Weeks following the pepper-spraying of UC/Davis student protesters — once the damage had been done to both agency’s and officers’ reputations — an “extended cut” of the incident surfaced. In fact, the officer responsible for pepper spray use, along with his colleagues, had communicated extensively with students before spraying them.
Emphasize strategic as much as tactical messaging
Telling officers to “behave professionally at all times,” regardless of what they’re doing, where they are or whether they’re being videoed, is important… but overemphasizes the tactical aspect of a situation. Department commanders should also consider strategic aspects, including:
Community culture. Watching the full UC/Davis video was almost like watching newsreel from 1968. The protesters were organized, using professional activist tactics to push the situation in the direction they wanted it to go. Police commanders need to be not just aware of activist organizations in their communities, but also in regular contact with them before, during, and following events — acting “as facilitators rather than a force to be confronted.”
The nature of journalism. Traditional journalists have argued that “citizen journalists,” who are not beholden to the same ethical standards, can edit video, text and images with impunity (among other issues). Professional media, however, are not immune; their businesses are suffering, and they’re hungry for saleable stories. So while police and media may have reached a communication standoff in many communities, helping media understand the specific agency’s point of view is key to helping citizens understand.
The messages they themselves are transmitting — intended or unintended — to their communities. After I posted the LE Today article to my Google+ stream, I received this response from a civilian:
The article alludes that there is a “problem” with the video taping of police?… Why is it a “problem” when citizens do it, but its “for protection” when the all-seeing-eye is on a cruiser’s dashboard? If you’re doing your job honorably, and following protocol, in many cases, that tape just became (or should have) “your protection”, no?… These [four items] sound like things [police officers] should ALWAYS be doing (esp. #1 & 2), regardless of any “problem” or “fear” of recording.
In other words, a “do as I say, not as I do” approach will not encourage the kind of relationship-building which most chiefs agree is essential to community policing.
Open government and officer safety need not be at odds
Officer safety is a real concern, but to my knowledge, no one has been able to point to ambushes that happened because attackers had been studying videos of police tactics. Some of the highest profile ambushes have been crimes of opportunity: four officers killed in a coffee shop, several shot as they sat in their idling cruisers, an officer killed during a traffic stop.
Governments at all levels pay lip service to embracing transparency without understanding what it entails, which is usually a path full of thorns involving personal privacy, sometimes ugly truths, and the hard work needed to fix problems (often despite tight budgets). However, many Americans, both left and right, express fear that we are sliding towards — or living in — a police state. Officer safety is as much a function of public trust as it is tactical prudence. Law enforcement agencies that champion transparency, starting with public scrutiny for their officers’ actions, will go a long way towards assuaging that fear.
Regular readers might remember Sgt. Tom Le Veque from my interview with him in August, which detailed how he carefully researched his community before setting up a social media presence on behalf of the Arcadia (CA) Police Officers’ Association.
Recently, Sgt. Le Veque attended a 140 Characters Conference in Los Angeles. There, three police chiefs talked about Twitter, social media, and communication. Sgt. Le Veque wrote up his takeaways in a good overview of how law enforcement agencies are using social media as 2009 draws to a close:
A communication evolution
Several vendors set up shop in one of our department training rooms last week, peddling the newest models of body armor, AirSoft weapons, and assorted tactical gear. Live demonstrations followed in the range and the hands-on experience was well worth the time invested to attend.
I have learned over the years that those of us in law enforcement like to see and touch new products and technology. You only need to look at the attendance numbers that regional trade show events like CopsWest and Trexpo produce to see that our profession is in love with the latest and greatest when it comes to tools of the trade.
Up to date equipment, use of modern technology, continual training and development of personnel, and constant evaluation of policy and procedure are a few examples of positive attributes of a progressive and quality law enforcement agency.
But in the society and culture that surround us today, that is not enough. It is said that change is slow and difficult. The days of strict “paramilitary” police work have passed. Society has asked law enforcement to evolve into a business that includes community partnerships, transparency, and accountability, while at the same time, upholding the law and “fighting” crime.
We have not been asked to step away from our role as law enforcement officers, but rather to improve the way we do business. Answering these challenges and changes for law enforcement is not necessarily something found in a booth at the next trade show, but rather a change in philosophy and simply modifying the “way“ that we do business.
Law enforcement managers should look to their own personnel for one easy answer to help in this “change.” At a recent #140 Character (Twitter) conference, Chief John Stacey of the Bellevue Police Department in Nebraska discussed BPD’s use of social media. Chief Stacey described how a young officer “lit up” during a recent briefing where the Chief mentioned that he would be out of town for a Twitter conference. The young officer was surprised that the Chief knew what Twitter was all about.
That officer and the Chief had never really engaged in conversation before that moment, but because of that common ground have developed a new and improved rapport. This small example serves as both a tool for internal personnel development and investment in an agency, but moreover breaches the tip of a much greater tool for reaching out to your community.
Some police agencies, like Bellevue, have taken the use of social media further. Bellevue PD, like the Lakeland Police Department in Florida, has both a Twitter and a Facebook page. BPD even encourages their individual police officers to send “tweets” about activity while at work.
The Oxnard Police Department in California has asked a lead officer from each beat or sector within the city to send out Twitter updates specific to their service area. OPD also produces web video providing crime info, press release information, and other information to promote their agency.
YouTube is also being used by law enforcement to deliver assorted messages and embedded video. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in Nevada and the Milwaukee Police Department in Wisconsin are two agencies utilizing YouTube. Media releases, crime prevention tips, suspect wanted bulletins, missing persons, are all examples of potential use of video releases from a police agency.
The Boca Raton Police Department in Florida and Chief Dan Alexander have taken the concept of mixing social media and Law Enforcement even further. BRPD has a project called VIPER that packages the best of their use of social media use in a one stop shop. VIPER allows the Boca Raton community to interact with BRPD by use of video, Twitter, Facebook, crime mapping, news, email alerts, and more. BRPD provides text messages and email information through a service known as Nixle. Nixle is available at many agencies and local government agencies across the country.
Think about your own personnel, your family, and friends. How many of them are carrying a web enabled phone with them everywhere they go? Technology has put cameras, news reporting, and instant delivery of information in the hands of virtually every person on the street.
Take advantage of this wave and go “hands on” with social media. Explore the benefits and learn about the positive impact your agency can have by interacting, listening, and being involved with your community by using social media as a tool for law enforcement.
Sgt. Tom Le Veque has been a believer in social media since he started using it to reach out to the public during contract negotiations. Administration has been a bit slower to adopt, however, so Le Veque went for middle ground: a blog run by the Arcadia Police Officers’ Association.
Sgt. Le Veque’s introduction on our “About You” page led to a more in-depth discussion between us. What he’s doing may be a valuable alternative for agencies that want to “test” social media before they commit to an official presence online, and he has other good insights too.
How the APOA blog started
Le Veque says:
A couple of years ago, we were in the middle of some fairly tense [contract] negotiations. I started following not only the print media, but also constantly querying the topic on the Internet. I stumbled across a fairly active news/political blog that was in our area and started following items of interest. That in turn led to looking into police blogs and local departments that were active on the net. In the Los Angeles area, sad to say, I found little to choose from at the time.
Feeling the need to further our Association’s position publicly, we used letters to the editor, blog entries, commented on news articles (Topix), a billboard, posted a video on YouTube, and launched the APOA website.
When the dust settled I felt that there was a need to promote not only our Association, but also our department in the community. Feeling that social media was an up and coming outlet, I drafted a proposal for an official APD blog and began to work on helping to improve our presence on our PD website.
The blog idea was shot down [due to the] feeling that there was no need for the department to devote time to the project. However, a manager commented that the PD had no control on whether or not the POA started a blog… that sparked the idea of the APOA Info Blog.
A couple of things stand out to me about Le Veque’s efforts. First, he started by listening. It makes no sense to join a conversation you know nothing about. Even if you know your side, no one will respond positively if you’re only talking about your side. Real negotiations start with listening, even to the critics.
Then, even after the contract negotiations were settled, Le Veque kept going. Good marketers who are integrating social media into business initiatives realize that there is no such thing as a “campaign” as in advertising; they know the “conversation” is ongoing. Also, even though the department administrators felt they had no need for a blog, Le Veque knew the community had a need.
Going further, I learned that Le Veque had done significant research before starting his blog. For one thing, he notes a wide range of both police blogs and responses to them:
In looking into the ‘police blog’ idea, it seemed that most of the blogs had few to no comments. There were exceptions, but to me they were explainable. LAPD had many comments, but most seemed to come from within, from their own personnel. A couple of smaller towns in the Midwest had comments on their PD blogs, but the appearance was that everyone in the area knew each other….
I did find that when a department offered question and answer type entries, like that of Sacramento PD, there seemed to be some genuine interaction between the community and the PD.
Different forms of success
Blog comments, in quantity if not quality, do not define its success. Comments are only one form of feedback; there are other forms of feedback both direct and indirect. As Le Veque says:
Comments on the site have been minimal and after looking at other PD blogs we did not expect an overwhelming amount of traffic.
We have had good feedback and believe that it serves as an excellent form of community outreach and communication. Our feedback has been mainly through word of mouth, a few phone calls, and direct email via our feedback link on the POA website.
More importantly, Le Veque’s continued research involves number-crunching:
We have tracked visitor numbers [via Google Analytics] and are pleased with the results. After the start up the blog, unlike WordPress, the host Blogger did not have a counter for visits. I was curious as to how many hits the POA blog was getting so I opted for associating the Google Analytics program with the site.
I found it interesting but also somewhat confusing. The numbers are fairly straightforward, but it seemed that the site is geared for more of a marketing type blog. I know that we have recurring visitors from the community, our politicians and the local media. Comments to officers in the field, phone calls to the Watch Commander, and even a little feedback from Administration has confirmed that information.
Defining blog success
Keeping an open mind with regard to comments was key, as was Le Veque’s attitude that “if we impact anyone with our information than it is a success.” But there’s more to it than that, he says:
I believe that a great deal of how well the blog will do depends on many, many factors. Just a few in my opinion are:
Population, location and demographics (who and where are you serving)
Department buy-in and support
Publicity both in local media and the parent organization (city, county, other departments)
Is it down to earth or too “official” [Le Veque brings up the point that many blogs are little more than press release pages.]
I don’t know if you can be politically correct when it comes to talking about the who and where. I think that a police department that serves an average middle class area may have an easier time interacting socially, either on-line or in person, than a department that serves a high income area. Departments that serve more depressed areas probably depend on how well they interact now and what kind of community partnerships are established.
If the community does not like or trust the cops, they are not going to interact, in a positive way, on-line. Bottom line is that in any project, you have to overcome the ‘us vs. them’ or the idea that law enforcement
is a ‘necessary evil.’
Le Veque acknowledges that until more smaller police departments in California catch on to social media use, “Our management is likely to remain distant. Officially, the blog is not supported, however, there have been a handful of times that even the boss has asked for a topic to be posted.”
So, just as Le Veque researches the community to meet its needs, he continues to research the agency’s needs, working to help administration warm to the idea, including adding a “just ask” button on the blog page (a la Sacramento PD), starting a Twitter account, and proposing a Facebook page.
In response to my question, “Do you think more LE don’t get on board w/ social media b/c they fear the inability to size ppl up as they would in person?” I got another response besides those from the previous entry:
There are folks telling officers it not safe for them to do it…false claims posted about them or for them
I have 2 SRO’s that just got back from training and they were told that Twitter [Facebook] etc. are the worst things an officer can do
one of them deleted his accts due to this training.
Parts of Lt. Laramie’s interview are also included in my article “Social Networking Officer Safety,” due out in Police & Security News in September. For the purposes of this blog, though, I want to focus on his input regarding school resource officers. Whether you agree with him or not, the points he raises are good ones, and should be discussed among administrators and officers alike.
But Laramie, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who teaches school resource officers and vocational counselors a class on social networking, says law enforcement should focus more on the “networking” aspect. “You may be able to control the people you friend, but not the people they friend,” he explains, calling this a “pyramid” effect.
Even if you can control the people you friend—by “ignoring” requests from people with questionable content—you can’t control what existing friends post on their own pages. “Photos and blogs they post can reflect badly on you,” says Laramie. “And these materials are constantly being changed, so it’s impossible to enforce a ‘friend policy’”—following or unfollowing based on appropriateness.
This is true of everyone, but even more so for school resource officers. Laramie says SROs are susceptible to more problems than a regular patrol officer or detective would be, because of their closeness to middle and high school students. Such problems can include emotionally needy students with few boundaries; students who take for granted online interactions; and even students who intentionally target law enforcement officers or agencies.
In fact, Laramie likens an officer “friending” students online to a teacher leaving a cell phone on or in a desk. “The student can easily take the phone to the bathroom, send a suggestive text message or picture to another student, then put the teacher’s phone back. You can’t defend against that,” he explains, “but you can control it—by keeping the phone with you, not giving them access.”
This is the reason why Laramie’s Missouri ICAC Task Force Facebook page has an emblem rather than his photo on it. “It’s easy to take an officer’s official department photo and superimpose his or her face over that of someone wearing fewer clothes,” he says. He himself is featured in two YouTube videos—neither of which he posted. “They’re of a speech I gave, so I’m not embarrassed about them,” he says. “But I had no control over their posting. That’s why it’s important to search on your own name, see what’s being posted about you in the different environments.”
No privacy, no control
When Laramie teaches teens about social networks, he has them “write” just one way to reach them online on an imaginary business card. “Then I ask them if they would hand that to a stranger driving by their school,” he says. “They haven’t thought about that. There is a disconnect between their online world and the real world.”
Both teens and police officers mistakenly believe that making pages “private” will protect their information. However, says Laramie, “When teens argue this, I ask them if they’ve ever seen a site they didn’t have permission to be on,” says Laramie. “They often have—if they were with a friend who had permission.”
This can be a problem when that friend is someone unknown to, or even an enemy of, the user. “The two most misused words when it comes to social networks are ‘private’ and ‘friend,’” says Laramie, adding that he doesn’t know most of the “friends” on his task force page. So, while it’s possible to limit access to a site, nothing is ever truly private.
This problem is exacerbated by inadequate privacy protections on the social network sites themselves. A Cambridge University study published in July showed that 90 percent of sites required unnecessary information, such as birth date, for membership. Eighty percent did not protect sensitive data using standard encryption protocols, while 71 percent reserved the right to share user data with third parties.
Officers may also believe that anonymity will protect them, but can leave enough details that administrators, other officers, and even the public can figure out who they are. This has been the case for several well-knownlaw enforcement blogs, deleted in recent years on pain of their authors’ termination.
The need for cyber ethics training
Police officers who are unaware of these pitfalls could be disastrous for a law enforcement agency. “Defense attorneys who do their homework will come after them,” Laramie says. “They’ll start out by asking whether a posting on a social site was the truth, or made up. And who wants to defend their bragging in court? But if they say they made something up, they’re subject to being impeached as a witness. And if they say it’s the truth, that opens the door to every inappropriate thing the attorney found.”
Laramie believes that training in cyber ethics must begin at the academy level. “Personal ethics is already taught, but there needs to be a cyber component to it,” Laramie says. “This generation is so used to the technology that they don’t think twice about what they are doing.”
For instance, says Laramie, “Teens don’t see what the big deal is about sending nude photos to each other or saying inappropriate things. They don’t understand that when adults do it at work, we get fired.”
Thus a student’s “harmless flirting” with her school resource officer could land him in hot water, as could her risque photo in her Facebook profile when they are connected as friends. “If a parent finds those things, it’s guilt by association,” says Laramie. “Even if the officer hasn’t been online in three days and had no idea the photos were posted.”
Balancing safety with usage
Professionally, Laramie says school resource officers and other investigators do need to know how social networking sites work. “I’m not sure all SROs understand it as well as they should,” he says. “Many are still struggling with how to deal with it. Some have very sophisticated knowledge, but others have no idea how to use it or communicate with it, or even how to use it as a search mechanism. They have to be able to get online and see what’s going on in the school, among that community.”
The challenge is in doing so without jeopardizing the relationship-building that community policing demands. Whether undercover (which most social networking sites discourage) or using their real names, Laramie says any communication on the officer’s part should be one-way only—no friend requests.
This flies in the face of social networking culture as well, which demands two-way communication. “Students can feel the officer is only there to spy on them,” says Laramie. “They already stay away from social networking sites their parents are on, and they’ll stay away from those the officer is on.”
Internet safety is more than just the absence of danger. It also includes finding ways to use technology for learning, collaboration, community building, political activism, self-help and reaching out to others…. [L]ike fences around swimming pools, the use of filters at home and school can’t protect them forever. That’s why we teach kids to swim. Not only does knowing how to swim help prevent drowning, it empowers them to thrive in the water instead of fearing it.
Likewise in police departments, where gripes among officers may offer administrators the chance to consider whether employee point of view is accurate. In the social web, companies monitor what customers are saying, whether good or bad, and use the feedback to build on the good and improve on the bad. Comcast, for instance, uses Twitter to great effect to connect with its customers, as does the Ford Motor Company and others.
“You have to protect your name, your identity, and your reputation because you own those for the rest of your life,” says Laramie. “But it isn’t possible to control your reputation totally, because it’s what other people think.”
Much of the focus on law enforcement use of social media is on police departments as a whole. From a community-relations standpoint, this is important—but police departments may be missing out on a valuable opportunity to brand themselves and law enforcement in general. For that, they might consider turning to individual experts.
What’s an individual expert?
It’s the detective who, in addition to work with the PIO to “push” information through the department MySpace page, also allows the public to connect with him personally to end unwanted communications when they’re on MySpace.
It’s the cop who gives presentations to community groups, senior citizens’ homes, and schools—and posts them on SlideShare, where anyone can access critical information about identity theft, Internet crimes against children, and other high-profile crimes.
To be sure, this idea is outside the bounds of traditional law enforcement hierarchies. Tightly controlled information has been—and still is, to some extent—crucial to the overall mission of preserving peace and public safety.
But social media has changed the way people look for information. They trust traditional media less, and each other more. That’s why individuals have a role to play in this century’s organizations.
CEOs of private corporations face the same issues as police chiefs. If “just anyone” can blog or tweet, doesn’t that risk the organization’s reputation just as much as the rogue on YouTube?
To some extent, yes. But the people who use social media tend to be there because they’re motivated to improve their own and others’ lives. Those who use it for malicious purposes are shunned—the implicit understanding among “hard core” users is that social media is there to help.
Thus the organizations that allow their employees free rein find success in the online social world. Likewise, the police departments that allow officers, within appropriate boundaries, to expand the reach of their overall community policing efforts can only improve their standing among the online public.
For the viewer, a police pursuit is a real-time drama with an unknown outcome…. But what if you are the one engaged in the pursuit? You and your decision-making capabilities are playing out for the world to see. You may not have asked for a featured role, but your actions will be scrutinized and evaluated, and so it pays to be prepared.
It’s not just about pursuits
Social media makes that last sentence true for every call an officer goes on. Nearly everyone has a camera phone now; even the freebies that service providers give out as part of their contracts now contain cameras. As this Tampa Bay article points out, they are showing up at ever more incidents.
It doesn’t matter whether the footage goes national or viral or whatever buzzword you care to use. The fact that it’s out there, probably posted on YouTube, makes it likely to gain public if not media attention—even (especially?) if it’s off duty.
(In fact, as more law enforcement agencies switch over to digital two-way communications—depriving newsrooms of primary information sources—those reporters are more likely to set up Google Alerts and other forms of “listening” for mentions of your agency.)
So whether it’s a pursuit, armed confrontation, traffic stop, crash scene, domestic incident, or even just “routine” contact with the public, follow Sgt. Long’s advice: “Study, role-play and critique to become a better decision maker. Expect that the unexpected will test you without warning. This mental preparation should prepare you to manage your pursuit with poise, professionalism and control.”
This is good practice anyway. But it should not be left up to individual officers; it should be routinely encouraged, even in departments facing budget cuts. Creativity is key. I have heard that 10-15 minute roll call training can be effective in some ways, and some medical schools are even using Second Life to train future doctors. Other ideas?
Update: Google blog announces that YouTube has a new site. Says YouTube’s Olivia Ma:
We believe the power of this new media landscape lies in the collaborative possibilities of amateurs and professionals working together.
And so today, we’re launching a new resource on YouTube to help citizens learn more about how to report the news, straight from the experts. It’s called the the YouTube Reporters’ Center, and it features some of the nation’s top journalists sharing instructional videos with tips and advice for better reporting.
In a perfect world, this kind of resource will result in better, less biased reporting. But we live in an imperfect world, where video is easily edited. How can police positively respond?