US police grapple with role of social media amid mass shootings
Jennifer Seeley was glued to her phone, safe at home but terrified nonetheless.
There was an active shooter at the Texas mall where she works as an assistant store manager. And she was desperately searching for information, praying. Was the shooter dead? Are his colleagues dead? What happened?
So, as law enforcement in the Dallas-area city of Allen slowly released information that horrific afternoon of May 6, she took to social media for answers, coming across videos showing the bodies of some of the eight killed. Desperate, she texted her colleagues.
“That’s where all my information comes from, what I saw on Twitter. And, you know, nobody was really releasing information about what really happened,” she says now, near two weeks later.
The shooting at the Allen Premium Outlets this month has public information officers across the country talking. Social media, they say, has accelerated everything. Now anyone can post images from their phone. This means that if the police don’t speak up, reporters and the public will simply go online, as happened in Allen.
And that poses a major problem, says Katie Nelson, social media and public relations coordinator for the Mountain View Police Department in northern California. Nelson teaches crisis management and social media best practices. And these days, she says, when it comes to answering, “The luxury of time doesn’t exist.”
Policing approaches have evolved
Police started exploiting social media a decade ago, especially after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The four-day manhunt ended with a police tweet: ” CAPTURE !!! The hunt is over. The search is over. The terror is over. And justice won. Suspect in custody.
It was groundbreaking at the time, says Yael Bar Tur, a police communications consultant and former director of social media for the New York Police Department. Now, she says, that’s the baseline level expected of law enforcement.
“It’s not enough to be on social media, you have to be good at it,” she says. “At the end of the day, you know, we have to use this tool because if you don’t it will be used against you.”
In Allen, the mall shooting took place around 3:30 p.m. Allen Police sent out their first tweet around 4:20 p.m., simply announcing that police were at the mall and an active investigation was underway. Seeley continued to fear that his colleagues at the Crocs store were in hiding and the shooter was still at large.
Around 7 p.m., Allen police said an officer had “neutralized the threat.” It meant he was dead. But the oft-used term can be confusing to the public, says Julie Parker, a former broadcast journalist and law enforcement public information officer who now advises government agencies on how to respond to critical incidents. .
“Normal people who don’t work in law enforcement don’t know what the words neutralized mean,” Parker says.
Adding to the situation, the first press conferences were brief and infrequent. One lasted less than two minutes and the police did not answer any questions.
Eventually, she learned that her colleagues had survived, but a security guard she knew was among the dead. Twenty-year-old Christian LaCour had helped start a customer’s car a few days earlier.
“Very anxiety-inducing,” Seeley said of the whole experience.
Make the most of social networks
How to harness social media best — and quickly — was on everyone’s minds last week as public information officers gathered at an Association mid-year conference. international police chiefs.
“You had a bit more time to get information out five or six years ago. It wasn’t expected to be immediate, and I think it is now,” says board member Sarah Boyd administration of the association. group on public communication.
She says her colleagues often text each other to discuss how communications are handled after tragedies. The responsibility weighs on her; she is well aware that the messages police tweet in the midst of a mass shooting could be read by someone hiding from the shooter.
“All they have is their phone, and this tweet is their lifeline,” says Boyd, a former journalist. She is now a public relations officer at the Clay County, Missouri Sheriff’s Office in the Kansas City area.
This new generation of public information officers, who like Boyd are much more likely to be former journalists themselves than in the past, also demand a seat at the table when officers plan how to respond to mass casualty events and police shootings.
They note that the flow of information can go both ways, generating tips from the public, who might have a cell phone or Ring doorbell video that could help investigators.
It can be difficult, however, with police nationwide struggling to regain public trust in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests. Many factors – for example, is the suspect still at large? — play a role in what can be released. And even if the suspect is killed, the investigation is not over; Law enforcement has yet to determine if the shooter acted alone, said Alex del Carmen, associate dean of the school of criminology at Tarleton State University in Texas.
The missteps after the mass shooting in Uvalde, when law enforcement released shifting and sometimes conflicting information, show the importance of getting the details right.
“People were scratching their heads on the second or third day,” del Carmen says. He has sympathy, however, for officers faced with communicating the unimaginable; entire careers can be defined by moments like these.
A model for faster information
The bulk of the country’s police force is small, and there are big differences in what each state allows them to release. In Missouri, for example, 911 recordings are inaccessible to the public.
The public itself, however, has no such restrictions.
After a man killed 10 people at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, in March 2021, a part-time freelance journalist began streaming live on his YouTube channel before officers even arrived. The effect can be instantaneous – and, for the authorities, quite dizzying.
“We’re getting information out faster than ever before,” says Boulder Police Public Information Officer Dionne Waugh. Given the speed of social media, she says, there’s just no choice.
Amidst a crowd of media, each victim’s family was assigned their own public information officer. All the while, what had happened struck Waugh personally; among the victims was police officer Eric Talley, a friend who died while rushing into the store.
Although she described the experience as “shattering” and “horrifying”, she led trainings in the years that followed. She hopes reliving it will help others.
Sadly, it wasn’t long after Nashville Police Department spokesman Don Aaron asked him to speak that he was facing his own mass shooting. In March, a gunman killed three children and three adults in March at a Christian school in his town before being shot dead by police.
Police tweets were quick. The very first announced that the shooter was dead. The surveillance video was released before the 10 p.m. newscast. Body camera footage was released the following morning, in accordance with department policy to release such video promptly. The flow of information was fast, continuous and generally accurate.
“As we made decisions about the release of body cameras in police shooting situations, I told some of my colleagues across the country, particularly when it started, that I was flying a plane trying not to crush it,” said Aaron, a 32-year-old police veteran. “And so far it hasn’t crashed.”