The New York City Police Department is among the world’s largest and most diverse municipal law enforcement agencies. More than 35,000 uniformed officers and 15,000 civilians in over 100 commands keep 8.4 million New Yorkers and millions more commuters and tourists safe every day.
The NYPD prides itself on leadership in the fight against crime, fear, disorder, and terror, and its success has been extraordinary. But over the years its tactics cost it citizen support. In 2014, after a decade of aggressive stop-and-frisk policing, with new court-imposed oversight, and the establishment of new monitoring bodies, incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio promised reform, and brought William Bratton on as the NYPD’s 43rd Police Commissioner.
Bratton faced a department with significant issues. Coming in, Bratton commissioned surveys that showed many citizens mistrusted the NYPD. Polls within the department showed the rank and file cops often felt estranged from communities, and mistrustful of the department’s own leadership.
The physical infrastructure was in decline —some station houses were over 100 years old. The department’s information technologies were antiquated and stove-piped, and many cops didn’t have email addresses or smartphones. Personnel systems were complex and paper intensive, with new hires taking three to four years to onboard. Employee discipline was slow and opaque to the accused and accusers alike.
Fixing the NYPD was urgent, Bratton knew, and rebuilding support was critical. Launching many efforts simultaneously, among the first was to get the department into social media. It would be easy, fast, and cheap. Bratton wanted to establish direct channels to citizens and employees to get his message out without having to rely on traditional media—newspapers, television, or radio.
He wanted to connect with citizens wherever NYPD was part of the “conversation.” And he wanted to let the department flourish and show the passion and compassion of policing by sharing NYPD stories and experiences with the public.
In January 2014, Bratton opened his own Twitter account, and brought on Zachary Tumin as Deputy Commissioner for Strategic Initiatives to develop the roll-out of a new engagement strategy with social media at its heart.
Today the department operates 117 Twitter accounts, and maintains YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram channels as well. Nearly every chief and commanding officer runs their own social media, many with thousands of followers. Engagement is high.
Recently, the department has made the move to crowdsource quality-of-life complaints, using IdeaScale in 10 commands in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. And every NYPD vehicle is now marked by a new decal: the command’s Twitter handle.
Thirty months into the new administration, citizen complaints are down, crime is down, and the NYPD has begun the long journey of transformation – all accelerated by its historic move to social media.
In our recent webinar, How the NYPD uses social media to engage citizens and fight crime— which you can watch on-demand now—we spoke with Zachary Tumin, the Deputy Commissioner for strategic initiatives at the New York City Police Department about how the NYPD transformed itself to be more social and built greater trust among New Yorkers. Here’s his account.
Why the NYPD chose social media to re-engage New Yorkers
“As a service and crime fighting organization, our main channels have historically been 311, 911, and in-person at our precincts. But, as any marketer will know, to engage and build trust, having multi-channel availability is critical,” says Tumin on the topic of social media and digital transformation. “We’re saying we’re open for business. In the digital era, wherever citizens are, that’s where we want to be – and that’s on the web and social, and by smartphone and desktop.
He explains that there are three main organizational benefits to a greater presence on social:
- Availability: New Yorkers are on social media and now they can find and connect with local police on any channel.
- Approachability: Social media can soften the boundary between citizens and officers, engaging all in dialogue.
- Priority Setting: Citizens can share their concerns with the NYPD, and the NYPD can take action and get results.
The secret to successful digital transformation
Social media at the NYPD used to be controlled by a few central authorities to either distribute public information or recruit new officers. “We needed to shift the conversation away from simply being megaphones, to engaging,” Tumin shared. “And shift away from messaging by a central authority to engagement by the customer-facing managers responsible for our success fighting crime and serving the public.”
When asked what the secret to a successful digital transformation is, Tumin explains the importance of leadership support. “That’s the million dollar question,” he laughs. “For us, Commissioner Bratton came onboard, wanted a social presence, and made sure it happened. He set the tone at one of our first meetings, saying ‘this is the conversation we’re going to have and the future of what we’re doing, so get onboard,’ essentially.”
Once Commissioner Bratton made the first move by opening a Twitter account and sharing information openly with the public, the rest of the organization followed suit.
Why digital transformation?
“We want to re-establish trust with the citizens of New York,” Tumin explains. The NYPD has about 90 geographic commands or precincts and numerous other commands. Leadership wanted each to have its own account to connect on a hyperlocal level about issues that were relevant to each community.
“The objective of our engagement strategy is to better connect officers and constituents, leveraging digital and non-digital means, with the goal of driving engagement, and in turn, delivering results, and building trust, confidence, and support for police and policing,” Tumin says. “Driving engagement and rebuilding trust among constituents will help police see patterns of crime and victimization faster. It will also address the quality of life in ways that support policing, rather than diminishing it, while deepening officer satisfaction on the job.”
How the NYPD took on digital transformation and social media
With Commissioner Bratton’s endorsement, Tumin brought five precinct commanders into the first wave of training. Some were more versed on social than others, which helped show the education spectrum of users Tumin would face when training the entire department. Tumin worked with IT and legal teams to create a comprehensive training program.
“They were there mostly to tell our commanders what not to do,” Tumin recalled. “That was ‘old school.’ For the Bratton era ahead, we spent the rest of the training program helping our commanders—whom we entrusted with the safety of millions of citizens—understand what they should do.”
“Our goal all along was to set the guardrails and let them know our intent, what we wanted them to achieve, give them the tools, and set them free to achieve those results,” he says. “They’re responsible for relationships with their community and social media is another tool for them to use with the same wisdom they use to engage communities by other means.”
“We told them all along they would ‘break some china,’ at some point. And we have had stumbles,” Tumin said. “But with the commissioner’s leadership we have also had forgiveness. Leadership by example, by knowing what matters, by unleashing change for the better, and leading the department onto new social platforms—NYPD has it all now.”
With the first training session a success, Tumin quickly took on rolling out the platforms and educating the remaining commanders, completing the rollout to 100-plus commands within the first year of Bratton’s term.
Tracking and measuring success on social
A new challenge arose as more commanding officers developed a social presence: tracking conversations to ensure that the right information gets to the right people. To address this, NYPD account managers use Hootsuite, among other platforms, to listen to and track hundreds of Tweets every day. They see if a problem is developing, such as issues raised by citizens that commanders may be slow to acknowledge or missed local opportunities. Using Hootsuite, they can either flag and assign messages or respond right away themselves.
“If we have a missing person notification or see a crime pattern, we want to make sure commanders tweet that out immediately,” Tumin says. “We try to make it easy for our busy commanders to maintain a level of engagement.”
In the end, a softer, more effective side of the NYPD
The NYPD needed to undergo a complete digital transformation on social media in order to help establish itself as a trusted voice among citizens. Today, all officers have smartphones, each has an email address, and all commands are on social media. Citizens and cops can reach out and connect in numerous ways.
To learn more about the NYPD’s social transformation story, watch the webinar recording below.