Officer Use of Force Incidents: Social Media Use Before & After

Police Use of Force CoverOver the last several years, officer use of force incidents have become the center of attention across the United States.  With the widespread use and availability of video, hardly a day goes by that a police use of force incident is released to the public.  Video recorded on cell phones has become the norm and as more and more police agencies begin using body worn video, this trend will continue to expand.

Once you have an officer use of force incident, especially if it is a shooting, all of the attention of the community, media and social media will laser focus on the officer.  Numerous parties will dissect his or her life, work history and personal opinions. The media, the public, and haters across the globe will search for any information they can find, hoping to get more information about the officer in question.  Some of these individuals searching hope to confirm some predisposed opinion of the officer that may or may not match the reality of the incident under scrutiny.

Three precautions can be taken to help protect an officer if he or she is ever involved in a use of force incident that garners such widespread attention.

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Social Media CAN Make a Difference

SM LightbulbI have often talked and spoken about the benefits of law enforcement using social media.  I think most of us who use it, recognize what a powerful tool social media can be.  Law enforcement uses social media for many reasons.  We use it to check the backgrounds on our recruits; for investigations; to educate our citizens; to provide information; for homeland security purposes; to market our departments and dozens of other reasons.

We in law enforcement have used social media recently as a counter balance for all of the negativity directed toward us in the media and through social media.  We post information about all of the positive accomplishments of our staff and provide great examples of our engagement with our communities.  Are we making a difference?  Are our citizens actually getting the message?

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Policing Turned Upside Down

Upside Down Police Car PIn light of the recent discourse about police use of force across the country, one of the biggest fears that I have is that one of the officers I am privileged to work with will hesitate to use force when it should be used and that failure to use force will result in the injury or death of the officer or another person.  I am sure other Police Chiefs across the country share a similar concern.

Recently, a disgusting photo surfaced on social media which showed a Detective with the Birmingham, Alabama Police Department knocked out on the pavement after having been pistol whipped by a suspect after a traffic stop.  What made the situation even worse, if it could be worse, was that these photos were posted on social media mocking the officer.  I couldn’t help but think about this officer’s family and how those photos affected them, especially since they saw the photos before the department had time to contact them about the incident.  

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Wearing Body Worn Cameras Should be Mandatory

Body cameraIn general, law enforcement agencies have resisted reforms even when those reforms have been proven to be effective in saving lives, providing better service or improving inefficiencies.  Resisted might be too strong of a word.  We have been slow to adopt changes even though these changes are for the better. 

As an example, only recently has most agencies adopted a mandatory seat belt policy for officers.  Even today, some departments do not require their officers to wear a seat belt even though it has been proven that wearing a seat belt saves lives; even though most departments work to educate the public about this life saving device; even though all states have a mandatory seat belt law.

Similarly, body armor is a lifesaver for police officers, yet many departments do not provide this equipment for their officers or have a mandatory wear policy.  A recent survey suggested that over 90% of police departments now require officers to wear body armor compared to 59% in 2009, which is a big improvement.

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Public Shaming on Social Media

Over the last several years, Social media has evolved and is now being widely used to “out” people or “shame” them for various infractions or perceived transgressions.  Husbands shame their wives; wives shame their husbands; and parents shame their children.  One of the most infamous shaming of a teenager happened in 2012 when a dad read a letter and then shot his daughter’s computer.  Sadly, a 13 year old teenager recently killed herself after her father posted a video of him punishing her on YouTube.

SM Blocks

Racists Getting Fired on Tumblr has a mission to bring attention to racist comments on social media and contact the employer of those who made them.  There is a widespread trend in California by many to shame those who are using excessive water or violating the water restrictions in the state.  The hashtag #droughtshaming has been used extensively

CNN had a good piece identifying numerous examples of social media shaming.  They identified some of the long term consequences affecting the offenders.  In most of these cases, individuals are the ones doing the shaming.  What happens when the one doing the shaming is the local police department?

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#DallasPDShooting – Communicating in a Crisis Using #LESM

At 12:30am on Saturday in Dallas, Texas, the sound of gunfire shattered the quiet night as a gunman opened fire on the Dallas Police Department Headquarters.  Although a surprising act, it is not unheard of as gunmen have attacked police officers at their departments across the country on several occasions.  Check out this video from an attack on police officers with the Detroit Police Department in 2011.

Fortunately, no officers with the Dallas Police Department were injured.  Of course that wasn’t because the suspect didn’t try to kill them.  After all the suspect arrived in an armored van with gun ports and was heavily armed with explosive devices and firearms.  The entire event lasted for over 12 hours and ended at 12:50pm with an announcement that the suspect was dead.

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The Watchful Eye of Social Media

The proliferation of social media has resulted in a complete transformation in the way many police departments communicate with their communities.  Large and small departments across the country have embraced the use of social media as a way to build community trust and demonstrate transparency.  As much as social media has benefited law enforcement, there has also been a downside.

Members of the public are armed with smartphones and are prolific users of social media on a daily basis.  They are driving, walking and interacting with police officers on a daily basis.  Unfortunately, some police officers do things occasionally that are less than professional.  When that happens, there is a good chance that someone is there to record it for posterity.  Usually, the indiscretion shows up on social media.

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#WhyIWearTheBadge Campaign for National Police Week

The week of May 11-15, 2015, was National Police Week.  A time set aside by President Kennedy and established by a joint resolution of Congress in 1962 to remember those peace officers who have made the ultimate sacrifice and to celebrate the few and brave members of our society who have dedicated their lives in service to their fellow man.

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Leadership Matters

The news lately hasn’t been very good.  Every day brings a new controversy with the police squarely in the middle.  A questionable use of force, a controversial arrest or an unfortunate death seems to be the rule.  Lately, several uses of force have resulted in widespread riots in various communities and police officers being arrested.  How can we address these widespread issues locally?  The answer is by demonstrating leadership.

Leadership matters.  Many of these incidents share one thing in common; a lack of leadership.  In many cases, a lack of leadership on the part of the political leaders and in some cases a lack of leadership on the part of the police department.  No matter the situation, leadership does matter.

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A Good #SM Policy Protects Officers & Departments

According to a 2014 survey completed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), over 95% of agencies that responded to the survey say they use social media.  This percentage has increased significantly since the beginning of the survey several years ago.  However, only 71% of departments say they have a social media policy.  In 2010, the year of the first social media survey, this gap was even wider.  At that time, only 35.2% of departments had a social media policy.  Although the percentage of departments that have a social media policy has risen dramatically, one question still remains:  Do the departments that have a social media policy have a good one?

This can be a difficult question to answer.  There are many law enforcement agencies with good social media policies.  Although good social media policies vary in length and content, there are at least three parts that should be in every policy.

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