What Ferguson can teach police about social media strategy

The events that unfolded in Ferguson (Mo.) clearly demonstrate that things can spin completely out of control in the blink of an eye when social media management is handled poorly. Wrap your mind around this: social media played a much larger role in what happened after the shooting than the actual shooting itself. Let me show you why.

Let’s start with the beginning: August 9, 2014. We learn a “white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.” The incident immediately caused widespread speculation, and the “here we go again” mentality throughout the nation. Many people in our country have suppressed racial tension. The majority of the people that feel this way equate their tension with cops.

None of us knew the circumstances regarding the shooting, but within minutes of it happening, cell phone videos, tweets, and comments were plastered on YouYube, Twitter, and Facebook. Social media effectively fueled the pre-existing racial tension, which set the community ablaze.

The initial videos and comments plastered on YouTube and other social media sites were misleading and altogether cryptic. I was confused by what I saw, and I still have no idea what exactly happened.

Unfortunately, I saw Brown lying in his blood on the street while officers tried to set up a crime scene and keep the local residents at bay. I’m a white cop and I did not rejoice or feel happy seeing these images. I wondered what happened, and felt bad for the people involved.

On August 14, 2014, Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol was put in charge of policing in Ferguson, effectively destroying any and all remaining credibility of the police department. In addition, Governor Nixon advised that U.S. Attorney Eric Holder was also coming to Ferguson to conduct a parallel investigation into the death of Michael Brown. These two events further fueled the fire because it was assumed that the officer who shot Brown “must have done something wrong” since the police department was taken over by the highway patrol and the U.S. Attorney was coming to town.

These developments went viral on social media, making matters worse. Within hours of taking over, Johnson took to the media — and social media — to reassure everyone he would make things right. Instead, he made numerous blunders, and was later deemed ineffective.

Shortly thereafter, Holder was called out by a prominent black Milwaukee Sheriff, based on the fact that Holder essentially said cops are bad people and was, insinuating that our law enforcement officers across the United States engage in some nefarious or systematic and cultural attempts to violate people’s civil rights.

Sheriff David Clarke said it perfect, “Holder’s comments were adding hot sauce to this volatile situation.” Again, these comments were released through social media sites and the media without people thinking them through.

But, the police department also made things worse by doing things like releasing footage of Brown basically manhandling a store clerk. It was a chilling reminder that people are not always what they seem, or are exactly what people say they are after they’re gone. However, by using social media to release this video, and the manner in which it was released (which includes the timing of the release) it immediately made the police department look suspect. I know what the police department was trying to do, but it backfired terribly. In essence, it made the officer and police department look guilty. And during all of this, no one from the police department answered any questions or got in front of the issue.

Get Ready Now

Tension mounted. Things became dramatically worse when Al Sharpton came to town. After him came Jesse Jackson. Both took to social media to keep pouring gasoline on the community, eager to ignite the race issue.

President Obama sensed — based on preliminary reports and other sources — that all hell was about to break loose in Ferguson. The protesting and tension mounted exponentially each hour as questions weren’t being answered and more videos and “witness statements” were being released on various social media sites. The National Guard was deployed to Ferguson and the Governor declared a State of Emergency.

It’s been several weeks since the incident and it should be mentioned that several somewhat similar incidents have occurred in that time. Most have received minimal attention in either social or mainstream media.

Why? Those police departments successfully used social media to get out crucial information pertaining to the shooting immediately after it occurred. The circumstances seemed understandable, and those communities did not react as did the community in Ferguson.

Social media can kill a department or save it. Ferguson provides a serious wake-up call for law enforcement, especially smaller agencies. The shooting itself continues to be investigated and hopefully we learn whether it was a good or bad shoot. Honestly, I’m not sure that will ever matter. A much larger looming issue was exposed. I strongly urge police to consider how they deal with critical incidents.

Social media fueled riots in Ferguson. Don’t be the agency that gets labeled “Another Ferguson.”

About the author
C. L. Swinney is a narcotics investigator currently residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has investigated hundreds of narcotics, homicide, gang, and Mexico cartel cases along the west coast of the United States, Mexico, and Canada. C. L. Swinney has been invited to speak at law enforcement conferences throughout the United States and is recognized as an expert in narcotics, homicides, and cell phone forensics. He supports teachers, parents, Law Enforcement, Doctors, Nurses, Firemen, American Troops, Juvenile Diabetes Research, and any other person who helps others.

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