PITTSBURGH, PA As they faced off again Monday night in Ferguson, Mo., police joined protesters on social media to tweet about what was happening and to warn against violence. Some livestreamed developments on Periscope.
Officers in Pittsburgh for the National Fraternal Order of Police Conference say departments across the country are trying to embrace social media.
“We’re a small village in Ohio, and even we’re utilizing social media,” said Officer Lawrence Zakrajsek of Brooklyn Heights police. “Utilizing social media has led to all kinds of good things.”
The biennial FOP conference, in Pittsburgh to celebrate its 100th year in its birthplace, offered two seminars relating to social media Tuesday. Topics included how FOP lodges can use social media for recruitment and outreach, as well as privacy issues surrounding the use of social media and body cameras — tools that are far different from early 20th century handcuffs and batons in a Heinz History Center display set up because of the conference.
Eddie Lopez, an officer in the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, said positive outreach is a must.
“No one wants to be a police officer anymore,” he said. “We’ve not had a training academy for six years.”
Zakrajsek acknowledged that social media can work against police, when officers use it inappropriately or when videos of wrongdoing or abuse of authority are posted.
“If you’re doing the right thing, you don’t need to worry about it,” he said.
Cellphone video of police confrontations such as the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina or body camera footage from the shooting of Samuel DuBose by a now former University of Cincinnati officer have brought police and social media to a crossroads.
“Things are different now with cameras and everything,” agreed Bernard Brannum, an officer in Temple, Texas. “We’ve always been under a microscope, but it’s been more prevalent.”
Social media can be used just to get the word out.
The St. Louis County Police Department has been assisting Ferguson police in dealing with protests and violence marking the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of a black 18-yer-old by a white officer. St. Louis used its @stlcountypd Twitter account Monday night to keep the public aware and to communicate with protesters.
“Multiple verbal commands given up to this point; please follow the commands of the police department or you will be subject to arrest,” the department warned.
Officials used the account to dispel a Twitter report that a diminutive female who identified herself as a 12-year-old had been handcuffed and arrested during the protests. Her identification indicated she was 18, the department tweeted.
Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said social media can reach residents with an otherwise unattainable immediacy. She said the Public Safety Department — particularly the police bureau — had virtually no social media presence before she took over its communications last year.
“It is a very effective tool in getting information out to the public about things that are affecting them, that they might not be aware of until the news comes on,” she said. “It’s a quicker, more organic way of communication.”