Amid the perceived lack of transparencies in municipal law enforcement agencies in this nation, Oxford Police has spent the last three years attempting to be a change agent through its atypical use of social media.
When Lieutenant Hildon Sessums took over the Oxford Police Department’s Twitter account, there were less than 50 followers on the near-dormant account. He has built up that count to 30,000 interactive followers.
Sessums, 33, is a Vicksburg native who began working with the OPD nearly 12 years ago, just out of the University of Mississippi as a criminal justice and history double major. However, it wasn’t until 2014 that he began work on building up the department’s social media presence.
“The summer of 2014 was a firestorm,” said Sessums. “At that time, people were thinking that police departments just weren’t being transparent with the information they were given. People felt like they couldn’t approach the police or cops.”
Lieutenant Sessums found that his answer to the overall problem of transparency lies in social media, namely Twitter, a medium used by public figures and individuals alike to keep a steady dialogue with peers and associates.
“At the time Major Jeff McCutchen was at the FBI National Academy at Quantico,” said Sessums. “I called him up and said ‘I think I have an idea. We need to reboot our social media presence.’ He said, ‘Funny you should say that. Some of the classes I’m going through up here are about social media and how to start up’.”
With Major McCutchen behind the idea of involving the Oxford community with the daily work of the OPD, the two were nearing what became a most innovative method of relaying public information.
“When he got back, we spoke with Chief Joey East, put a proposal together,” said Sessums. “[Chief East] gave us the green light, and we ran with it. We didn’t know where to begin with how we were going to run the social media, so we decided to start small: traffic wrecks, game day updates, and small stuff to test the waters.”
Despite this small start, Sessums began bringing out more ideas about how to provide useful information to the community while gaining attention and notoriety from the immediate Oxford and university community, in addition to those from across the nation.
“That following spring, we ran our first virtual ride-a-long, #ridewithOPD,” said Sessums. “I was putting stuff out, and I wasn’t meaning to be funny, but it was just stuff that happens on shift, and we just wanted to be transparent and share what happened.”
Although the humor-tinted and informal method of conducting a public service was not an intentional one, it did produce results, and thus, it stuck.
“We try to keep our Twitter informal for most of what we post,” said Sessums. [A Tweet is] 140 characters, so there’s not a whole lot you can get in depth on. We use Twitter to have fun, be relatable, help show the community that we’re people just like them, not ticket-writing robots, or guys with badges who can’t interact with anyone. The stuff that got the most likes and retweets is the humorous stuff, so we started rolling with that, and it’s snowballed. It’s really taken off.”
The public has taken note of the informal style of the account, and some Twitter users have asked for “shout-outs,” a Tweet-based acknowledgment of the account, from the viral OPD account.
“We seem to have a lot of support with 30,000 followers,” said Sessums. “It costs us nothing, so to say ‘Hey’ to someone [on Twitter], it’s not a big deal. It’s 98-99 percent positive.”
Sessums references actual benefits to the police department in addition to implied communicative benefits of transparency for the community.
“People are [direct messaging] us with tips,” said Sessums. “Sometimes people are afraid to call the police. They’ll say ‘Hey. We have a noise complaint.’ People are responding to us. We’ll put up a picture and say, ‘Have you seen this person?’
“If we get a shoplifter at, say Walmart, and we post a picture, within an hour, we’re going to have a name, where they live, where they work, and what they drive. People want to help, and this gives them another avenue to do so.”
Municipal law enforcement agencies across the state and nation are turning to social media to work with community members in order to ease the diffusion of information. Captain Charles McDougald, a public information officer with the Tupelo Police Department, has been working alongside a handful of police officers within their department to bump up their social media platforms.
“The biggest thing we do [on social media] on a daily basis is to get information to citizens, neighborhood organizations, and community groups that is community and law enforcement related,” said McDougald. “It allows us to communicate quickly. Say we have a traffic wreck that will last an hour. We can get that message out in a quick fashion.”
However, officers must be careful not to release too much information related to pending investigations.
“It’s another tool in the box to be as open as possible with information,” said McDougald. “However, it’s still a balancing act. We have to maintain the integrity of a case. In an ongoing investigation, it’s important to balance what we put out so as to not compromise the case. We can’t always give too much detail.”
With part of the future of police-community interaction moving online, criminal justice majors at the University of Mississippi examine how social media acts as a mediator between the two. Sophomore criminal justice major Kalon Gipson understands the power that comes with these social media accounts, while admitting there are pros and cons to those involved.
“It’s good whenever it comes to accidents and updating the community about possible road closures and construction,” said Gipson. “At the same time, when they arrest someone and put their picture on social media before they’ve been processed. I feel like that’s not right.”
“They’re using social media to promote community policing which helps to establish rapport with the community, to connect with them more,” said Gipson. “That connection ends up promoting kindness, charity, and trust between police officers and citizens in the community. Social media is a step in the right direction.”
Law enforcement’s use of social media has been called a success by those running the accounts, those looking to get into the field, and by the community as a whole.
“There are some policies on how to run it, but really there is no guideline for running social media,” said Lieutenant Sessums. “It’s as much as you can imagine or as much as your supervisors will let you go.”