How the Toronto police harness social media for community engagement

Meet these social media-savvy cops

Co-written by Shawna Coxon, Deputy Chief of Toronto Police Service

Toronto Police Constable Randall Arsenault frequently uses social media to connect with community members. He has over 38k followers on Instagram alone. Photo courtesy of Toronto Police Service

In the digital age, social media is an indispensable communication and outreach tool for law enforcement agencies. For the Toronto Police Service (TPS), social media is frequently used to raise awareness, share real-time information in times of crises, build relationships in communities and solve crimes. As with any other organization, you want to be where your audience is. In Canada, 94 per cent of adults who use the Internet have at least one social media account, according to research by the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University. Statistics Canada reports that virtually all youth aged 15 to 24 use social networking sites. By expanding their toolkit to include social media, police officers are able to directly interact with community members and influence public perception of the police.

Community engagement through social media can lead to greater levels of transparency and accessibility, helping build trust and strengthen ties with the community. Here are some of the ways TPS leverages the power of social media.

1. Humanize the badge

The two-way platform that social media affords users helps humanize the men and women in uniform. The nature of the medium bridges the distance between users and makes them accessible and approachable. Many Toronto cops have been successful in creating a large following on social media. Inspector Chris Boddy, for example, engages his 45.3k followers on Twitter (at the time of writing) on everything from reminders not to drink and drive to mental health initiatives to the Blue Jays. Constable Randall Arsenault posts spontaneous, unedited videos, giving his 38.7k Instagram followers a glimpse into life as a cop and promoting public safety. Constable Laurie McCann inspires physical and psychological health by sharing her own personal journey with her 14.3k followers on Twitter.

All three officers, alongside many others who are active on social media, have a rapidly expanding audience on both Twitter and Instagram, the latter being a crucial channel to reach youth in Toronto. These social media-savvy cops have been growing their online audiences for years, often on their own time, as they tap into social media to engage in an open, transparent way.

2. Empower youth

At the core of community engagement is empowering youth and helping shape their views of the police and their role in the community. Constable Dale Swift, for example, uses social media in creative ways to connect with members of the neighbourhood he serves and engage youth in meaningful conversations such as addressing bullying. He recently rallied his Instagram followers to donate clothes and toys to a Toronto girl who lost all her belongings in a fire.

3. Increase public trust and solve crimes

The ability to be personably relatable through social media has a great advantage in traditional policing. The connections that cops cultivate with their followers build trust — and when people trust police officers, they’re willing to reach out to them with critical information, helping solve crimes and save lives. Constable Arsenault, for example, has solved multiple crimes, including a homicide. Constable McCann has intervened with persons in crisis in real time online to get them critical support, while Constable Swift recently solved a violent assault case when a youth reached out to him.

4. Drive innovation and engage tech talent

Looking to gamify solutions for community problems, TPS recently partnered with Ryerson University’s DMZ business incubator to organize a hackathon to crowdsource solutions for persistent safety problems. A first for policing in Canada, the initiative was spearheaded by TPS’s Business Intelligence and Analytics Manager Ian Williams and Deputy Chief Shawna Coxon. TPS and DMZ invited developers to get involved for their chance to win a donated prize of $10,000, using the hashtag #HackTPS to promote the event on social media. The hackathon included 150 developers who worked in teams non-stop for 44 hours to build tech solutions for TPS. In addition to garnering solutions for community problems, the social media activity from the event alone led to a number of potential partners reaching out to TPS to discuss future innovative projects.

But alongside the opportunities for engagement, social media brings risks as well. Police officers are frequently subjects of criticism — and this is no different in the social media world. For example, Constable Swift was recently criticized for posting an Instagram video where he and another officer were lip-synching to TLC’s song No Scrubs. The video has since been removed.

Despite potential risks, the ability to relate, connect and respond to communities online has incredible value in law enforcement. Social media provides innovative ways to be human, transparent, accessible, inclusive and collaborative, while giving police officers increased opportunities to better serve the community through online engagement.