As Seen on TV, Not

The Boston Globe’s editorialists stumbled upon our old pal Irony in this essay. They wrote that the NYPD doesn’t understand that social media do not work for top-down, press release-style uses. Doing so begs Bronx cheers from the fundamentally egalitarian communities created by info technology.  The Department got the opposite of the outcome they sought.  Point taken. But when they venture further out the editorialists, too, fall victim to Irony.

The opinionators unintentionally tell us more about their own prejudices toward police. They refer to images of police making arrests and subduing suspects “and other unflattering conduct.”

Well, unlike TV, arrests do not usually look heroic. We don’t have Alex O’Loughlin stripping off his shirt and making a balletic tackle of a heinous criminal on a Honolulu beach. The music does not come up alerting us to the presence of a bad guy and the imminent action of the good guys.  Observers of the arrest process don’t get the benefit of the 10 minutes of plot that preceded the encounter between suspect and police officer.  Real arrests are always messy.  Sometimes they look like street fights.  Many suspects, it seems, choose not to exercise the option to “come along quietly.” But it’s what we ask cops to do, to protect us.

You know, in the lens of this prejudice surgery on a real table would be “unflattering” to docs and nurses. Our guts are laid bare and the medics muck about in our blood to save our lives; there are usually no Sandra Oh sexy geniuses at work, with music once again guiding us to the right way to feel about the work. (I clearly watch too much TV). It’s messy, messy and messy again.

It’s worth noting, too, that arrests, like surgeries, are the result usually of a lot of upstream mistakes, sins and poor judgments by parents, other stewards and the individuals themselves. Collars and scalpels are often society’s last resorts.

So, we hope two institutions learn lessons here. The NYPD and all PDs will embrace the crowd sourcing/community policing opportunity that social media present.  Editorialists will examine their pre-judgments about the messy stuff society delegates.

Boston Globe Editorial: #myNYPD’s epic fail, 5/6/14

THE INSTANTANEOUS nature of Twitter ensures it will have a growing role in public safety. Boston police were early adopters, and used the social media platform particularly well in the immediate aftermath of the Marathon bombings. But when does a good thing become too much? When public officials try to tame what is an inherently uncontrollable communication form and shape it to their own ends.

That’s what happened in New York recently when police tried to use Twitter to boost their image. It almost never ends well when organizations use social media as part of a top-down PR effort — just Google “JP Morgan Twitter fail.” A hashtag can turn into a bashtag alarmingly fast, which is what happened to the #myNYPD campaign. It all began good-naturedly, of course: NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton decided to boost the department’s social media use in order to publicize positive cop stories. A detective came up with the idea of asking New Yorkers to post their photos posing with police officers in the city using #myNYPD. In no time, the campaign got out of control, as New Yorkers posted pictures allegedly showing cops arresting protesters, beating suspects, pepper-spraying people, and engaged in other unflattering conduct.

Both the beauty and curse of Twitter conversation threads is their unpredictable nature. That’s not to say that law enforcement should stay away from social media. The New York Times pointed to a recent study that showed how Twitter could lead to crime prevention through the prediction of crime patterns. The Boston Police Department (@BostonPolice) is often cited as an example in any discussion of best social media practices by law enforcement and has the largest number of Twitter followers (almost 300,000) among police departments in the country.

That’s because the BPD understands that when it comes to using social media for public safety it’s best to follow detective Joe Friday’s dictum: “Just the facts, ma’am.”



About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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