Police and Facebook: How social media is changing the law enforcement landscape

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TRI-CITIES, TENN. (WJHL) – For most of the U.S. population, life has migrated online to Facebook, Youtube and other social media platforms.

But how is law enforcement adapting to life behind the screen?

Those in law enforcement agencies say with social media comes good, bad and unexpected.

Challenges

Jeff Gazzo, director for the Regional Law Enforcement Agency Academy in Greeneville, said civilian use of social media can change the perception of an event by lunchtime.

“It used to take weeks or months (for news) to spread, and now it just takes hours, it just doesn’ take long at all,” Gazzo said. “And depending on how that media is handled, both by the public, the media themselves and the police department, it could go either good or bad.”

Gazzo said social media can dig a deeper pitfall for LEAs when a viral post circulates faster than agencies can comment.

Gazzo said social media provides an opportunity for law enforcement agencies to be more transparent with the public.

Often, he said, those in law enforcement find themselves toeing the line between commenting before the facts are in and letting public perception run wild in comment sections.

“Providing a comment in a timely manner is a good thing to do and to get back to the media so a story can be told with as many verifiable facts as we can as opposed to leaving it to supposition from people watching video that was captured by cell phone or just comments that go along on Facebook or Twitter,” Gazzo said.

Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner said overall, social media makes his job easier, but sometimes the speed at which information is shared can create a dilemma for officers.

“It does sometimes make us look at what’s on social media and we need to put a fact out of an investigation that might be contrary to what is being posted,” he said.

But Turner said while social media comes with frustrations, the internet helps officers more than it hinders them.

Transparency

Gazzo points to the Los Angeles Police Department when it comes to LEAs that use social media right.

He points out the department’s web page, on which civilians can watch body cam footage of use-of-force arrests, along with detailed explanations on department policy, the equipment used and a briefing for the public.

“(LAPD) have made a large effort over the years to be more accountable and transparent to the public, especially in use of force instances, because those are the instances that are going to generate controversy,” Gazzo said.

Gazzo points to the Los Angeles Police Department when it comes to using social media to be transparent.

A 2016 study by the Department of Justice found that about half of LEAs in the countries use body cameras. Gazzo said combining body camera and dash-camera footage and combining it with social media can be an opportunity to build transparency with the public.

“If it’s a strategic and intelligent use of that video, it can be a very powerful thing for the public,” Gazzo said. “The biggest thing that’s missing that probably would help us a little bit is that explanation … because the public might not be aware of those policies and procedures and the laws that govern that type of encounter.”

Making the most out of a digital world

LAPD has an entire team working on those videos, though, and it’s not an innovation smaller LEAs can afford to have. JCPD regularly has one officer managing social media.

Turner said social media is most helpful when officers are trying to identify someone in a shoplifting or robbery incident.

He added that while social media posts have helped officers in the past, they don’t necessarily speed up the investigation. He and Gazzo both said cell phone video is treated as an eyewitness account.

“Depending on when that video started and when it ended, their perspective when they were filming an event, and any narrative that goes along with that can affect the perception of that story,” Gazzo said.

Gazzo said social media is a factor in everything LEAs do at an organizational level, so transparency should be at the forefront of social media efforts.

“It’s much more difficult for a smaller agency to devote personnel (like the LAPD),” Gazzo said. “They may be able to do it on a less sophisticated level, but it’s important for this to happen especially in today’s world.”

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