Law Enforcement working as Journalists

Mark Economou

Mark Economou

Mark Economou is the Public Information Manager for the Boca Raton Police Department in Boca Raton, Florida. A big part of the work he does for Boca Raton Police is managing the department’s social media presence.

When I started out in media nearly 20 years ago, the relationship with law enforcement was much different than it is today.  Mind you, twenty years ago was only 1990, but the Internet was just starting to catch on. While serving as Executive Editor at WPRI-TV in Providence, RI, we were the first station in the state to get a webpage for news.  It was as rudimentary as could be.  Some simple html code and a place to cut and paste news stories.  But still, we had a presence on this new thing called the World Wide Web.

There were no Google searches and not many web pages to browse.  When we wanted information about a story we were working, local law enforcement didn’t have a webpage to click on or Social Media to communicate through.  We had to work for our story, dig, investigate, and contact sources.  Many times we had to physically go to the police station to get a police report, or knock on doors in the neighborhood to get information from neighbors.

Now that has all changed.  The media continues to downsize, older, veteran reporters with a knack for investigating are being laid-off because they make too much money. They are being replaced with younger, less seasoned journalists who can’t take the time to “investigate” a story.  Instead they turn to the Internet as their first stop.  Law enforcement public information officers have recognized this new reality and in a time of “transparency,” are starting to embrace the internet as an easy and convenient tool to post information.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and I find myself on the opposite side of the camera now.  As Public Information Manager for the Boca Raton Police Department we are diving head first into Social Media and Web 2.0.  While we consider ourselves one of the leaders in this new venture, we are not alone.  Law enforcement agencies from around the country are jumping on board, informing the public and media with platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Nixle.  From Boston, to Boca Raton, from Scottsdale to Milwaukee, police departments are tweeting out press releases, writing blogs and posting recent activity on their websites. Some, like us, are even producing video segments to upload to their websites and You Tube.

How is this changing the way the media covers stories?  While I can’t speak for every department out there, I see an interesting trend developing.  Crimes that the media used to call about or show up to before police could even secure the scene are going unnoticed by the media.  They are finding out about it from us after we post it to our website and Tweet it out.  Many media outlets follow us on Nixle and Twitter and call as soon as we put out a story.

I say story, because here in Boca Raton we have taken it one step further. We don’t just release the police report; we write our own story and post it to our website. Even more interesting, we are finding the media is just cutting and pasting our stories to their sites, both in television and print.  They might change the headline, but they put the story we wrote on their site.  While the media is asking questions on some higher profile cases, many are being posted and printed as is.  It seems like a complete 180, as law enforcement used to try and avoid the media, we now find ourselves becoming the media.

Social media and improved technology (hardware and software) have made it easier for us to help the media tell the story and/or creatively communicate information directly to the public when it won’t get picked up otherwise.  Social media will never replace traditional media.  It’s just exciting to see that we now have dynamic tools which offer another layer.

  • Massimo Bergamini

    Interesting post Mark. I would add an observation and a question based on my own communications practice:

    1. In addition to its role in the dissemination of PR information, social and online media contributes to manistream media’s (MM)growing reliance on what it used to dismiss as PR bumph, because it places greater time pressures on reproters who now have to file in real-time on a variety of online platforms in addition to filing (sometime fresh takes) in their traditional medium.

    2. It seems to me that using social media (SM) platforms for dissemination of public relations material, is generally well understood. I would suggets that it is also a fairly safe practice that does not maximize the power of social media. What would change the relationship and actually create a community of interest between citizens, mainstream media and the police would be to empower police officers (in certain situations) to share real-time information, be it photos, video or text through the appropriate SM platforms. Is this something that you have or would consider, and what are your thought on such a practice?

  • Lauri Stevens

    Massimo, Look into the Bellevue Police Department in Nebraska. They have roughly a dozen officers who tweet photos and short videos on occasion. Often from the scene of arrests such as DUI etc. @bellevuepolice on Twitter.

    I’m sure Mark will be along with a comment as well.

  • Massimo Bergamini

    Thanks Lauri. Do you know if they meet with evidentiary or civil liberties concerns from the local DA’s or legal community?

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