A Washington Post headline this week caught my eye: “Police want to stay out of Occupy story.” As quoted in the article:
“What keeps police chiefs up at night is that somehow the purpose of the movement will become about actions that the police have taken,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a D.C.-based law enforcement think tank.
That’s exactly what is happening. Because of police actions, some OWS supporters view law enforcement as part of the bought-and-paid-for corporate machine; and some Tea Partiers, though they may support actions taken against OWS, have perceived police as part of Big Government.
At this point, the more “outside” police try to be, the more they will fan the flames of misperception on both sides. This is perhaps exemplified in a recent Alternet post (emphasis mine):
PERF organizes conference calls among police officials to discuss areas of common concern. Last year, it held a conference call among police chiefs who were worried that Arizona’s harsh immigration law, SB 1070, would drive a wedge between law enforcement agencies and the immigrant communities they are supposed to protect and serve. Fox “News” ran a story at the time alleging that PERF was some sort of far-left police organization and therefore illegitimate. Now we’re getting a similar story from progressives, which is discouraging.
Shaping the story you’re part of
For three years Cops 2.0 and resources like it have existed to help police learn how to use social media (and other forms of technology) to build relationships with the public. Yet we see little evidence of any such relationships — online or off — in any of the cities where violence, or even nonviolence, has taken place.
What if police used social tools to shape the story they’re already a part of? Not their side — a cop’s-eye perspective on arrests taking place — but the story itself. Consider this largely positive version of PERF and OWS policing from the Las Vegas Sun (emphasis mine):
From Atlanta to Washington, D.C., officials talked about how authorities could make camps safe for protesters and the community. Officials also learned about the kinds of problems they could expect from cities with larger and more established protest encampments….
Interim [Oakland, Calif.] Police Chief Howard Jordan said… a theme was how the atmosphere at the camps had shifted from a haven for peaceful protest to one for criminal behavior.
“Some chiefs had been tolerant of the progressive movement, but that all changed when the criminal element showed up,” Jordan said. “As police, you can’t allow anything that foster criminal activities in any city.”
Jordan said that he and other police brass and city officials began planning last week for officers to remove the camp outside City Hall for a second time after collecting enough evidence that gang activity and an open-air drug market had emerged at the park.
and most telling of all:
Portland (Ore.) Mayor Sam Adams said the primary issue among the mayors was how to get a message to a movement that didn’t have any clear leadership. “A lot of time was spent on how do you effectively communicate with a group that doesn’t have a leader?” Adams said.
Monitoring, influence, and “joining the conversation”
I am quite sure that police are monitoring online conversations for insight and, yes, intelligence about what’s going on in the encampments. But Adams’ question indicates fundamental misunderstanding about the power of social media monitoring in helping an organization learn how — and with whom — to communicate.
Setting up a Facebook page and a Twitter account (or a blog, YouTube channel or podcast) only prepares the agency to keep broadcasting using new channels. In other words, engaging with fans and followers about the content you push is merely a discussion about business as usual.
If police really wanted to use social media to “join the conversation,” they’d join the conversation — the one that matters to the citizens. Not to be political, but to involve protesters in finding the best balance between free speech and the laws that make for civil society.
And, secondarily, to use all that online intelligence to educate themselves about the group. In fact, many movements online are lateral and leaderless — yet nevertheless benefit from informal leaders, or “influencers,” whose opinions and thoughts resonate with many.
So in much the same way that physically blending into the OWS crowds would allow police officers to see informal leaders and group dynamics, learning who’s blogging, tweeting and shooting video (and what they’re writing or shooting about) would help police determine critical online influencers.
And what would they do with that information? For starters, they might solicit those individuals’ help, both online and off. The “criminal element” dilutes OWS’ message too, and while protesters wouldn’t want to be treated as “informers,” they should at least be given the opportunity — as any Neighborhood Watch — to have a hand in protecting one another.
This is the story police should be telling about their role. Chiefs coming together is a start, but making communities safe needs to involve the communities themselves.
Incidentally, these are ideas reflected by former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper in an interview with Democracy Now (emphasis mine):
“…if the police and the community in a democratic society are really working hard—and it is hard work—to forge authentic partnerships rather than this unilateral, paramilitary response to these demonstrations, that the relationship itself serves as a shock absorber. ”
Expanding further in his own article for The Nation, Stamper advocates:
Assuming the necessity of radical structural reform, how do we proceed? By building a progressive police organization, created by rank-and-file officers, “civilian” employees and community representatives. Such an effort would include plans to flatten hierarchies; create a true citizen review board with investigative and subpoena powers; and ensure community participation in all operations, including policy-making, program development, priority-setting and crisis management. In short, cops and citizens would forge an authentic partnership in policing the city. And because partners do not act unilaterally, they would be compelled to keep each other informed, and to build trust and mutual respect—qualities sorely missing from the current equation.
In the business world, marketing strategists talk about the need for “social business,” an organization into which social media are integrated at every possible level — channels that facilitate communication, which in turn promotes the kind of structure Stamper envisions. (It’s worth noting that these are dynamics already appearing among the civilian protesters at OWS.)
A police force whose actions reinforce the worst perceptions is an ineffectual police force, at a time when our society needs leadership more than ever. Leadership isn’t telling people to go shop, or go home, or go get a bath and a job. It’s understanding why people are using demonstration to show they care about their society, and from there, understanding — and talking about — how to work together to keep the peace.