EDMONTON – They are commonly recognized as the men and women who uphold the law and investigate crime. But, thanks to social media, Edmontonians are seeing a different side of local police officers.
The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) Social Media Program was started in 2009 as a recruitment tool.
“The goal back in 2009 was to get information out to recruits,” explains Carolin Maran, the EPS Social Media Coordinator.
“The initial plan was to offer a glimpse into the day in the life of an officer – that was essentially the goal – which worked. But, then we found that there were some positive side effects; community engagement, humanizing officers, and better communication to the community.”
So, the goal of the program became two-fold: to provide information for prospective recruits, and also, to engage with citizens in a new way.
In 2009, two officers signed up to tweet about their day-to-day experiences as members of EPS. The program now has 15 officers participating.
“It’s grown – I think most significantly through the last year – and it’s really just been one officer hearing from another officer about how great this program is, how much fun they’re having, how much community engagement they’re experiencing,” adds Maran.
“As part of my job with Neighbourhood Empowerment Team, it looked like a good opportunity to help expand on how we could get out to the community, to the people that we were working with and for,” says Cst. Kurtis Hauptman.
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“I think people see us as family men or women, they see us as somebody that’s going to work to do a job,” he adds. “Sometimes I like to put in tweets that aren’t necessarily related to policing… It gives a human face to the uniform.”
EPS members aren’t the only ones getting involved. Police Twitter accounts are proving popular with members of the public.
“The one thing that surprised me was how quickly people seemed to jump on board and to start following me and how interested they were,” shares Hauptman.
“I found a lot of people are really excited about a quick call I might have taken, or something somebody might have said to me, or done, and usually that’s when I get some really good replies and people excited about some of the work we’re doing.”
Cst. Marc-Andre Amyotte joined the EPS Social Media Program in January, 2013, and says the public interest also surprised him.
“Within a day, I had 400 followers,” he says. “I was surprised at how many people are actually interested in following police officers on Twitter and knowing what they do on a day-to-day basis.”
Amyotte believes that curiosity about situations that aren’t normally publically accessible is what makes police accounts popular.
“It’s the priority calls, it’s the things that police officers do that other people don’t get to do – or get see, I guess – the high priority calls. Not a lot of people go to a gun call, or not a lot of people go to a homicide.”
However, Amyotte says it’s not just the serious incidents people are interested in. He says, many followers are looking for a bit of humour.
“As much as they say they want the proactive or the crime prevention stuff… they want the funny stuff on Twitter, they want to see what actual police officer does, day to day.”
Hauptman feels people value a candid glimpse at what police officers do and see on the job.
“I think people appreciate honesty,” he says. “Of course, we have to be careful about what we post, so that’s always touch and go, but I think overall we’ve been able to manage it fairly well.”
Maran agrees it can be tough to find the right balance.
“They are told to try to be themselves, but at the same point, police deal with a lot of laws and regulations and protocols and procedures – both internally and externally – that prevent them from providing a lot of information that sometimes the public craves,” she explains.
“It can sometimes be really difficult to engage as you are, to be yourself, I think that’s really challenging and I think most of our officers do a really good job of finding that fine line balance.”
Officers who sign on to the program receive one-on-one training where they’re introduced to the technology, led through the EPS social media policy, and briefed on what they can and cannot share.
“You can’t tweet people’s names, you can’t tweet exact locations that you’re at, you can’t tweet specific evidence to the incident that could potentially ruin the investigation,” explains Amyotte.
“We want to make sure that we’re not going to complicate or have a risk effect to any of the investigations that are currently going on,” adds Hauptman. “I have to be careful that I don’t release anything, I have to make sure some of the comments I make aren’t maybe too honest I guess, and just stay professional.”
When the program launched, reaction was mixed. Some responses were critical of what officers were sharing and messages they were posting.
“They get a lot of negative feedback sometimes too, especially initially, when the program started, which was difficult for them, understandably,” shares Maran.
“But as time went on, and they’re gaining more and more supporters, we saw that there’s this wonderful Edmonton Twitter community out there that’s really supportive of us. And that, I think, is why we continuously have more officers asking to be part of the program.”