Social Media Posts: Tweet Smart in crisis situations

So the power of Social Media can truly influence in so many ways. Who would have thought that during my morning workout while going through Social Media alerts I would read a story from O'Fallon Missouri, regarding a standoff with a person who made violent threats via Social Media.

What followed was a series of back and forth twitter posts on my Twitter account , which resulted in a back and forth about what law enforcement can do to address this safety issue, particularly about the risks that it poses both to Officers, but to a criminal investigation.

We continued our engagement which resulted in a discussion with the famous Tim Burrows as a  topic of "tweeting during a crisis" and how it might best be addressed with the public as a point of discussion during his Wednesday evening #copchat via Twitter at 8 pm CST.

So while doing some research into this topic there were some very interesting articles that were found. In addition because this topic is so very relevant to any Law Enforcement agency which not only uses Social Media, but is engaged in any crisis situations, preparation is the mother of all success.  Preparation beforehand coupled with the  understanding how to respond, as well as properly educating the public before, during and after can be the difference.

In July of 2014 a group of Seattle area Police Departments released a joint media release titled "Local police ask you to "Tweet Smart" during emergencies" . The Tweet Smart campaign was a joint agreement with 9 agencies which included State, County and Local Law Enforcement Agencies in and around the Seattle area.  The memo referenced recent high profile events including Moncton, Ottawa Parliament and Portland Or.which raised concerns over the public in the need to share was potentially revealing positions to the public via Social Media which could put Officers safety at risk.

The question posed does the use of Social Media from the general public put Officer Safety at risk? The answer is possibly.  So to address this question we are looking at it from two perspectives the public, news media and then from the Law Enforcement point of view.

The Public
The general public all to frequently wants to be involved in an incident, to be the first to tweet or post something that no one else has. There are those in the general public who believe that they are helping by posting pictures or information via Social Media to HELP law enforcement. Lastly, there are those who are in the minority who are hoping to catch Law Enforcement doing something wrong so they can get their "15 minute of fame" or their payout from the mainstream media.

An article from KSL TV in Utah titled, "Did social and mainstream media ruin the Boston Manhunt/". This article by Stephanie Grimes talks about how...Professional journalists often complain that "citizen journalists" don't go through the proper channels and don't bother to verify information. Citizen journalists complain that professionals are arrogant and move too slowly on breaking news. Both are often guilty of their biggest complaint about the other: that in a day of instant communication, misinformation is spread without a thought to the consequences.."

In fact the public who listens to police scanners all too frequently take information and rush to put it
out, many times giving out false information. Stephanie Grimes pointed out that "It is a well-known rule among journalists never to base a report on scanner traffic as if it is fact, but social media does not abide by the same rules as mainstream media. In the early hours of the morning, Twitter users were tweeting streams of information obtained by listening to Boston police scanners online or via free smartphone apps."

Luckily for the two people named in this tweet were not named by the Mainstream Media, after previously news

reports by CNN, Associated Press and Fox News that reported suspects had been arrested on the day of the Boston Bombing. Reports which we were all found to be completely false. 

Lastly during the Boston Bombing and the subsequent shootout at MIT, one person posted via Twitter, "a bullet hole through our wall and the chair on the second floor". He continued with "shoot out with 5 minutes of gun fire and pressure cooker bomb, " "PD claiming IED's on the street and of being evacuated from his apartment "by military with assault weapons."

Grimes continued with Social media played a large role in spreading audio and video, as well. One widely replayed video was captured by a resident, not a TV station, and uploaded to YouTube. It was then picked up and replayed by every major media outlet and had 677,000 views as of Friday afternoon.

So as we see the public and the Mainstream Media can get it wrong, in law enforcement we all know that witnesses in events, particularly highly charged violent encounters all to frequently miss, interject or fail to remember critical aspects of an incident. Particularly when the person believes their life is in jeopardy. 

Law Enforcement

So Law Enforcement has some very real concerns about Officer Safety. The concern that was raised by Chief Roy Joachimstaler, O'Fallon PD was in his Fox 2 News interview,  “We weren’t trying to sensor anybody or stop anybody from taking photos,” said Joachimstaler.  “But please don’t put them out on Facebook for the suspect to be able to see where the tactical officers are positioned.  It definitely is an officer safety issue.” Subsequently this was also echoed by a St. Charles (MO) Police Sgt..."St. Charles City Police Sgt. Josh Hoeing has SWAT team experience.  His department was not involved in Sunday’s standoff, but he shares concerns about social media jeopardizing officers’ safety.

“It’s going to be detrimental to not only the officers’ safety, but to the actual individual’s safety as well if they get too close to the incident scene.”

During both the Boston Bombings as well as the Ottawa Parliament shootings Officers from both departments numerous Social Media platforms including twitter put out a series of posts to address the tense and violent situation to the public. Calling on their help to not put Officer's safety in jeopardy. 

The tweets were requests, which some echoed by private citizens twitter accounts.
Images of Officers in motion, in locations, or which if the suspect has time to hunker down, view his social media or if he is working in a concerted effort with others may jeopardize their safety. However, what if the suspect is working with others, off scene, such as a group like ISIS, who are very Social Media savvy, who might have an excellent understanding of the target location might be able to give information to an accomplice, via cellular telephone, radio, text message etc.

So there is a valid concern, we live in very difficult times, the story is always first and if it bleeds it leads as the saying goes. So what are the options for Law Enforcement to address these issues and concerns. 

Education is Key
It is my belief that the law enforcement  agencies need to put forward a public safety campaign to educate their community members much like any campaign, like car seats, seat belts and don't text and drive. It seems like common sense but at times we can't rely on common sense to when over when the tweet is posing an opportunity to be put out. 

We who utilize Social Media Platforms, Twitter, Facebook etc., must educate those who follow and have prepared and ready to get information out regarding a crisis event in the community. Ready to go tweets, pre-formatted messages that we can put out quickly, that we don't have to think about. Sample suggested tweets:

  • Don't post positions, picture of police officers during this incident.
  • Dispatchers do not monitor Twitter, Facebook. Call 911 with your information.
  • Watch our Twitter feed for updated information, suspects, arrests, roadway closures.
  • Your post of pictures of officers might jeopardize their safety, tweet smart.

The Joint Media Release from Seattle offers these quick suggestions of does and don'ts in their "Tweet Smart" campaign.

  • Do get to a safe place and call 911 if possible. Live telephone calls to dispatchers are law enforcement’s best source of real-time information in an emergency.
  • Do feel free to let family and friends know you’ve reached safety.
  • Do feel free to warn friends if you have first-hand knowledge of a developing emergency.
  • Don’t tweet or post about the movements of police, or post pictures of officers. Even what seems like vague information could be used by a criminal familiar with the area.
  • Don't endanger yourself to get a picture, no matter how compelling.
  • Don't spread rumors. If you're not sure, don't post, tweet or re-tweet.
  • Do feel free to tweet about the response and post pictures after the emergency is over.

These are very common sense pieces of information that need to be regularly posted to the public on all of our Social Media Platforms. We need to educate, enlighten and engage our follows as well as the general public in order to insure Officer Safety as well as the publics.  


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