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4 things LE should do on social media during an active shooter incident

Every police agency should include a social media communications policy in its active shooter response protocols to ensure timely delivery of information


Law enforcement can use the power of social media to serve people what they crave in a crisis: information.


This article originally appeared in the November 8, 2018, PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Policy under #MeToo | No shave November | Crisis comms protocol, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

A synagogue, a church, a newsroom, nightclubs, shopping malls, grocery stores and schools are just some of the locations where active shooters have committed unspeakable acts of horror. Just as law enforcement continues to train to enhance tactical response to active shooters, it must also train on how to best share information with the public during such incidents.

High-profile, high-stress incidents naturally strike fear and concern among people located closest to the event. Whether they live or work near the crime scene, know someone who does, or are potential victims themselves and hiding from the shooter, they need and deserve to know what’s happening and what to do if the violence directly impacts them.

Law enforcement agencies can ensure timely delivery of information by following these four steps:

1. Post basic facts and any necessary calls for action

Once the active threat is confirmed through the appropriate internal channels, the PIO or social media specialist should use a social media platform – ideally Twitter – to share basic facts that will not change, and issue any calls for action.

  • Tweet information like: “We are responding to the report of a shooter at Brown Library at First and Main Streets.”
  • A call for action could be to the public at large such as “Please stay away from anywhere near First and Main Streets.” A call for action could also be directed to those inside a building in which someone is shooting such as, “If you are inside Brown Library, shelter in place.” Guidance from your SWAT or Emergency Response Team may help with these instructions to avoid further casualties.
  • Indicate whether there is a threat to the public. If so, urge people to stay indoors, away from doors and windows, or whatever guidance you want to give.

2. Indicate where media should stage

Reporters will help amplify your message and you want them, ideally, in one central location that provides the PIO access to both the media and to the scene to facilitate the sharing of information.

Using Twitter to tell reporters where to go is imperative as it will be virtually impossible to respond to multiple calls, including multiple calls from a single newsroom in some cases.

3. Don’t risk your agency’s credibility by trying to tell too much too soon

The number of casualties, the status of the suspect, and whether or how many officers are injured very often changes as an event breaks. Don’t box yourself in. General statements are acceptable early in a crisis such as “Multiple injuries at the scene” or “Multiple injuries, some critical” if you have confirmed this to be true. The numbers and conditions of patients are often wrong in the beginning and, in the case of fatalities, you don’t want to be in the position of saying there were more casualties than there were.

4. Maintain communications

Continue to use social media to inform the public until the incident is over. This includes what you are telling the media. Don’t rely on the media alone to tell your story. When the incident is over, ensure you share that the suspect is in custody, the building or location has been cleared, and any other pertinent details.

Top tip

When the media shares law enforcement’s message during a crisis, your story gets spread exponentially. As Twitter is the platform most journalists use both for breaking news and to gather news in times of calm, it is beneficial for law enforcement to have a Twitter presence.


It is imperative that officers or deputies sworn to serve and protect remember that doesn’t always mean running toward danger – sometimes it means using the power of social media to serve people what they crave in a crisis: information.

Julie Parker has a unique and extensive background in television and radio news, media relations and crisis communications, having served as both an Emmy award-winning TV news reporter, the media relations director for two of our nation’s largest police departments and as a senior media advisor for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. She guides for-profit, nonprofit and government organizations as part of the communications consultancy she founded in 2014. Among Julie’s most noteworthy accomplishments was directing the public information strategy for a county government serving a diverse population of 1.1 million people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2011, Julie left the world of general assignment reporting for a greater challenge: serving as director of the Media Relations Bureaus for the Fairfax County and Prince George’s County Police Departments. Both law enforcement agencies are among the top 40 largest in the nation. For seven years, she served as the principal communications advisor to the chief of police and other executive command staff and was responsible for key messages, media strategy and the management of and strategy behind robust social media operations. The Washington Post highlighted Julie’s success with social media in this article.

Julie calls upon her 20 years in police media relations and broadcast news during her various projects with the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Mobile Education Team, regular speaking appearances at the FBI National Academy, and law enforcement and social media conferences. Additionally, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing invited Ms. Parker to provide written testimony on technology and social media. Connect with Julie on Twitter at @JulieParkerComm and LinkedIn.