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Police Honing Their Social Media Skills To Inform Public On Crimes

The mass shooting at a Texas mall this month has law information public information officers talking about the impact of social media, reports the Associated Press. Now that anyone can post images from their phones, if the police don’t talk, reporters and the public will simply go online to get information, as happened in Texas. That is a major problem, says Katie Nelson, social media and public relations coordinator for the Mountain View Police Department in northern California. These days, when it comes to responding to a crime, “The luxury of time does not exist,” she says. Police began to harness social media a decade ago, most famously after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The four-day manhunt ended with police tweeting: "CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.” It was groundbreaking at the time, says Yael Bar Tur, a police communication consultant and former director of social media for the New York City police department. Now, she says, that it is the basic level expected of law enforcement. “It’s not enough just 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 is going to be used against you.”


The Texas mall shooting happened around 3:30 p.m. Allen police sent their first tweet around 4:20 p.m., announcing that police were at the mall and that an active investigation was underway. At nearly 7 p.m., police said an officer had “neutralized the threat.” That meant the shooter was dead. The often-used term of "neutralizing' can confuse 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 word neutralized means,” Parker says. Adding to the problem, initial news conferences in Texas were brief and infrequent. One lasted less than two minutes, and police took no questions. Last week, at the midyear conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, public information officers wondered how to harness social media in the best ways and quickly. “You had a little more time to get information out five or six years ago. The expectation wasn’t there that it would be immediate, and I think it is now,” says Sarah Boyd, a member of the IACP board on public communication. She says her colleagues often text each other to discuss how communications are handled after tragedies. The newest crop of public information officers, likely to be former reporters themselves, also are demanding to have a seat at the table when officers are planning 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 cell phone or Ring doorbell video that could help investigators.

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