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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
If you were anywhere near the television on September 20, 2016, you remember the unsettling sights of the riots in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2016, many cities were addressing officer-involved shootings and on the heels of the Philando Castile shooting in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, the Keith Lamont Scott shooting put Charlotte in the national spotlight. What changed, you might ask?
Prior to 2016, social media was not a huge factor for police. While some investigative units were using the well-known media platforms to look up pictures and associates, we were not “managing” social media. We, like most agencies, didn’t look at it as the tool that it quickly became to galvanize people and spread potentially false narratives that would eventually lead to thousands of angry protestors from across the country marching down the streets of Charlotte.
Prior to 2016, police shootings across the country primarily impacted the community where they occurred. What was happening underneath, which would soon come to a boil, was that the sheer number of controversial shootings had grown and those cases like the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, were starting to affect all law enforcement and not just those where the incident occurred.
On September 20, 2016, family members, friends, activists, and antipolice groups all took to social media going live and asking people to meet at certain locations—and much to our surprise, the people came. We were not aware of the number of on-scene videos going live or the rhetoric and misinformation that was going viral. By day two, thousands of people were marching, rioting, looting, and blocking intersections and highways.
How do you get control of a narrative that now was spiraling out of control with everyone’s personal story? In a nutshell, you can’t. We did what most agencies at that time were doing: We did press conferences and tried to combat misinformation that by now had been circulating and was being added to for hours. Press conferences take time to schedule and get all the appropriate people together and with the correct information. By the time our first official press conference aired, it was more than 24 hours after the shooting. As far as the protestors were concerned, the stories that were on social media were true. They did not believe anything we had to say at this point as the social media genre operate in the “right now.” Once a certain time has passed, you have lost them.
Most police departments do not operate in the “right now” when it comes to information as we all know how quickly information changes and if you put it out there too soon without verifying the facts and have to change or retract, you have lost your credibility—a double-edged sword. Nothing (other than maybe spaceships) travels faster than information on social media, so what to do?
We began using our internal resources, which were small at the time and consisted of automated search tools to search sites for patterns, hash-tags, phrases, etc. to see if we could get ahead of the information while at the same time trying to dispel the rumors and false information that had spread like wildfire. It was a major undertaking, and we didn’t have a way to pull all the information in from various social media platforms without searching each individual handle. Then there was the challenge of “going dark,” where once these groups learn you are searching their sites, they tighten their privacy restrictions. Add to this lawsuits from various organizations, and media platforms have strengthened their security and access restrictions, which makes it hard to access their information even with modern technology.
We quickly learned that we as police were going to have to move into an area that is not our comfort zone. To keep up with ever-changing methods of communication, we were going to have to put our focus on technology and social media and answer the question of how do we tell our story? Even after purchasing new age web crawler technology, we still needed the human element. We now have a staff that uses this technology to monitor all the major sites and look for anything that involves the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to determine if we need someone to respond or make contact with someone. We increased our website presence; we began using Twitter and Instagram along with Facebook. We hired former journalists to tell our story through videos; we put together constructive conversation teams so that they can hit the streets when major incidents occur that may draw crowds and begin to answer questions on the scene.
We changed how we do business in the world of social media. Some may say now we have to be experts in social media; the answer to that is police may not need to be the actual expert but as technology evolves and community members use social media as their local and national information platform, we in law enforcement must evolve as well.
What does this mean for law enforcement? Buckle up, the spaceship has taken off at rocket speed. Information and technology will become the driving force in law enforcement. Those who have it will constantly need to update and evaluate their technology. Those without sufficient technology may one day find themselves on the rocket looking at the stars while the moon is in control.
Assistant Chief of Police
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department
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