Shino Tanaka sat awake one night in early December glued to her social media feeds, watching demonstrators — as they had in Ferguson and throughout the country — post tweets and videos describing riots against police in nearby Berkeley.
“What is really sad to me is that one voice was missing,” Tanaka said. “And that was the voice from law enforcement.”
Tanaka is the social media coordinator for the Mountain View Police Department. An ex-patrol cop on the Peninsula, she spent years working in social media community management for startups in Silicon Valley. Her current position, which she has held for nearly two years, marks her return to law enforcement.
Given her hybrid background in police work and social media, she laments that police often fail to use social media to its full capacity. Most all police departments in the United States are on social media, but she says very few use it strategically to build community, especially when community relations are tense.
That’s where Tanaka’s work comes in.
Social media engagement allows police to practice transparency and build long-term trust with citizens through dialogue online, in a way that can be more immediate and widespread than face-to-face outreach.
In Mountain View, Tanaka and her team worked the last two years to make sure her department doesn’t miss that opportunity — and it is yielding real results for the community.
Especially during a historical moment when police departments across the country are re-examining their connection to their citizens, Mountain View serves as an example of how social media can be harnessed to help police do so.
Last May, when an active officer at the Mountain View Police Department was arrested by his own colleagues and ultimately charged for possession of child pornography, the effect on their department could have been devastating.
“It was ugly, a very ugly thing to have on our plate,” said Mountain View Public Information Officer Sgt. Saul Jaeger.
In response to the incident, the department did more than issue a press release, a more common police response. Tanaka, who maintains the department’s social media platforms full-time, also posted a copy of an open letter from the police chief on their blog, Facebook and Twitter.
Hundreds of public comments flooded the department’s social media platforms — and Tanaka responded directly and publicly to every single one, promising a full investigation was underway and offering the police’s deep apology, as well as an invitation to discuss further.
By contrast, she explains, many police departments misuse social media as solely a form of one-way communication: to blast community safety updates like traffic alerts. While the Mountain View police department also provides such updates, they believe social media can do much more.
“When you historically take a group like law enforcement, which is very insular, they don’t really like to share a lot,” she said.
“Consistently communicating with your community about what it is that you do, how you do it, and why you do it,” can help police earn the benefit of the doubt from their citizens in the face of major setback, she added.
A regular practice
This approach to social media was not limited to one scandalous incident in the spring — far from it. Tanaka and the department have incorporated it on a daily basis over many months, addressing concerns big and small.
Roughly 40 percent of their tweets in the past 18 months have been in reply to another user, about 21 percent higher than the average city police department in San Mateo County and Santa Clara County.
The average response time of the Mountain View Police: a cool 2.4 hours, compared to the average of other local police departments, 9.8 hours.
Mountain View Police Capt. Chris Hsiung works closely with Tanaka on their digital media strategy. He draws a parallel between police conversing with citizens on social media and private sector companies using social media for feedback from customers.
“Clearly we don’t make a profit; we don’t have anything to sell. But you could also make the argument that we do: we sell our service,” Hsiung said.
A feedback system on social media helps build “a loyal base of — if you want to call it customers, if you want to call it residents — whatever it is. It is mutually beneficial for both sides.”
Valerie Fenwick, who has lived in Mountain View for 14 years and watched the shift to social by her police department, is one such customer. The 40-year-old software development manager regularly tweets at the police and appreciates the dialogue.
“As opposed to some other places where they only send messages out and they never read questions, the MVPD is actually very interactive” Fenwick said.
“We get to see how much they’re doing. It really helps us see law enforcement as members of our community,” she added.
The Mountain View Police have seen an increase in followers — and in submitted tips from citizens, which are now outpacing calls to the traditional, telephone anonymous tip line — since its social media push began in 2012.
In Mountain View, population around 78,000, the police department has nearly 12,000 followers on Twitter, one of the largest for a department of its size. Since July 2013, it has increased by nearly half: 42 percent.
Similarly, the department has more than 10,000 likes on its Facebook page, which shows an increase of 70 percent since last summer. Still hundreds more followers, and counting, are also building on Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Google Plus.
“The fact that people are signing up for our channels — to us, that is success,” Tanaka said.
Tips submitted via social media have helped police solve gang-related crimes and find missing persons. In the fall, they helped solve a spike in residential burglaries.
“If we can establish a level of communication and trust where (citizens) feel comfortable enough showing themselves when they speak to us … we’ve done our job,” Tanaka said.
An example for others
Police departments across the country are looking to replicate the Mountain View model.
After several popular presentations of its best practices at several law enforcement conferences over the past year, the department developed its own series of Law Enforcement Digital Media Summits (#LEDMS) where law enforcement personnel take part in workshops and share strategy. So far, dozens of departments from California, Idaho, Nevada and more have participated, and recently, the Mountain View department began talks to work with the Los Angeles and New York Police Departments.
“When people hear us speak, it makes sense to them. It resonates,” said Tanaka, describing her experience sharing social media expertise with other agencies.
“It’s not just a Mountain View thing,” Tanaka said. “It is about the greater good, for law enforcement, and for community.”