Thin Blue Spin

How U.S. cops have raided social media

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Not long after Micah Johnson mortally gunned down five Dallas-area police officers and wounded nine others in July, the social media mavens at the Dallas Police Department tweeted out a picture of a man they identified as a suspect in the shooting rampage. They also asked their social media following—at nearly two hundred thousand, one of the largest on Twitter for police departments—to assist in tracking the suspect down.

There was only one problem: they were after the wrong man. They were targeting Mark Hughes, the brother of one of the lead organizers of the Dallas protest that preceded the mayhem. The Oswald-esque photo they used of him smiling for the camera with an assault weapon at his side was nothing out of the ordinary for Texas, which adopted an open-carry law for firearms in 2015. Followers of the Dallas PD’s timeline caught the error minutes after the tweet went out. But the photo of Hughes, together with its incriminating caption (“This is one of our suspects. Please help us find him!”) remained up for seventeen hours after it was posted, even as Dallas cops questioned and released Hughes. Not surprisingly, the maligned Black Lives Matter protester reported that he received thousands of death threats during his day of unearned social media infamy. Several hours after the department’s error was exposed, a reporter from Mashable asked a Dallas PD information officer why the department had not yet deleted the offending tweet. “Because we’re keeping it on there,” came the hostile, nonsensical reply.

The Hughes episode highlights the predictable outcome of American cops’ recent lurch into the social-media-sphere. What started out as an earnest public appeal for leads in the aftermath of a massacre pivoted instantly, and without explanation, into another bald assertion of cop authority for its own sake: “Because we’re keeping it there.” The social media arm of the law stigmatized an innocent black man with the suspicion he could be a cop-killer. Meanwhile, Dallas cops had obliterated the actual suspect, Johnson, with a bomb-disabling robot loaded with C4 explosives. The tweeting thumb is attached to the mailed fist.

As it happens, digital-media professionals have long hailed the Dallas PD as a model for savvy and engaged social media usage. Dallas was the first U.S. police department to hire a full-time social media strategist. It also has multiple social media accounts—several on Facebook and Twitter, as well as YouTube and Nixle. Last year, the department won an award for its use of social media in crisis management; it seems a safe bet that it won’t be a repeat winner in 2016.

The use of new media to bolster a cop-sanctioned worldview is now so widespread that you might call it viral. Just days before the Dallas events, when Baton Rouge police had shot and killed Alton Sterling in an altercation outside a convenience store, the Baton Rouge Police Department used Periscope, Twitter’s video-streaming app, to broadcast its press conference on the shooting. Cellphone footage taken by a shop owner had revealed that Sterling’s hands were empty at the time of his death. But as Baton Rouge chief Carl Dabadie Jr. briefed reporters at the presser, he claimed that Sterling had been “armed” before the confrontation started. Had the shop owner and his lawyer not managed to get the cellphone video to a TV station, Baton Rouge police (who confiscated in-store surveillance footage from the scene) might have controlled the story.

Acting Cute

These kinds of cop struggles for meme supremacy have only recently come to public attention. For the past several years, the conjunction of policing, tweeting, and Facebooking has been a surefire prescription for novelty human-interest coverage: see the armed, beefy, mustachioed peacekeeper in the aviator glasses try to communicate with the young and hip! Before its officers earned global condemnation for pointing assault rifles at protesters, the Baton Rouge PD was a practitioner of this social media strategy, offering genial and lighthearted fare on its Twitter account. One tweet in May touted “Touch a Truck,” a community event at which small children could cavort among the department’s impressive store of military-grade weaponry.

This trademark fusion of camera-ready cuteness and depoliticized menace is straight out of the social media playbook of Lauri Stevens, a specialist in police communications who has worked closely with the police force in Dallas to enhance their social media game. Cops are no longer complete strangers to social media, but they still need considerable coaching when it comes to getting an intended message to connect with audiences. Stevens, who says she doesn’t know of anyone else doing what she does full-time, is likely the first person cops turn to in moments of online perplexity or duress.

As a result, Stevens’s kitschy Midwestern sensibility is gradually becoming the filter through which the law-enforcement world showcases its handiwork before digital audiences. And demand for Stevens’s expertise is spreading beyond her largely word-of-mouth network of American clients: police departments from as far away as Turkey, Brazil, and Switzerland subscribe to her newsletter, which advises police to spread a mood of chummy deference to cop prerogatives in the ostensibly anything-goes forums of the social-media-sphere. As your friendly neighborhood cops are edging their way into your timelines, they’re building public trust and cultivating new reserves of sympathy they can tap into during the next racially divisive shooting episode or abuse-of-force controversy.

Stevens, who is white, with no police in her family, was first inspired to work with police in her twenties, when, as a general assignment TV reporter in Spartanburg, South Carolina, she noticed that the officers she reported on were poor communicators.

“It struck me how none of them were really good at telling their stories,” she says. “When they got the opportunity, they were too hung up on what they really thought the reporter was asking.”

She wanted to help cops craft more media-friendly narratives, but she lacked experience in PR. Later, while teaching communications at an art institute in Boston, opportunity knocked. Working with students to build websites for nonprofits and government organizations, she assigned a high-achieving group the task of building a site for the Bellevue, Nebraska, police department. When they graduated, she wound up the site’s webmaster by default.

“I got the [Bellevue] police into Facebook, and it was right about the time I suggested they have a social media policy, because at this point [2007 or 2008] the IBMs of the world were getting the word out that you really needed to have a posting policy on social media.” She and the Bellevue police then created what may have been the first-ever set of social media guidelines for police.

See the armed, beefy, mustachioed peacekeeper in the aviator glasses try to communicate with the young and hip!

In 2009, Stevens started posting social media advice on her ConnectedCOPS blog, which she says quickly became popular in the law enforcement world. By her count, the number of cops on Twitter worldwide grew from four hundred that year to twelve thousand in 2010. The momentum eventually culminated in a conference series, which adopted the Orwellian acronym of SMILECon (Social Media in Law Enforcement Conference). At these annual gatherings, police officials from across the country and the world learn how to use social media for everything from community engagement to criminal investigations. The last conference was in April, where speakers included police officers and representatives from the social media monitoring industry. Around two hundred people showed up, but Stevens predicts the next conference, which will be in Long Beach, will be even bigger.

In a chapter she contributed to a 2010 anthology called The Big Book of Social Media, Stevens explained how digital “branding” could be used by police to take back their narrative from the press:

For any police department, their brand is their reputation. Since they previously had little if any control over what reporters said and had no vehicles with which to respond, they now are in the envious [sic] position to increase control by paying attention to what’s happening online and acting on it strategically.

Stevens recalled one example of especially positive cop branding: the Seattle Police Department handed out bags of Doritos at a Hempfest rally, after weed was legalized, which the press ate up (together with the munchies-afflicted 4:20 crowd). This was indeed a classic tweaking of the police department’s public image, conveying the not-so-subtle message that the same officers who might previously have cuffed and charged you with possession of a controlled substance (particularly if you were poor and nonwhite) were now, thanks to the recent change in Seattle’s municipal drug laws, happy to cater to the appetites of the Hempfest masses.

Shaking It Off

This kinder, gentler image of police work has proved to be a more complicated and fraught social media commodity in other settings, such as Dover, Delaware. The Dover Police Department initially touted some big social media gains in its effort to win over the city’s forty thousand residents after Stevens helped engineer the rollout of a YouTube video featuring police master corporal Jeff Davis singing like a big ol’ goofball to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” As I write this, the video has logged nearly 40 million views on YouTube, and has been covered almost everywhere in the mainstream media.

When cops use social media, the tweeting thumb is attached to the mailed fist.

But Davis’s song stylings weren’t enough to calm anger in Dover last summer, after video footage showed local officer Thomas Webster kicking twenty-nine-year-old Lateef Dickerson in the face as he lay on the ground in surrender. Transparency is a professed part of Dover police’s brand, and leaders of the Dover PD communications team apparently figured they could get out in front of the Dickerson story by releasing the video themselves—a calculated risk given the outrage they knew it could stoke. And then, as Dover cops sought to calm local unrest over that case, another damaging story got out in front of them. On August 28, a white Dover police officer shot and wounded twenty-one-year-old Terrance Fletcher, a black man, for allegedly pulling a gun.

A large crowd gathered around the crime scene, and allegations quickly began leaking onto the internet that Fletcher had been shot in the back, that he was unarmed, and that he hadn’t been given immediate medical treatment. Dover police officials kept their finger on the pulse of the crowd by using software developed by Geofeedia, a company that specializes in harvesting social media posts by geographic location. (Geofeedia has contracted with police departments across the country, including Austin, San Jose, and Philadelphia.) Although the Dover PD circulated its own version of events in a pair of press releases hours after the Fletcher shooting, anger continued to swell, and reinforcements had to be called to the scene.

As Dover News Journal reporters Jon Offredo, Jeff Montgomery, and Brittany Horn covered the event, they interviewed a black Dover resident who told them she saw the shooting as the latest abuse in a longstanding pattern of police violence in Dover and throughout America. Reporting such first-hand accounts is standard journalistic practice, but to Mark Hoffman, the public relations officer for the Dover police, the story—which overwhelmingly quotes Dover police sources, and follows the narrative of the encounter promulgated by the cops—was, in fact, anti-cop.

“It didn’t do us any favors,” he complained: the story didn’t mention that the area where Fletcher was shot was a high-crime area, nor did it cite statistics maintained by the Dover PD that document a declining use of force. Worst of all, Hoffman said, the story did not refute misinformation on social media that was picked up by “several media outlets.” (Hoffman believes, in addition, that the flurry of social media notices about the shooting was actually an orchestrated effort among “area leaders” to sow popular discord.)

Hoffman called the paper the next day and asked for the story to be corrected. After editors there declined to do so, Dover police released a more thorough press release a few days later, laying out in greater detail the department’s account of the shooting. The follow-up PR notice also justified its “proactive enforcement” by including a crime heat map of the downtown area. The neighborhood where the Fletcher shooting happened is shaded dark red—the pseudoscientific implication being that anybody shot there by police was likely involved in some criminal activity or another.

After initially denying it, Fletcher later admitted in court that he was carrying a gun before he was shot, and a Department of Justice report said the cop who shot him did not commit a crime. To Hoffman, who won a Connected Cops Social Media Leadership Award at Lauri Stevens’s SMILE Conference a little over a month after the shooting, the report vindicated his police department and showed how it could use social media to counter the press.

“There are forty thousand people in Dover, and we have forty thousand followers on social media,” he said. “Our local paper doesn’t have forty thousand subscribers. They probably don’t even have a quarter of that. If I’m going to hold the media accountable, I can do it with social media.”

Community of None

Stevens believes that even police in Ferguson, Missouri, could have avoided a major PR debacle if they’d only been more proficient at social media messaging prior to the sustained protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. “I believe 100 percent that if the Ferguson and St. Louis police had been on social media and put stuff about what they knew and when they knew it, it would have gone a long way toward protecting them from a lot of things even today, with lawsuits and so forth,” she says.

But many police just can’t avoid shooting themselves in the foot with posts that betray a racial bias. On April 27, the Dover department’s account sent a tweet that depicts a handgun next to a pellet gun, with the text, “One is real. The other is a pellet gun. Can you tell which is which? Can you do it in less than two seconds?”

Innocent question? April 27 was two days after the city of Cleveland announced it would pay a $6 million settlement to the family of Tamir Rice, the black twelve-year-old boy slain in two seconds by cops who allegedly mistook his pellet gun for the real thing. The Rice killing outraged many observers, from the New York Times editorial page to Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams, who delivered an impassioned speech about the incident at the 2016 BET awards. That Dover police thought it appropriate to send an unsolicited tweet justifying Rice’s death indicates it is either not as good at social media as Hoffman says it is—or that it is not connected with the part of the community that would have been outraged by the tweet. In all likelihood, both things are true.

This sense of disconnect broadly characterizes “community policing” in practice, because police pursuing this mode of outreach tend to be most responsive to the needs of more conservative constituencies, such as business owners, church leaders, and white residents. Most people included in “community policing” do not bear the brunt of police violence and abuse, according to Justin Hansford, a law professor and Ferguson activist who testified before President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Through arrest sweeps, the eviction of alleged criminal offenders from public housing, and the use of informants and other antisocial tactics, police have eviscerated communal bonds in poor communities across the country, Hansford writes. In this sense “community policing” is an oxymoron—especially with cops now “insert[ing] themselves into the vacuum of uncertainty around the idea of community to generate a community in their own images (and their own likeness), granting legitimacy only to community groups who conform to state conceptions of law, order, and propriety,” as Hansford writes.

Dover police officials, whom black residents blame for a long history of harassment, are now upping their social media game beyond the strict bounds of wired discourse. They are presently seeking to migrate their community base from Twitter to real life, with the rollout of Nextdoor, a “private social network for your neighborhood.” This service, despite its ostensible disruptive new-media provenance, appears to function like an old-fashioned snitch network. Nextdoor company representatives touted the service at this April’s SMILE Conference—and their presentations made it clear that the service is to be mediated by and through the police, who place a premium on its crime-tip utility rather than potluck invitations. With Nextdoor, which police in Dallas also use, Dover cops aren’t just embedding in the community; they’re creating the community itself, in much the same way that military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere use counterinsurgency strategy to build constituencies sympathetic to their mission.

Influence Peddling

Maintaining a propaganda campaign requires keeping tabs on anybody who might undermine it, including people with large followings—a.k.a. influencers, in the argot of the digitally hip. Jasmyne Cannick saw how this process can work when she discovered the LAPD was monitoring her Twitter page. Cannick, a social commentator who has shamed the LAPD with her blog, recently discovered through inside sources that the police sent internal communications about a tweet she’d posted about a possible police shooting of a college student. It turned out that no such shooting actually took place, but that didn’t deter the LAPD communications division. Officials there kept a meticulous count of likes and retweets Cannick’s post received. The deluge of tweets sent this past summer about cops killing people probably outpaced police ability to keep up with the stream, but in all likelihood, frenetically wired cops tried their darnedest.

Cannick told me she was annoyed that police zeroed in on her tweet rather than issuing a correct version of events sooner. And this raises another troubling issue: we know very little about when or how police monitor social media. Some departments, for example, use an HTML script to scrape volumes of data from social media pages, weaponizing years’ worth of forgotten Facebook rants in an instant. Under the generous cop-empowering provisions of the American surveillance state, this type of monitoring is perfectly legal, though the jury is still out on whether evidence gathered via these methods would be permissible in court. Since the ambush in Dallas, police nationwide have apprehended people for posting alleged copycat threats against law enforcement, and we’ll likely see a number of legal challenges against the practice soon. Arresting people for such posts has a chilling purpose beyond deterring prospective acts of violence: it tamps down digital anti-cop sentiment and makes space for more pro-cop messaging.

To win the public’s hearts and minds, police may not even need to monitor and purge Facebook’s cop critics, considering the positive attention police can get from mainstream media. For example, BuzzFeed recently ran a feature about an officer in Spartanburg, South Carolina, whose Instagram page features copious photos of puppies and kitties. Pet photos are, of course, tried-and-true online clickbait—and so they’ve been deployed eagerly by cops looking to come across as sensitive souls. Indeed, the International Association of Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media recommends weekly Twitter fests featuring cops and their critter pals, under sobriquets such as “Furrever Friday” and “Four-Legged Fridays.” The police in Spartanburg, where Lauri Stevens once lived, also used social media to humiliate shoplifters at retail stories like Walmart by posting their pictures on the department’s Facebook and Twitter pages after their arrest—because what’s more communal in America than laughing at the poor?—but that story didn’t get picked up.

In one example of positive cop “branding,” police in Seattle handed out bags of chips at a Hempfest rally.

When cute cop posts take off at aggregation sites such as BuzzFeed—as the Dover PD’s “Shake It Off” did—a synergistic spigot of monetized content opens up for the host sites, as priceless new reserves of public good will likewise present themselves to the cops. The conjunctive exploitation of Pokémon Go by police and the media covering them was a viral media sensation of its own this summer. What’s less clear, though, is whether police departments are pitching these social media stories to reporters. It’s certainly hard to see any organic news hook for, say, DNAinfo New York’s recent listicle “9 Reasons You Should Be Following the NYPD on Twitter.” The story featured the ephemeral feel-good fare of kitty and puppy pics, as well as bullets arranged as a happy face, the Easter Bunny in a squad car, and even a coy reference to American cops’ weakness for doughnuts. DNAinfo reporter Nicole Levy, who wrote the piece, got a friendly nod from NYPD digital strategist Yael Bar-tur, who wrote: “Don’t ask me why you should follow the #NYPD on Twitter, take it from @DNAinfo.” Levy did not respond to my request to discuss the story, and when I asked Bar-tur whether NYPD flacks had pitched the listicle to an obliging DNAinfo editor, she referred my question to the NYPD’s public information office, which didn’t get back to me.

Bar-tur is certainly practiced in the art of flacking for security forces imposing order on restive populations. Before becoming the NYPD’s digital strategist, she worked as the national marketing director for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a fund for Israeli soldiers and wounded veterans. She also consulted for the NYPD as a public policy student at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Yet for all her experience, her clients can still go disastrously off-message. In 2013, Bar-tur used her blog to shine a spotlight on Brimfield, Ohio, police chief David Oliver, whom she praised for chronicling his “hilarious and insightful adventures” as a way to build up the department’s public image. But Oliver’s off-the-cuff posts were not especially insightful, and grew less hilarious over time. His political and topical commentary tilted in a pronounced conservative and at times subtly racist direction, particularly when he’d offer enthusiastic endorsements of the war on drugs. His big viral moment came after he unleashed a tirade against Kanye West after the artist compared himself to police officers. “Since you are accustomed to danger, from your life as an international rapper, I am strongly encouraging you immediately abandon you [sic] career as a super star and join the military,” Oliver wrote, racking up the likes and follows.

Chief Oliver was known around his department, apparently, as a sexual predator, according to a lawsuit filed by a female officer in Brimfield. He was also accused of stealing $500 of a charitable donation and pocketing about $800 from what has been described as “an illegal silent gun auction.” Oliver was stripped of his badge and sentenced to two years of probation earlier this year—but not before he defiantly vowed to release information “that will make the public, and particularly the residents of Brimfield, very ashamed of their police department.”

Back in the big time, NYPD’s public relations engine remains one of the most well oiled in the nation. Its well received #NYPDOutandProud campaign, for instance, after June’s horrific massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, cheerfully touted openly queer cops within the NYPD, even as the force at large continues to commit homophobic and transphobic abuse. Such campaigns are buttressed by the NYPD’s massive Twitter presence—all precincts have accounts—but local reporters in New York have neglected to document just how the department’s growing digital prowess strategically downplays the department’s pattern of abuses and failures in its encounters with marginalized communities. In the absence of such critical reporting, a New York based radical collective called New York Year Zero has filled the void, monitoring the department’s more eccentric Twitter users and viciously mocking their clumsiest tweets.

“We read cop tweets because social media has become an important part of this ‘community policing’ strategy that’s been instituted by big city police departments across the country,” a representative of New York Year Zero said over email.

Dozing Watchdogs

It’s more than a little puzzling that the rest of the media industry can’t see the same logic—regardless of whether it aligns with New York Year Zero’s digital-guerilla politics. At a panel on criminal justice reporting during this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference, I asked the panelists, all very accomplished journalists, how they balanced their need to cultivate officer sources with their directive to report impartially on police. I mentioned I was working on this story. The panelists all assented in principle to the idea that reporters need to hold police accountable with rigorous investigations even as they maintain good relations with sources at their local departments for more mundane daily news assignments. (One of the panelists, Maya Lau of Baton Rouge’s The Advocate, later did superb work covering the fallout from the Alton Sterling killing.) But as I sat down and took notes, I couldn’t help but remember Dover communications officer Mark Hoffman gloating that his police department’s social media following was bigger than that of Dover’s local paper.

Police ambitions on social media are totalitarian, in the sense that departments are looking to establish further control over the production of knowledge in order to secure more power. It may seem cute and endearing for law enforcement personnel brandishing guns and tasers to show off a cuddlier, more relatable side of their personalities via pet pics. But if police PR teams can get more positive attention, whether from a listicle gone viral or their own social media pages, that’s a key breakthrough moment in the broader effort to create a more loyal constituency that will be less likely to righteously antagonize them. And after the turmoil of this summer, departments are likely to channel more tax dollars into their public relations divisions, even as (or perhaps because) their enforcement practices remain racist and directed primarily at the poor.

In spite of all the ways it has changed in recent years, journalism is still one of the best defenses against the new vanity of the security state. The answer to digital-era police hostility toward the media is not less scrutiny and skepticism, but more of it. Everything else is public relations.

Aaron Miguel Cantú is a journalist based in New York City and a contributor to the book Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States.

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