10 Features Found in Top Law Enforcement Websites

Although traditional and more personal methods of communicating with citizens by police are still utilized and appreciated, citizens have now come to expect that they can also communicate with their local police department through social media. Concurrently, most law enforcement agencies have recognized and accepted social media as another powerful means of interacting with the public they serve.

As such, nearly every law enforcement agency in North America, no matter how small or large, have an agency website. In some cases they may be just a simple page off of their corporate website or they may be elaborate self-contained sites with their own dedicated domain. Many also have Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and Linked In accounts to name a few. Although these other social media platforms are worthy of discussion, this blog article will focus on websites.

Law Enforcement websites, like other websites can have a significant impact on that agencie's corporate image. It can also provide an excellent vehicle for unfiltered communication between the agency and the public. Every website that is added to the CopSeek Police and Law Enforcement Directory is reviewed by a staff member before being added. This has provided CopSeek the opportunity to see thousands of law enforcement websites. Some have been truly remarkable. Unfortunately there are too many for us to list in this article, however, we will identify 10 features (in no specific order) that we believe are found on a well designed law enforcement website and identify some sites where some or all of these features can be found.

1. Phone numbers and addresses prominently placed.

Sometimes the only purpose for a visit to a police website is to get the address or phone number of that agency.  CopSeek staff, in some cases, had to spent a significant amount of time seeking out this information on websites they visited.  In many cases it was buried deep within the site and in some cases not there at all.  However, there were many sites where this information was front and center.  

The better sites had these listed at the top, bottom or side of the pages and visible on every page within the site.  San Jose Police Department had their contact information on the footer (bottom) of their website pages. Some sites such as Cape Coral Police Department put a "Contact Us" link there which takes visitors to a page that contained all of the methods available for the visitor to make contact with that agency.   

2. How to Get Hold of Agency in an Emergency

911 Service is available in most parts of the United States and Canada and calling 911 in an emergency will normally result in the dispatch of Police, Fire and/or Paramedics, whichever is most appropriate to the situation.  Some may be surprised however that 911 Service is not available in all parts of Canada and the United States.  In those cases there is usually another number that people can call for emergencies.   

Whatever number a person should call in an emergency, it should be the most prominent feature of the website.  It should really jump off the page to the visitor.  The Houston Police Department have their emergency number (9-1-1) displayed prominently on their front page. 

3. Hours of Operation

It may come as a surprise to some that many smaller police agencies do not provide 24 hour service.  This is particularly true for their offices where they may only be open to the public for non-emergency issues such as filing a report or paying a ticket during certain hours of the day and days of the week.  This may even be true of larger agencies who patrol 24/7 but have limited "front counter" hours.  As such, it is a good idea to include the agencies hours of operation on the website. Holiday hours can also be posted there.  The Coquitlam Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) along with all RCMP Detachments in Canada have their hours of operations posted on the RCMP's website.

4. Electronic Means of Contacting Agency for Non Urgent Matters

The fact that a visitor is on your website in the first place should be an indication they are comfortable in the electronic world and may even prefer it over other means of communication or interaction with the police.  This has led to many agencies adding a generic  e-mail address that citizens can use to make contact with them.  Unfortunately these addresses were being harvested by spambots to build mailing lists for sending unsolicited e-mail.  As a result, many website designers removed the e-mail address and added a "Contact Form" that acts like e-mail.  The visitor completes the "Contact Form" that usually includes the message and a means for the agency to contact the sender whether that be by return e-mail or a phone call.  The Ontario Provincial Police have a page that includes a number of methods for contacting them including an online form at the bottom of that page.

5. Online Reporting System

There are many reasons the public don't report incidents to police.  In some cases they don't believe the matter is important enough or the police won't think is important enough to tie up a police officer's valuable time.  What they may not realize is that the police want to hear about all incidents no matter how petty they may seem to the victim.  This allows them to identify crime trends in neighbourhoods which could lead to a more police attention in a particular area.

Some police agencies have eliminated the need for the public to interact with a police officer on less serious matters by letting them file a report online.  They recognize of course there are still numerous issues that require direct police contact and so they make it clear on their website what crimes can be reported online and what can't.   Some accept online reports of such issues as theft, property damage, theft from vehicles, traffic complaints, etc.  whereas they would not take online reports of violence and other serious offences.  Ottawa Police Service offers online reporting.

6. Confidential/Anonymous Tip Submission

Visitors to a law enforcement website may have an expectation that they will be able submit a confidential or anonymous tip there.  Most law enforcement websites do not however accept these types of tips on their website but there are a few that do.  There may be a number of reasons for not adding this function to a police website that are beyond the scope of this article but security of the information and anonymity of the tipster are likely at the top.  

Many agencies get around accepting anonymous tips directly on their websites by referring tipsters to organizations such as Crime Stoppers.  In these cases they should have details on their website explaining how to submit a tip with a clickable link to the organization that will collect the information.

7. Means of Reporting Misconduct and/or Complimenting Good Work

Over recent years the police have come under heightened public scrutiny.  As such, there are numerous methods by which a member of the public can report misconduct by a  member of a police agency.  This includes online submission through their agency's website.  Some agencies have taken this one step further by providing the public an opportunity to not only report misconduct but to also report and recognize good work by their employees.  The Toronto Police Service is one agency that has an online "Compliment a Member" form. 

8. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

One of the most valuable attributes of any website is its ability to provide visitors the information they are seeking.  Many good website designers, no matter what type of organization they are building the website for, use a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page for this purpose.   The trick is to figure out what questions visitors want answered.  The answer lies in the name of the page: "Frequently Asked Questions."  

Ask any person who works the front counter or answers the phone at any police agency and they will likely be able to tell you without hesitation what the most frequently asked questions are that they receive from the general public. Some of these questions might include such things as: "Do I have to report a no-injury accident"; "How do I get a copy of my criminal record" or "How do I apply to be a police officer?" A FAQ page is a great time saver for front counter staff, telephone operators and the public as the answers are right there on the website.  The Port Moody Police Service have an excellent FAQ page.

9. Fresh and Interactive Content

One of the biggest traffic killers to any website is stagnant content.  Even if the site's content is robust and current, once a visitor has seen everything that interests them there is no reason to return.  Once they leave it is unlikely they will return and you have lost an opportunity for future interaction with them.  One way to keep a website fresh and visitors coming back is to continually change and/or update the content.  This may hold your visitors interests but it is labour intensive and often challenging to regularly generate new content. 

Another less labourious method of attracting and holding visitors is to create a sense of community for them.  In return, they make your job easier because in many cases they will provide you with live, interactive and fresh content.  Although, it is possible to create a live discussion board to interact with your visitors, most website designers have opted not to reinvent the wheel and are taking advantage of social media platforms.  CopSeek has found that Facebook and Twitter are the two most popular social media applications being used on police websites.  Agencies are using these platforms and others to communicate directly with visitors in some cases as real events are unfolding.  In a way, it is similar to listening to a police scanner except in some cases you can actually see the action unfolding.

Although not technically part of the agency's website, these platforms can be viewed as extensions of the website and in many cases are embedded in them.  Every police agency should consider having an account on at least one of these social media platforms and making sure that there are links to your social media page(s) on the agency's website.   The New York Police Department have both their Facebook and Twitter feeds right on the front page of their website.

10. Recruiting/Employment Page

Some of the most frequent visitors to a police agency's website are potential employees.  Not only are they seeking information on the agency itself but also things like recruiting processes, minimum physical and educational requirements, tests involved, salary as well as the agencies training program.  Currently, the competition for new recruits between agencies is brisk and it is important to provide potential recruits with as much information as possible.  The agencies website is one of the very best places to provide them with this information.   Some agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department have even created a separate website dedicated to recruiting.