The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 2 | Issue 4 | April 2009

Using Social Media to Protect Public Safety

D.C.’s Fugitive Safe Surrender Prompts 530 Offenders with Warrants to Voluntarily Surrender in a Church

Ipod image It may be seem improbable that offenders with outstanding warrants would voluntarily surrender to law enforcement. In fact, however, some may be looking for a safe opportunity to turn themselves in, with the long-term goal of a chance at returning to normal society.

One recent program launched in Washington, D.C., offered just this chance. The program’s potential participants and their family members needed to learn about the program first and become convinced that it was legitimate and trustworthy. To help do this, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) turned to a publicity campaign that combined strategies like podcasting and blogging with more traditional efforts, such as radio and television ads, to help ensure the success of the Fugitive Safe Surrender (FSS) program in D.C.

Fugitive Safe Surrender in D.C.

The FSS effort encouraged individuals wanted for nonviolent felony or misdemeanor crimes to surrender voluntarily to faith-based leaders and law enforcement in a place of worship, thereby giving them opportunity to resolve their warrants and move on with their lives. Surrendering within the confines of a church (or other religious building) provides the assurance that offenders will be treated safely and fairly.

FSS was successfully implemented by the U.S. Marshals Service in six cities, with more than 6,000 people surrendering. Those participating generally returned home the same day as their surrender, either after receiving a new court date or having their charges adjudicated on the spot. Violent offenders, many of whom also surrendered, were held for trial.

During the course of 3 days in November 2007, extensive media coverage captured the events as 530 offenders with violent and nonviolent warrants surrendered in a church in northeast Washington, D.C.

Social Media and FSS

After brainstorming media outreach efforts for FSS, staff at one of the lead agencies for FSS, the CSOSA recognized that Washington, D.C., presented an extraordinarily difficult market for traditional communication outlets. Considering extreme resource limitations, campaigns like FSS usually depend on unassigned airtime donated by radio and television stations. In a highly active market like D.C., available free airtime is almost nonexistent.

Initially, planned bus and television ads were cut because of budget constraints. The Maryland/DC/Delaware Broadcaster’s Association developed radio ads, a volunteer employee built a web site www.dcsafesurrender.org, and another volunteer offered to create TV ads late in the campaign. Still, however, the team at CSOSA realized that a more aggressive marketing campaign was necessary and, thus, decided to use social media as a primary strategy for marketing the FSS program.

Specific Social Media Components

First, CSOSA held three focus groups consisting of offenders to understand what and how to communicate to the targeted audience. These focus groups revealed that friends or family members, most of whom had Internet access, would most likely do the bulk of the research on the FSS program.

CSOSA approached another FSS city (Indianapolis) and requested interviews with offenders who surrendered. Compelling, first-person testimony from surrendering offenders, family members, and judges who heard the cases was launched on the D.C. FSS web site. Additionally, the team created Spanish-language radio ads, launched an online radio show to explain the program fully, published printed promotional materials and posted them on the web site, and implemented a telephone answering system to provide callers with prerecorded information.

These resources were directed the public to the FSS web site, which included another persuasive strategy for convincing offenders to participate in the program. Each day of the event, the CSOSA team interviewed the first person in line to surrender. These interviews were mounted on the web site and publicized to media by e-mail and press release within an hour of their creation.

These individuals told compelling stories that resonated with the mainstream media, who carried those stories to the public at a crucial time of the campaign. One offender walked several miles to the site beginning at 3:00 a.m. at the request of his mother on the day of her birthday. He described the surrendering process as a pilgrimage for change to a new life. He and several additional offenders agreed to be interviewed by mainstream media, which furthered coverage.

Results

At the end of the 3-day period, 530 people had surrendered. After the vigorous media campaign, some surrendering mothers became comfortable enough with the process that they brought their children with them. A son recently released from prison brought in his father for a theft warrant.

Podcasting and other forms of social media can be powerful strategies for the criminal justice system to use, especially when budget constraints limit traditional media outreach. Citizens and their leaders often respond to the informal and informational aspects of web-based audio and video. Agencies could use these modes of communication to notify their communities about emergencies or simply to talk about new strategies.

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More articles on social media, podcasting, and community outreach for criminal justice agencies are available through CSOSA’s blog at http://media.csosa.gov.

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