With social media, police and reporters grapple over control of ‘message’

In a growing number of cities, the use of social media as a primary mode of communication by law enforcers is fundamentally changing the way police departments interact with the media and citizens.

The ability to reach the public directly though Facebook and Twitter—outside the media’s prism—has roused the police and, at times, nettled journalists. Gitte Laasby of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says the ability of cops to have an unfiltered voice is one of the untidy beauties of social media.

“It’s much more democratic in a way. Everyone gets to have their say,” Laasby says. She adds, “I’m sure it must be empowering for them. It’s not quite so empowering for us.”

Justin Fenton, a six-year crime beat veteran for the Baltimore Sun, says Twitter alerts are an improvement over the old system: phone calls to a police department’s public information office to ask, “What’s going on?” He gets a text tweet on his phone when a significant crime happens, usually within 20 minutes.

“It’s like I’m a member of the command staff,” Fenton says. He then retweets to his 5,000 Twitter followers, often adding a detail or two. Fenton says the Baltimore PD’s use of Twitter gave him the impetus to begin using social media in his work. “I give them a lot of credit for it,” he says.

The system has limitations: tweets give the barest of details, and the Baltimore police Twitter stream shuts down at midnight. And Fenton says that when he reaches out to police for more information, he often hears, “What we tweeted is all we have.” All 140 characters of it.

Eric Hartley, a reporter for the Capital in Annapolis, Md., says Twitter and Facebook have throttled back information, not opened it up. Hartley wrote in a column that the social media offer “such sketchy information it's impossible to tell what's news and what isn't.” He calls its use by police “a façade of openness.”

He adds in an email, “With the agencies we deal with, Twitter and FB, at best, regurgitate the same information police send out in e-mailed press releases. I've never once seen anyone from the agencies use either site to engage with reporters or residents. It's an entirely one-way form of communication.”

A sampling of police social media messages indicates that urgent e-missives about public safety are rare. More typical are messages about upcoming police events, such as crime prevention seminars. Many departments use Twitter and Facebook to congratulate officers who win awards or help solve crimes—the sort of “good news” that law enforcers accuse the media of ignoring.

Baltimore police often add congratulations to tweets, like this one from May 3: “GUN ARREST: 1700 Blk Homestead, proactive patrol leads to recovery of a .40 cal handgun & 1 arrest. Great job Violent Crime Impact Section!”

Two days later, Milwaukee police used the department’s Facebook page to tout the website OnMilwaukee.com, which was described as an “excellent Milwaukee online news website…(that) loves to showcase good police work.”

Some agencies use social media to defend themselves against criticism, a strategy they call “reputation management.”

Milwaukee police have used Twitter to tweak journalists who err. On April 24, Milwaukee police tweeted, “Some media misinformation out there on overnight homicide. Get the facts from the source on this & others news at…” The tweet linked to a bare-bones press release posted on Facebook.

“Law enforcement is realizing that they don’t need the traditional media to get their message out anymore,” says Lauri Stevens, a Boston-based police consultant. “You don’t ignore them. You can’t ever do that. But you don’t have to cater to them like you used to…The dissolving of the media filter is definitely going on.”

She adds, “You can get your news out the way you want to, and the traditional media will find you.”

The FBI has the most popular Facebook page in U.S. law enforcement, with more than 100,000 “fans.” Philadelphia is a Facebook leader among big-city departments with about 34,000 fans. Houston has 23,000, Chicago 20,000 and New York 12,000.

Homicide detectives may get the glory on TV cop shows. But in the real world, one of the most-followed police Twitter feeds in North America comes from a traffic cop in Toronto, Sgt. Tim Burrows, who has 8,500 followers. The folksy Burrows has tweeted more than 10,000 times in the past two years, sometimes up to 10 times an hour. His subjects often involve traffic conditions, music trivia and the weather -- or a combination of the three.

The Bellevue (Neb.) Police Department is regarded as a leader among smaller agencies in its use of social media. Jayme Krueger, community policing coordinator for the 100-officer force in the Omaha suburb of 50,000, tweets for the department.

“I think it helps give us a voice to get some information out directly to the public,” she says. “It gives us a better way to communicate with the public -- better for both officers and administration.”

Krueger, a former police officer in Lincoln, Neb., says, “One of the first things I learned when I first became a police officer is that you should only believe half of what the media says.”

Like the Baltimore Sun’s Fenton, Carrie Kreisler, managing editor of the weekly Bellevue Leader, says the local police department’s use of social media was a factor when her newspaper followed suit. The paper recently revamped its Facebook page from personal to official (formerly known as a “fan” page), which Kreisler says “will definitely get us a better following for breaking news, traffic crashes, crimes and other police-related situations.”

Christa M. Miller, a former trade journalist who runs a Greenville, S.C.-based communications firm, says crime journalists today are not doing their job if they fail to connect with police agencies via Twitter and Facebook.

“Social media allow police to take a proactive approach to information, taking principles of crisis communication and using it for daily PR,” Miller says.

Cops and scribes have always had a wary relationship, of course. And now that they have a social media soapbox, some law enforcement personnel can’t resist jabbing the media.

On the morning of May 2, after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, a Milwaukee police official posted a note on the department’s Facebook page:

“A great teachable moment for media from the bin Laden operation on why law enforcement doesn't always share what we know when we know it. Behind-the-scenes strategies don't work when media report them beforehand. It applies to local media…We ask media not to report certain details in order to protect our operations. This is why.”

It was an odd time for a police official (unidentified, by the way) to chime in with an antagonistic note about the age-old cop’s lament on nosy reporters.

Of course, social media can’t replace journalists any more than it could replace the cop on the corner.

There is no social media equivalent to “the human connection that comes from a handshake,” says Miller.

“The long and short of it is that there is no replacement for face-to-face contact,” she says, “and any chief or commander or PIO who thinks they can replace that with social media is making a grave mistake.”

David J. Krajicek (dkrajicek@aol.com) is a veteran police reporter and true crime author. His most recent book is “Murder, American Style.” A version of this report was presented May 18 at a conference on policing and social media in New York, hosted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Center on Media, Crime and Justice and by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Christa Miller's previous career.


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