For years, law enforcement was criticized for being a closed and unapproachable society. Studies showed that too often police officials took a “we know what the priorities for public safety need to be better than the community does” approach. It was repeatedly demonstrated that a stunning misalignment existed between agency perceptions of citizen concerns, and actual citizen concerns. The take away for us was that positive and regular interaction with our citizens improves the community’s trust in its law enforcement. There is a correlation between community support, and budgetary support. And citizens who have a feeling of “ownership” in their law enforcement act as a force multiplier for us – operationally and politically.
Consequently, in an effort to increase transparency and encourage more citizen participation, agencies adopted strategies like community and problem oriented policing. Many enjoyed measurable successes. Citizen academies and proactive community outreach programs have chipped away at the historic wall between the police and the people they serve. D.A.R.E., school resource officers, and other non-traditional deployment strategies have improved communication between young people and the police in the places where they are used. And technology advancements have brought science to policing allowing agencies to employ data-driven and predictive policing programs. These are all great ideas that have had a positive effect on police / citizen relationships and department performance.
Improving Online Communication Strategy
One key area that agency heads may want to revisit, however, is their external online communication strategy. In many instances, we have not kept pace with our constituents’ preferences for interacting with our agencies. Websites are an essential tool for law enforcement organizations, but they are often designed for an audience that accesses them via a desktop or laptop computer and are not mobile device-friendly. Or, they lack the interactive experience that people have come to appreciate. In other cases, our website strategy mirrors the old policing mind-set in that we (law enforcement) guessed at what our customers wanted to access on our websites without the benefit of their input. We may be missing the mark.
The Advantages of Mobile Devices
Our investments in outreach programs and operational technology should be supported and enhanced through the online “face” we create for our agencies. Anymore, people make judgments about the professionalism and sophistication of organizations based solely on their experience with websites. And, more and more, they want to have that interaction on a cell phone or tablet. Mobile users are, on average, using their device almost four hours every day (a 35% increase over 2014), and the upward trend is continuing. Regular users access 16 apps a day. In the six months prior to this article, the time that users were on their phone or other mobile device daily increased by 24%. Research has shown surprisingly uniform mobile device ownership and mobile internet access including minority and low income citizens. In other words, this is the way for an agency to reach the entire community in a format that your citizens are both familiar with and embrace. If we are catering exclusively to desktop and laptop users, we are squandering the majority of our citizen engagement potential.
The online image we convey can be dramatically improved through the use of a tailored, agency-centric mobile application. Mobile apps are becoming, with unparalleled speed, the platform from which citizens engage each other, engage organizations (including government), and seek information when they are in need, or out of casual curiosity. Most importantly, studies show that if you communicate in a mobile-friendly way, you are engaging every demographic and socioeconomic pocket of the community. It is an all-inclusive medium and no segment of your population is marginalized or excluded – something that is now more important than ever. Furthermore, the technology we have introduced over the past many years has provided us with reporting and awareness capabilities that we never dreamed of before. That data, residing in our systems, represents a wealth of community education and public relations potential, if we know what’s relevant and appropriate to share, and we can make it easily accessible to our citizens. Mobile apps are the made-to-order solution for that.
Much like body cams, mobile apps are going to be an integral part of American law enforcement before we know it. Including an agency mobile app as part of your current agency planning and budget process might be a wise and visionary consideration. In the wake of sudden, violent eruptions in Ferguson, Baltimore, and a long list of other communities (of every size, and all over the country), policy makers are likely to be supportive of a proven strategy for bringing the citizens and agency closer together.