Tweeting tragedy: Inside Dallas PD's social media strategies

Your town has an online community whether your department is a part of it or not. Why not take advantage of that to better engage your community?

Dallas police — and Chief David Brown in particular — have been making headlines the last few months for their unprecedented push towards social media. In February it was announced that Brown allegedly expected his officers to be tweeting at crime scenes and weeks later an elaborate social media strategy was unveiled.

Brown has stated from the beginning that his push for using social media was to convey transparency to his city — but is transparency coming at the expense of officer safety and privacy?  

22-year Dallas Police veteran and media relations unit commander Lt. Max Geron addressed many of the misconceptions that accompanied recent headlines.

Tweet At Your Discretion
Officers who are using social media platforms like Twitter to get the word out about police activity in Dallas are doing so voluntarily, said Geron. Sixty Dallas officers were trained on the policies and procedures of using Twitter and Facebook during a day-long training course.

Lauri Stevens — social media strategist for law enforcement — was brought on as a consultant to help define and draft a policy on best practices of using social media on behalf of Dallas police and also how to safeguard personal social profiles.

The idea is for police to get important information out to the community the way a news service would — only faster.

“We’re not posting inappropriate pictures or possible evidence at a crime scene — we’re taking the same photos news crews are, like squads parked at the location of the crime and a quick explanation of what is going on,” said Geron.

A tweet from a responding officer, for example, would read something like @DallasPD investigating shooting at 9th and Main Streets.

“It advises the public and the media what we’re doing. We’re trying to be as upfront and communicative as we can be.”

The images conjured up when you hear ‘tweeting at crime scenes’ are ludicrous — racing to the scene, exiting your patrol car, and ripping your smartphone from its holster. And that’s just what it is: ludicrous.

“Obviously [the responding officer] should stabilize any situation before the use of social media ever comes to mind,” said Geron. “We introduced the concept to our officers in a humorous way. You’re not going to be tweeting, ‘Shots fired, officer down! Hashtag still-shooting.’”

When the Boston Marathon bombings occurred last April, civilians turned to Twitter to get the word out about what was happening and where.

“It’s only natural for police to do the same thing. We’re using a medium the public has adopted to get the word out.

When asked if there was any fear that tweeting in high-intensity situations and in real-time might prove to be too candid, Geron responded, “There is always going to be misinformation during catastrophic events. That’s not going to change because of social media.” 

Like any training, social media strategy was practiced among the 60 volunteers in a non-urgent setting.

“You don’t want the first time you do [anything] to be in the line of operation, so we practiced with it, got them comfortable with using Twitter, so that — God forbid we have an incident — officers are better equipped to communicate information to citizens in a way that may be faster than traditional communication channels.”

Whether it’s as simple as street closures or damage or some other cause of delay or alerting the public of a dangerous area to avoid, Dallas police are prepared.

Three-Tiered Social Strategy
Tweeting is just the beginning. Dallas police also unveiled a Word Press blog that serves as a news website and a Pinterest page to recover stolen and lost property.

“The word press blog was a major point of our press conference,” said Geron. “Facebook delivers content only to a certain percentage of the community — and you couldn’t find search results on Google from a Facebook post.”

Community Affairs Manager Shawn Williams and Geron worked together to create the news blog, modeling it after Seattle PD’s own blog.

On Pinterest, Dallas PD posts photos and a short description of lost or stolen items for community members to reclaim. They can reclaim items with a receipt, photograph, or other proof of purchase.

Fighting the Opposition
With nearly 3,000 officers on the job at Dallas PD, opposition is anticipated.

“It’s a challenge whenever you change a culture. You try your best to get it right. Social media is called a disruptive technology, and it is. It’s changing how we function — not just in our department but within society. To think that it’s not disruptive would be naïve. In rolling this [program] out, we’re trying to be deliberate.

A headline that met much opposition from police nationwide was the news that Chief Brown was announcing his department firings via Twitter. But the reasoning behind the move was not for pure public ridicule.

“The city of Dallas provides no more information now than it ever did. In Texas, that information is a matter of public record,” explained Geron. “It used to be given to the media via written press releases, then it was released through e-mail, and now Twitter. We have historically always provided that information; it’s just changed with the evolution of technology.

A Word of Advice
The micro-blogging mega-resource Twitter will celebrate its eighth birthday this month, and with more than 500 million users, it’s going nowhere fast.

Every town and every police department has a social media community, whether the department is a part of that community or not, warns Geron.

“I encourage leaders to take advantage of that because it’s got its place as an effective means of communication. There are only so many good news stories [about police] that mainstream media is going to cover, and it’s a lot fewer stories than how many actually occur. Highlight your efforts and engage the community.”

Feedback from the Dallas community is most often encouraging and a survey conducted showed most people preferred being communicated to via email and social media. Reach out to your community through social media; you might be surprised what kind of reaction you receive, but expect some resistance.

“When you’re trying to innovate, expect there will be some mistakes,” advised Geron. “The important thing is to learn from them, change, adapt and improve what you’re doing.” 

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