Occupy policing, Part II: Setting — and conveying — the right tone

Occupy San Francisco RallyOn LinkedIn last week, I posted an item to several of my groups about how the Philadelphia Police Department cleared the city’s Dilworth Square of Occupy protesters. I received a LinkedIn message asking me what it had to do with social media or the Internet, and rather than respond one-on-one, I thought it would be valuable to go into greater detail here.

To start with, PPD actually did use Twitter to get its message out to Occupiers. More than that, though, was the way PPD commanders engaged in careful planning, including:

  • Reciting the First Amendment at each roll call.
  • Restricting officers from carrying pepper spray or Tasers, and assuming sole authority for the decision to use force.
  • Reminding officers to be ready for citizens to film them.

These measures were notable enough, but what also stood out to me was the way communications planning took into account the way protesters themselves were communicating:

During the trip to Center City, Karima Zedan, the department’s director of strategic communications, monitored the chatter on social media of a building police presence at City Hall. Zedan and Ramsey discussed whether they should send the occupiers a message through the department’s Twitter feed, which they knew the protesters monitored.

“What we should say is just what our goal is, and that’s to safely remove people so construction can begin,” the commissioner said.

As Ramsey’s Car 1 arrived at City Hall about 1 a.m., Zedan sent the tweet.

Indeed, PPD’s Twitter feed from that day was filled with tweets about, and to, Occupy:

It was not all that dissimilar to an October 10-11 effort in Boston, where police moved protesters from an unapproved encampment near an original, agreed-upon site:

Boston Police communicated to protestors the request to vacate the 2nd encampment and return to the original site numerous times throughout the evening via Twitter, flyers and in person [as well as its blog]. The required police action resulted in the arrest of 141 individuals who were charged with Unlawful Assembly or Trespassing.

The agency’s Twitter feed, while more repetitive than Philadelphia’s, similarly used hashtags and other community-oriented language and tone:

For BPD, which has been on the forefront of social media use (including a personal approach rarely seen in law enforcement tweets), this style of communication was not unexpected… although I believe it could’ve been less defensive. See the difference between BPD’s messaging tone, and PPD’s?

Defensive, derisive or merely dismissive: How tone affects your message

Again, simply using Twitter to communicate with Occupy protesters is not the point. While I do, as I said in my last post, wish police were using their feeds more proactively, the fact that communication is being built into encampment removal plans at all is important.

The New York Times’ graphic of the evolution of riot gear shows that communication with protesters was poor and inflexible in 1968, but had given way to negotiation and flexibility by 1995. Although communication is, unfortunately, not mentioned by name in 2011, indirect forms of communication are: managed protests via the permit process, along with “regular use of intimidation.”

It’s these indirect forms of communication that can affect a blog post or Twitter feed, too. In contrast to Boston and Philadelphia police tweets, @RichmondPolice’s appeared to want to downplay any mentions of Occupy by limiting their tweets — even as police bulldozed encampments on Halloween. (Three of those tweets were directed to people who had addressed them first; several of those, directed to the same person.) No Occupy hashtags were used, and the tone (“We’re sorry you have an issue…”) borders on dismissive.

These kinds of nonverbal communication speaks volumes about police officials’ collective approach to people in a certain situation. Look at the way officials in each of these three cities spoke about protesters:

“These people are not criminals,” said Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan, who oversaw the operation. “They are not our enemies.” (Philadelphia)

“We continue to encourage the leadership of Occupy Boston to maintain an open dialogue with authorities in the spirit of coordination and cooperation.” (Boston) (To be fair, less than two months later, Police Commissioner Ed Davis was quoted as saying, “[There are] drugs, vandalism and assaultive behavior. [$723,000 in police overtime is] a significant amount of money…. [which] would be much better spent in neighborhoods where there is firearm violence.”)

Meanwhile, a brief Google search revealed that Richmond police had little to say beyond the fact that nine arrests took place. Again, it would appear that they were trying to downplay the protests in their city.

The work of relationship building

Some believe that police are not there to understand or to communicate with Occupy protesters; rather, their job is to investigate crime and remove encampments when ordered to do so. Indeed, PoliceOne.com reports that police went undercover at Occupy Los Angeles, collecting intelligence on any potential threats to law enforcement.

Even at that, according to the L.A. Times: “From the outset, department officials had struck a collaborative, friendly stance with protesters, and believed they knew what to expect from them [when police stormed the park]…. ” That work paid off; the LAPD was widely praised for its restraint in removing the encampment.

It’s notable, as the Times further reports, that police invited clergy and legal observers to witness police-community interactions. That is not the mark of a police state, nor are agencies that seek to understand the mistakes of others in order to avoid them.

What Philadelphia’s effort showed was that, if police want to avoid reinforcing this belief, any communication plan should not just include logistics — who will communicate, via what channels, how often, etc. — but also careful assessment of:

  • What emotions they may inadvertently convey. Even something as short as a tweet can read sarcastic or condescending. Professional police shouldn’t allow this to happen, but are still human, still experience frustration and irritation. Make sure your bloggers, Twitter users and videographers understand how miscommunication can hurt relationship-building efforts, especially in sensitive parts of your community.
  • Whether the right people are communicating. Most law enforcement agencies would rather maintain control over their messages by restricting the number of people who can send them, but think about officers who know particular communities or issues better than any other. Consider having them contribute to, if not outright create, content on behalf of your agency.
  • How much information you can reasonably transmit, taking into account ongoing operations. Law enforcement agencies are no different from other organizations in their desire to avoid liability. However, a tight communication policy won’t protect your agency from a lawsuit if there are deep systemic problems, and citizens value information — the more of it they have, the more comfortable they feel. So consider sharing what you can about what you do, even if this requires a sustained effort with long-term planning.

Occupy protesters may be, compared to other areas of a community with deeper and longer-standing problems, a nuisance to be dealt with before moving on. But they remain members of the community, and they’ll remember how police approached them — via Twitter, in person, on a picket line or even as part of their group. Whether their memories are positive or negative will drive how they interact with police in the future to solve public safety problems. And so, even when police stick to their core mission, the tone in which they communicate their efforts remains critical to their success.

How has online or in-person tone shaped your interactions with people in your community?

Creative Commons License photo credit: breyeschow

One thought on “Occupy policing, Part II: Setting — and conveying — the right tone

  1. Pingback: Policing2.0 @ Occupy « Cops in cyberspace

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