NYPD Turns to Social Media to Strengthen Community Relations

Customer Service
Customer Service
New social media innovations have helped to improve performance on crime control, managing incidents, and traffic conditions.

Shortly after Bill de Blasio became Mayor of New York City in January 2014, he brought back William J. Bratton to serve a second term as Police Commissioner for the New York City Police Department. Mayor de Blasio wanted Commissioner Bratton to help rebuild community connections with New Yorkers who had become disenchanted with policing in the city.

To help inspire change within the NYPD and rebuild community relationships, Commissioner Bratton brought on several new Deputy Commissioners, including Zachary Tumin as Deputy Commissioner for Strategic Initiatives. Tumin would oversee the startup of important innovations, and once established, spin them off to operating units. Among these: the rollout of department-wide social media to engage New Yorkers and members of the service.

Having served in law enforcement for 15 years and led research programs at Harvard Kennedy School, Tumin has been able to gain fast insight and traction on issues where NYPD needed to take action. That has helped Bratton craft a department-wide social media strategy that's aimed at strengthening engagement between NYPD commanders and the communities they serve.

When Bratton returned to the NYPD in January 2014, the Department operated one central Twitter account. Twelve months later, the NYPD has established one of the most comprehensive social media operations in U.S. law enforcement, with more than 100 command accounts across precincts, housing developments, and transit units. It developed a first-of-its-kind world-class training program and ran it seven times at John Jay College.

As a result, over the first quarter of 2015 alone, the NYPD's 100+ command account followers increased by 64 percent. That success has pulled more than 800,000 friends and followers to all NYPD accounts, connecting with NYPD via Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms.

Armed with the knowledge on how to rebuild connections with New Yorkers, Tumin's team developed customer experience surveys of 17,000 New Yorkers. They sought to determine where police support was strong and where there was discord. Some of the surveys were conducted by phone. Others were done at residents' homes, some were conducted face to face with people in the streets, and some were even conducted via texting depending on the recipient's demographic.

"The NYPD wanted to ensure that it had a strong cross-demographic representation across all neighborhoods," Tumin says. "Identifying the key issues that needed to be addressed was essential to customizing efforts to connect. Social media was central to those efforts."

Leading the way

When Bratton's term began, the NYPD had just one Twitter account and a single Facebook account-both "megaphone" accounts for talking "at" New Yorkers-but with little listening "to" or engaging with them. Bratton's plan would change all that. But establishing a social media enterprise within a public agency that effectively lacked one was fraught with challenges. The police department was under siege with verbal and political attacks. Meanwhile, some precinct commanders were skeptical about whether and to what extent social media engagement with neighborhood residents could truly help strengthen community relations as well as how supportive the department would be of this new philosophy.

Key to the program's success was Commissioner Bratton himself, who opened his own Twitter account (@CommissBratton) in January 2014 and sent a strong message throughout the NYPD through his constant Twitter stream that he expected NYPD commanders to regularly use social media for community engagement.

The NYPD now has 106 active Twitter accounts, including one for each precinct, housing, and (soon) transit commands, as well as numerous specialty accounts such as Special Victims Unit and Special Operations. The NYPD's Twitter activity is supported by Hootsuite which helps NYPD account managers track hundreds of tweets each day and to identify community issues that specific precincts need to respond to. The police department has recently begun to use IdeaScale to help commanders identify quality of life issues that community residents would like to address.

Since the police department lacked social media skills, Tumin and his team introduced formalized training for NYPD commanders, including parameters on permissible tweets and behaviors on Twitter.

"We have to be respectful that the nature of our organization is law enforcement. So we can't be tweeting about open cases or investigative matters," Tumin says. "The challenge was to set the guard rails and be very clear about the conduct we expected from our commanders." Tumin estimates that 99 percent of the social media content that NYPD commanders have since shared with the public has met the department's expectations.

A cultural shift

Since the NYPD embraced social media, a cultural shift has taken place across the police force relative to social media. "We've gone from a culture of 'no,' 'don't,' and 'you shall not,' to 'yes' and 'you shall'," Tumin says. "There was a sense of urgency that things had to change."

Looking ahead, the NYPD will soon roll out its first Facebook accounts for precinct commands. Tumin's group will explore adding new capabilities, such as social-enabled customer service operations, and MeetUp, which can bring more New Yorkers into face-to-face engagement with NYPD on local issues. Using Twitter and Facebook, IdeaScale and MeetUp, the Bratton strategy will produce a full-spectrum social engagement platform for police officers and citizens working together to keep New York safe, and New Yorkers and cops satisfied.

One year after launching its social media strategy, the NYPD has created one of the largest and most comprehensive social media presences in U.S. law enforcement. New innovations have improved performance on crime control, locating missing persons, and managing incidents, from street demonstrations to gas explosions to traffic conditions. Social media has taken a front-and-center role in forensics and investigations.

Meanwhile, greater transparency has helped reduce citizen complaints to independent monitors and Internal Affairs by 30-to-40 percent. In addition, crime rates are down, even with hundreds of millions fewer contacts via "stop and frisk" and other measures. The NYPD's community-focused posture has also led to greater support from elected officials, who have approved significant funding increasing for additional training, technology, and operations.

"We wish to engage," Tumin says. "We are New Yorkers and we care about New York and we cannot be successful without the partnership of communities and people."

The NYPD Strengthens Community Relations