Tweet Beat: Meet the person behind the Delta Police Department's Twitter feed

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In this era of fast-moving information and the public’s seemingly insatiable need to know up-to-the-minute details about what’s happening around them, more and more civic-focused organizations are taking advantage of the powerful platform social media provides.

Here in Metro Vancouver, as in other urban centres, local police departments are making the move to Twitter and Facebook in order to further connect with the communities they serve. Among those local agencies who have an effective online presence is the Delta Police Department. Their Media Relations Officer is A/Sgt. Sarah Swallow, whose beat includes posting updates to the DPD’s social media networks, including Twitter.

During a recent police incident on Highway 99 south of the Massey Tunnel, the DPD apprehended a man who had allegedly stolen a vehicle. Popular Twitter police scuttlebutt handle @ScanBC ran with the in-the-moment detail that the driver had taken his parents car. The suspect had, but he wasn’t a kid. It was the DPD, via A/Sgt. Swallow, who used humour to get the word out:

 

It was then that we knew we needed to get to know the person behind the Tweets. We reached out to the DPD, and A/Sgt. Swallow obliged us with an e-mail interview about the role social media plays in contemporary policing, how they use different platforms to reach different audiences, and when it’s okay to make a joke about an incident.

Vancity Buzz: Can you tell me the full scope of your duties with the DPD?

Swallow: I started as the Media Relations Officer for the DPD in September 2013; prior to that I was a patrol officer (general duty) for 7 years. As the Media Relations Officer I am responsible for any media inquiries, all of our social media content, and promotion of departmental initiatives or campaigns. I am the “official” spokesperson for the Delta Police Department so I will make most of our official comments to the media regarding Delta Police Department business.

Prior to taking this position, were you active on social media personally or professionally?

Prior to taking this position, I was really only active on Facebook – probably over sharing pet and child pictures to family and friends! I moved to Canada when I was 16 years old (from the United Kingdom) so all of my family and many friends are still there. We use Facebook as a way to check in regularly and feel more connected with each other. I had no Twitter experience whatsoever and because I’d only used social media personally I never really though about why I was posting what I was posting or whether or not it actually had any value.

 

How did the DPD evolve their social media strategy?

Our media strategy has really changed over the past several years as social media has become much more prevalent. Previously, police departments generally shared far less information and had far more control over what information they released or was out there. Departments could be much more proactive. With the advent of smartphones, information or police incidents can be shared in real time, and so sometimes I am reacting to an incident that someone on the street may have more details on before I do!

At the Delta Police Department we believe in our operations being as transparent as possible and so if someone asks us a question – whether a member of the media or a member of the public – we try to always answer the question. We are always honest with our responses – even if it means saying, “I don’t know right now but I will find out” or by explaining why I can’t or won’t elaborate on an incident.

It’s always a struggle balancing what the public needs to know, what the public wants to know, and what we can release without compromising an investigation or compromising someone’s right to privacy. We have to be very careful about how we comment on an ongoing investigation that will go to court as all of those records must be disclosed and we cannot be seen to be conducting a biased investigation. On the other hand, people are obviously going to want to know what happened if they see a whole bunch of police cars on their street and so we have to balance providing information allowing people to feel safe in their neighborhoods with the requirements of the court process and the FOIPA.

What I would really like to achieve is that people would contact us or come to us for up to date and correct information on an incident. If we were the first port of call for a “what’s going on?” inquiry from the public rather than the media, that would mean we are doing good a job! I don’t mean that to take away from what the media is doing, I just use it as a way to judge how much value people place on the information I am providing as the Delta Police Department, or how much faith they have in whether or not we will respond and address their concern. Our goal is really to educate people into the whats and whys of policing and so we when we post on social media we try and ask “Why are we doing this?”

What platforms does the DPD post to, and how do you strategize and/or divide content between them? For example, is your approach to Twitter different than to Facebook?

At Delta Police we have a Facebook Page, a Twitter account, and a YouTube channel, as well as our website. We try to be informative but also put a bit of a human perspective to policing, and to let the public know what we’re doing on a day to day basis. We will often use our Facebook page for more detailed information on topics that may not merit a traditional “news release”. For example, when we were dealing with all the truck roll overs and questions or criticism about why it seemed to take us so long to clear the roads, we posted an album of pictures from the scenes of the rollovers on Facebook and explained what was happening and what was required before the road could be reopened. These were photos we took at the scene, and really showed the damage and difficulty of dealing with such scenes. Truck-roll-over Delta Police Department/Facebook

Twitter is for much briefer, real time content, and on our YouTube channel we post videos of what we have been up to at the department or links to videos to help investigations (such as a video we posted of a hit and run in an effort to identify the suspect). We always have to be mindful of who our target audience is.

For example, if we are looking to educate seniors about fraud, we wouldn’t expect so many of them to be as active on social media and therefore would probably look to to do one on one education in person through our community police offices or some sort of article in our local papers. Our social media content would then be used to provide education for caregivers, or tips for caregivers and loved ones to pass on to the seniors.

What is the value of platforms like Twitter for a police force? With Twitter, we can use it to link to messages on campaigns we are running through pre-planned tweets, or we can react to sudden changes in situations or circumstances in and around Delta such as accidents closing roads.

 

Sometimes, we will go out and live tweet campaigns; earlier this year we participated in a distracted driving campaign in which a plain clothes officer was being used as a “spotter” for distracted drivers. I actually took a photo of the officer and where he was standing and tweeted it with the comment “If your head is buried in your cell phone you can’t tell this is a cop ‘spotting’…” Twitter also provides us with an immediate platform to correct erroneous information (such as the “Child” incident the other day!) and it can allow us to have a bit more fun because we are engaged in an ongoing conversation with other users.

 

 

 

I really do think that there is a move to open up what was traditionally the secrecy-cloaked world of policing. For me, I’ve always been proud of being a police officer and excited about it as a career. I like to talk to people and share the struggles and successes that we have as a Police Department and as individual Police Officers.

Police officers have some incredibly funny stories, some incredibly tragic ones, and some incredibly mundane ones. Each story or encounter shapes us as person and shapes us as a Police Department, and social media gives us the opportunity to let people be a part of that world. Robert Peel (really the creator of modern policing) said “The police are the public and the public are the police,” and social media interactions allow us to really do this. The more insight into policing we can give people, the more understanding people have of the complexities of it on any given day.

 

What do you think of the use of social media by other similar agencies in Metro Vancouver?

Vancouver Police Department, Abbotsford Police, and Victoria Police Department are really proactive with social media, particularly with their Twitter accounts. Many of them have officers who tweet as well as official Department accounts. It’s interesting to see how other departments respond to questions on social media and how they are using social media to put their messages forward. Again, the trend is towards accessibility and transparency.

Let’s take that Highway 99 chase as an example… you chose to approach the situation upon conclusion with humour. What role do you think humour plays in the relaying of police information in the public sphere?

Used in the right way, humor can really let us reach out to the public and provide a nice conclusion to an event that could have been incredibly serious. Using humor makes us more human rather than just being a big corporate entity or the “them” in “us vs. them”. It engages people.

We have to be mindful about how we use humor because we don’t ever want to reduce to a joke what may have been a very real experience to someone, but used in the right way, everyone can enjoy the joke.

As our Media Relations Officers I have to be mindful that I am commenting on behalf of the Delta Police Department and not as Cst. Sarah Swallow, so I try to think about what I’m writing and sometimes I have to censor myself! Again though, I do want to let people get to know me and feel comfortable asking questions or making inquiries and that can be easier if people feel a bit more of a connection to me or accessibility.

 

I’ve tweeted pictures of me at home taking media phone calls while riding my horses, or other events that I do or what I see about my travels when I’m off duty. These are usually more lighthearted and personal and may not have a message per se, but hopefully will let people feel comfortable reaching out to us.

Of course, there are also those who believe that there is no place in policing for humor.

Is there anything unique about the Delta community that influences the DPD’s approach to social media?

We have a very low crime rate in Delta, particularly regarding violent crime, and so theft and property crime is a really important issue to our residents. We try to acknowledge these issues and spend a lot of time shaping our content to educate people about what we’re doing about the issues and about how they can deal with it. We are lucky in a small department and with such a supportive community that we can very quickly respond to sudden spikes in types of crimes or complaints and shape our content to address them in a timely fashion.

Have you gotten feedback from members of the community about the DPD’s social media?

We get a lot of feedback on Twitter and Facebook, and we read it all and pass it all on, whether it is good or bad! People certainly seem to enjoy the humorous comments, or when we post photos from inside the scene of an incident.

I try and get our officers on the road to send me photos of what they’re dealing with, particularly those resulting in road closures, and people seem to appreciate seeing what is going on rather than just being told the road is closed while they’re sitting in traffic. People are always a bit surprised and appreciative when we respond to social media comments or inquiries. The vast majority of our feedback has been positive.

Featured image: Delta Police Department/Facebook

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Lindsay William-Ross Lindsay is a Senior Editor at Vancity Buzz, and currently runs the site's Food section. A fourth generation Vancouverite, she spent the last two decades in Los Angeles, where she was EIC of the city's top blog, earned her MA, attended culinary school, and was an English professor (among other things). Lindsay's first published piece was December 1980 in The Province; it was her letter to Santa. E-mail: lindsay@vancitybuzz.com
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