A few months ago one of our Twitter law enforcement contacts, a community relations officer, tweeted that she was thinking about starting a blog for her agency. Scott replied: Portsmouth PD had tried it, but the number of negative comments forced the agency to shut it down. They couldn’t block the negative comments or else they, as a government agency, would be censoring free speech. So they shut down the blog entirely.
They’re not the only department to have faced this problem. Baltimore PD is dealing with it currently, not with a blog but with its Facebook page. Police reporter Peter Herrman discusses the wide variety of civilian reactions, and police responses: from bland “thanks for a good job” to outright attacks, which some agencies circumvent by not allowing any kind of commenting access.
Dealing with negative comments
You could, of course, close comments. But this doesn’t allow for the true two-way interaction which social media demands. You could also do what Kansas City Police Chief James Corwin does, and allow comments via email sent directly to him.
Or, you can set a comment policy, as newspapers do: something like “Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned.”
Still, as Hermann points out in his article, “The big questions are, what line and who decides whether it has been crossed?… Should government bureaucrats be making these decisions at all?”
The best comprehensive example I’ve seen of a blog policy comes from none other than the U.S. Air Force. Its flow chart makes it easy to visualize every possible response to a blog, and what the blogger’s counter-response should be (if the choice to respond is made).
Then there’s Lakeland Assistant Police Chief Bill LePere’s comment policy. He concisely shows that a government representative can, in fact, moderate without censoring.
True free speech inspires action
Free speech works both ways: not just allowing haters to have their say, but canceling out heat in favor of light so that, as Le Pere says, “We will continue to moderate [comments] and willingly publish those that my be contrary to our position on a topic but yet are beneficial to the public discussion we hope to generate here.”
Indeed, Herrman quotes Baltimore Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi as saying, “What we’d really like is for people to get engaged in fighting crime, to step up and become part of the solution.”
As a writer, I know I think best when I put words down. For me as for most people, it’s hard to act unless I have thought through something. Allowing blog comments does more, then, than allowing people a forum to state their grievances: done right, by allowing them to “think out loud,” it allows them to clear their heads. Clear heads can plan action.
So yes, it’s OK to delete the truly negative comments, the lies and attacks that do their own damage to others’ free speech. But if law enforcement truly wants community involvement in crime prevention—and what agency wouldn’t, given the limited budgets most are working with these days?—then they have to be prepared for the kind of criticism that tears down so that it can reconstruct.
Image: Mr.Enjoy via Flickr