it and do a good job with it, the bigger problem they’re going to have on their hands,” she said.