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Social Media and Law Enforcement

Posted: Mar 07, 2014, By: Malerie Shelton

From hometown radio announcer to public information officer, Sena Maddison has more than 25 years’ experience in radio, broadcasting, and producing and she has event taught in the Mobile County Public School System.

She joined the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office when Sheriff David Morgan took office in 2009. Her first four years were spent as public affairs coordinator, becoming public information officer in February 2013.

It’s no secret in the last year social media integrated into all aspects of business, even Morgan took notice. After a visit with rock star, Grady Judd, Polk County Sheriff, Morgan was intrigued. He forced the shift into social media and sent Maddison down south to see how they were doing things. After spending time with Carrie Eleazer, the Polk County PIO, Maddison learned a lot. She credits having a mentor as one of the greatest things in the world.

Maddison took away many things, but mostly the importance of opening the lines of communication with your audiences. “The guys were scared at first,” said Maddison. “You can’t let people post, what are they going to say, turn off the comments” she added. After their initial reaction, she was able to convince them otherwise. The officers are now trained to capture photo worthy moments of the dogs in action. The K-9 unit is Maddison’s secret weapon to drive hits.

Another use of social media for the ECSO is during the event of missing persons. This past summer proved to be a tough one with a missing kayaker, missing autistic child and a drowned swimming pair. Maddison was faced with a huge social media movement with the missing autistic child.

“I sat in the bus, Tweeted and Facebooked the whole time we were down there because we were organizing the searches for him,” said Maddison. “That’s the one thing about social media as opposed to a press release. With press releases you don’t have time. If you’ve got your phone, you can Tweet it but you don’t have time to get back to the office, type it up and send it out.”

Another benefit of social media is giving the press access to information. The ECSO encourages the use of their press conference clips, pictures, audio and video. Since some media are unable to make it, it’s more fair that everyone gets the information at the same time.

Last year, Maddison attended the National Information Officers Association Meeting in August. She was able to hear public information officers from the most intense, high-profile events that year. “We sat in one room and discussed what was done correctly and what should have been done differently,” said Maddison.

Maddison shared a story from the LAPD shooting where the press didn’t know where to go because of too many agencies. This led to a national spokesperson posting a tweet that endangered officers’ lives. “That’s the thing that terrifies PIOS, that the idea that one wrong tweet is going get people killed,” she explained.  

Boston PD on the other hand, got it right. They consistently communicated if it didn’t come from them, it may not be true. During the bombings, a tweet that received a lot of attention was one asking followers to not endanger lives by Tweeting locations of searches. This is evidence that social media makes information too accessible and it’s important the media understand how it can endanger lives.  

Through lessons learned at the ECSO, it’s safe to say social media can be very beneficial but requires work and a plan. Although it has its challenges, establishing methods to listen, engage and respond will earn trusting followers.

The most important lesson learned, do not Facebook or Tweet in the case of an emergency. Call 9-1-1.