Tag Archives: United States Air Force

Censorship vs. soapbox vs. call to action

Where is the line between protection and censorship?

Where is the line between protection and censorship?

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

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Blending professional and personal in Aurora (Illinois)

Lt. Kristen Ziman, Aurora (IL) Police Dept.

Lt. Kristen Ziman, Aurora (IL) Police Dept.

I recently blogged about “expert branding” and how it could help a police department’s overall mission by drawing on officers’ experience and taking some of the informational weight off the PIO’s shoulders.

Around the time I was writing the post, I noticed Lt. Kristen Ziman (@Lt_KZ on Twitter) was tweeting some pretty funny stuff. I also realized that her blog, Think Different, has a lot of personality to it. Most importantly of all, I saw that she wasn’t hiding behind a pseudonym, as many officers do, and her agency’s location was out there for everyone to see.

Contacting her via Twitter, I asked: are you the department PIO? How did you get to be its voice?

“No,” she responded, “I am not the PIO of the Aurora Police Department. We already have a brilliant and competent man who does that job (Dan Ferrelli).”

So what was up with the blog, and the tweeting?

“About a year and a half ago,” Ziman told me, “I asked the Chief if I could implement an ‘ask the police officer’ column where residents could write in questions on topics of interest to them. The Chief gave me the green light and Dan Ferrelli got the ball rolling with our local newspaper.

“It quickly evolved into more than a question and answer column and it became the police ‘voice’ on controversial topics in policing (police brutality, search and seizure, us vs. them mentality, police suicide, etc.). It got enough positive feedback that the newspaper has continued to run it on a bi-weekly basis…. My blog is simply a copy of all the columns that run in the Beacon and those are approved by [the Chief] before print.”

And Twitter?

“I joined Twitter just before the boom of subscribers,” says Ziman. “In our department/city, we have W.I.G.S. (Wildly Important Goals). Each division head must come up with goals that must be achieved each year. As the Shift Commander of midnights, I thought Twitter would be a neat way for the officers to follow our progress instead of waiting for my bi-weekly reports to come out.

“Unfortunately, only 4 or 5 guys started following me. The rest looked at me funny and continued to say, ‘What is Twitter again?’. Despite my persistence, that idea never panned out. Instead, I started following police officers from other agencies (and vice versa).

“So technically, I’m not the voice of the police department on Twitter. I just speak for me and for my shift and try to combine my individual persona with my professional one.”

The social media team

Ziman’s column/blog offers an alternative to the traditional structured information “push” to the community, not just in and of itself, but also in the way she works with the chief and the PIO to make sure everyone’s interests are served.

The model works so well that more departments need to consider implementing “social media teams,” groups composed of several department members with interest in representing the agency on the Internet. “Our department has 301 sworn officers (not including civilian employees) and only 1 PIO,” Ziman explains. “Our PIO can barely take a day off without being bombarded if a major incident occurs. For that reason alone, there should be more than one designated person responsible for updating information and responding to the public in these venues.”

Logical choices are school resource and DARE officers, detectives who specialize in the kinds of offenses—identity theft, or domestic violence—that demand public outreach in the name of prevention, and even administrators who seek a dialogue with the public over budgetary or policy issues.

The biggest element? Trust. “I never actually asked the Chief if I could Twitter ,” says Ziman. “I do believe he trusts that I would never disparage our police department and I am very careful to keep my tweets professional. I don’t verbalize my political beliefs or any other personal viewpoints that would not be in line with our mission.”

A good social media policy, such as the one created by the U.S. Air Force, helps manage outgoing messages and makes it easier for administrators to trust the team members transmitting them. It also ensures consistency, a critical element in public trust.

“I have noticed that citizens from my community and other City of Aurora employees are following me [on Twitter] so I think it adds to my goal of bridging the police and the community,” Ziman says. “For some citizens (who don’t break the law), my column is the only “contact” they have with a police officer. My hope is that is humanizes ALL police officers and the residents learn that we are more alike than we are different.”

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