When cops are attacked with social media: eight lessons learned at G20

With the G20 in the city, eyes around the globe were on Toronto over the past week and just about everybody involved locally or from afar has something to say, and they did and continue to do so over Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The proliferation of social media platforms has give people greater ability to connect with others and publish their own content. And true to form, when it comes to social media in law enforcement, the SMILE pioneers at Toronto Police Service, are taking more than a few arrows in the back.

For the TPS, it didn’t start with G20.

Wind the clock back to May when 18 y.o. Junior Alexander Manon died while being pursued by police. The cops are unable to comment by law due to an independent investigation, but thousands of members of the court of public opinion say the cops killed him. The matter is under investigation by the civilian “Special Investigations Unit” (SIU). Meanwhile, several Facebook groups have surfaced as part of a campaign to blast the TPS, one with close to 21,000 members. It’s calling for rallies and for members to sign a petition.

The Toronto Police Association has called upon the SIU to release the findings of its investigation. The SIU has reportedly had the autopsy results for weeks. But they’re not acting and the TPS can’t do anything but take a very public beating in social media. The lives of the officers who work in the Division involved have literally been threatened and yet all they can do is wait for official results of the SIU investigation. A review of the members of the anti-police group on Facebook reveals that many TPS officers have joined the group, presumably to keep informed of the sentiments of the community.

Toronto Police’s Social Media Officer Scott Mills was encouraged by his commanders to post a comment indicating how to report to the police any information regarding the event. Mills has spent years building relationships through social media with the same citizens who are now joining forces against the TPS. Prior to becoming the force’s social media officer in April, he was a gang and youth officer and was highly and unusually effective at using social media tools to build relationships

Whether Mills’ hard work has truly vaporized is unlikely. Given that he built relationships, some very deep, with some of the same people who are now attacking TPS, he has that to call upon. It will be a long haul, “but we’ll do it, it’s going to take a lot of hard work”, said Mills.

The G20 is the same, but Different

Ahead of the G20 events, the TPS provided a “social media guide” and provided officers to monitor and engage in social media as part of its G20 strategy. Throughout the preceding week and over the weekend of the summit, TPS monitored and mined social media not only to engage with protesters and observers, but also to gain intelligence as to what those with criminal intent were up to. Here again, social media was used against the Toronto Police Service. But this time TPS can, and IS, using social media to engage and interact and in some cases, solidify support.

They [peaceful protestors] don’t understand for example, why they were boxed in by police during the event at Queen and Spadina. We had good reason to do that, because the same Black Bloc tactics that led to police cars burned and businesses vandalized the day before were being seen by officers and they decided to be safe rather than sorry.
~Constable Scott Mills

It will be a long time, if ever, anyone who was there or who followed it from miles away will forget the stories and the images from June 26th and 27th. It was a turbulent, violent and riotous weekend for the city of Toronto. TPS arrested approximately 900 people. A few of those arrested were journalists and many were peaceful protestors, a fact TPS acknowledges. “They don’t understand for example, why they were boxed in by police during the event at Queen and Spadina. We had good reason to do that, because the same Black Bloc tactics that led to police cars burned and businesses vandalized the day before were being seen by officers and they decided to be safe rather than sorry”, said Mills. To be sure, violent protesters were plentiful as well, such as those who identify with the beliefs of the Black Bloc ideology..

Several police cruisers were burned, in some case other cruisers’ windshields bashed in by protesters while the driver was still inside.

AS far as social media goes, TPS paid attention most particularly to Twitter. Mills said “my biggest challenge was volume” adding that he read and responded to upwards of 200 messages a day on Twitter alone, and wasn’t watching Facebook where copious negative (as well as positive) comments were coming in. He said, “it finally got to the point where members of the public asked us to remove from Facebook some of the bad comments from the anarchists”. Mills who staunchly believes in “letting the people speak” took the comments down but said “we split the page, so they’re still posting criticism but our message isn’t getting lost either”.

Over the weekend, TPS shut down its Facebook wall while they dealt with Twitter activity, “We never want to shut down the wall but we had to disengage it until we could monitor it 24/7 again. There will certainly be some best practices that come out of this” said Mills.

Tim and Scott are TPS social media trail blazers. Because of their great work I hope to expand our work with social media.
~Dep Chief Peter Sloly

Positive comments in support of TPS are equally plentiful. When TPS asked witnesses to send them information and images of Black Bloc activity, they received so much, Mills had to stop his media activity to spend a couple hours cleaning out his email inbox. On Tuesday (June 29th), at the request of Deputy Chief Peter Sloly, TPS made it easy for citizens to file a complaint against an officer by tweeting a link to the Office of Independent Police Review.

Mills said he and the other media officers at TPS are handling the situation by “continuing to put out the truth and answer as many questions as we can.” And it’s working, sometimes just one person at a time as with this exchange between the Chief and an Ontario man. But for the most part, it’s reinforcement of the right message and reassuring supporters that your agency is on top of its game. Overall, when reasonable citizens see the big picture of what went down and TPS handling of it and really study the communication online, TPS will gain favorable support. Deputy Chief Sloly is grateful the TPS had the services of Constable Scott Mills and Sergeant Tim Burrows as well as others. “Tim and Scott are TPS social media trail blazers. Because of their great work I hope to expand our work with social media.”

#G20 is over but the protests keep going

The members of the G20 have long since returned home and yet many angry people remained. Fifteen hundred of them gathered outside Toronto Police Headquarters on College Street on Monday night (June 28th). Mills was among them, tweeting. “When they found out who I was, they wouldn’t shake my hand… It was a peaceful protest but very hostile toward police.” And he took photos, which are now on the TPS Facebook page.

Some protesters are calling on Police Chief Blair to resign. But Blair defends the actions of his officers and credits social media for TPS’ intelligence gathering, as quoted in the Toronto Sun, “They got their picture taken, a lot,” he added. “They used Twitter and other social media to communicate their intent, we have those communications. So they are going to be held accountable for their actions.”

We can talk about idealism in social media all we want but the fact is that in police work there is danger and people can get hurt in real life. That will lead to very strong feelings and commentary whether it’s a protest in the streets or on Facebook.
~Lon Cohen

Lessons Learned

Social media (in its current state) is so new, everyone using it is learning along the way. It’s no different for cops. As Huffington Post and Mashable.com writer Lon Cohen commented when I asked him about TPS’ work in social media, law enforcement is also learning about how to deal with people through the social web. He added “We can talk about idealism in social media all we want but the fact is that in police work there is danger and people can get hurt in real life. That will lead to very strong feelings and commentary whether it’s a protest in the streets or on Facebook.”

  1. Social Media isn’t going away. And when it’s used to spread negative commentary about your agency, be ready. The best time to build your support system is before you need it. The worst strategy is not to have one.
  2. Dealing with crisis communications needs to be part of your social media strategy. TPS could have been even better prepared in the online world, but the fact that they produced a social media guide ahead of time and actively monitored social networks with a strategy in place, was remarkable. Ninety percent of what could happen can be predicted and planned for.
  3. Social Media is a highly valuable intelligence-gathering tool. As acknowledged by Chief Blair, the communications are valuable and discoverable and highly relevant to their ongoing investigations.
  4. A crisis is optimum opportunity for reputation management. “When the dust settles” TPS stands to gain ground with the citizens of Toronto for being responsive and engaging and abundantly sharing information.
  5. Don’t underestimate staffing requirements. You’ve heard it before, the tools are free but knowing how to use them and paying the people who do, costs money. Sometimes a significant amount.
  6. Engagement is king. TPS was ready to communicate and did so with anyone and everyone who engaged them. If instead, they used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest only to distribute and not receive, they would have missed a huge opportunity.
  7. Use social media for internal communication. If rank and file Toronto police officers also followed the TPS social media messages, TPS feels they would also benefited from receiving the info being put out to the public.
  8. Set expectations for officers re: photographs. Some disagreements arose when officers’ photos were taken even when the photographers were just tourists or onlookers. Not all officers at G20 understood that when in a public place, people taking their photographs for non-intelligence gathering reasons is o.k.

For the TPS The G20 is not over

The officers I’ve had contact with are shell-shocked, but they press on. The protests continue and the TPS continues to perform its duties and continues to try to improve communication with the citizenry.

  • Bruce Bleo

    LOL Scott Mills telling the truth????

    This is the guy that stated publicly on the TPS page that NO Agent Provocateurs were being used……as it happens footage now proves it was a blatent LIE!!

    Please don’t insult my intelligence….I have the pic of him saying this AND the vid of the black bloc Agent Provocateur mingling behind police lines with the plain clothed cops.

    Yeah SOCIAL MEDIA RULES!!! You can’t hide from the truth!!

  • Jeff


    I saw some officers do great work. I saw some officers do horrible things. I saw protesters peacefully communicating their messages. I saw protesters (black bloc) do horrible things. I’ve heard officers defend actions. I have heard officers express shame for police handling. I have heard protesters condemn the actions of the black bloc. I have heard protesters stories of being trampled, hit, and illegally detained.

    I think an impartial inquiry benefits all involved and will go a long way to restoring good relations and restoring trust.


  • Jody

    Police officers have disgraced this country over the weekend with brutal attacks on our civil liberties. We can only hope that those police officers responsible will be brought to justice. In some cases, jail sentences will be expected for the worst outbreaks of police violence this country has ever seen.

  • Kris Szopinski

    I think that the Police have no business trying to sell their propaganda to to us, while speding our money to do so. The behaviour during the G20 summit calls for a PUBLIC ENQUIRY. It seems that Chief Blair lost the public confidence and should take a leave of absence until an independent investigation to the Police behaviour is completed

  • http://www.crimsonphoenixphotograpy.com Michael Thibault

    Bruce Bleo: Could you please provide a link to this video footage and/or images to which you refer?

  • Mikki Zaplan

    You have to understand we aren’t all anarchists. Some of us are normal people, with normal jobs, and normal lives who were no where near Toronto last weekend, and we are disgusted with the actions of the police. There were no black bloc present at Queen and Spadina, people were denied their basic rights while in the detention center, and we the public have been constantly lied to by Police Chief Blair. The Public Works Protection Act only covered the area inside the security zone, yet it was used as a reason to search and detain people all over the city, even going as far as Cherry Beach. The weapons that Blair claimed were acquired from demonstrators were mostly from people who had nothing to do with the protests. A TTC fare collector in full uniform was arrested and detained for 36 hours. None of that was necessary. The police were on a major power trip, and used that to take advantage of the situation, arrest anyone they saw, use excessive force, and detain people without their legal rights to counsel or a phone call.
    Shame on you, Shame.

  • http://northernads.nabweekly.ca Amanda Walton

    You all do an outstanding job and sometimes seems so thankless, I appreciate all you do. I hope the SIU can get this report out so you and public can have needed answers. You have my total support in every division in every city. Peace and Stay Safe

  • Reverend Blair

    If the police did nothing wrong, then they should be among the most vocal in calling for an independent public inquiry. It would clear them of the allegations made against them in the social media.

    Such an inquiry needs to talk to all police involved; all protesters, bystanders, and media who wish to come forward; and members of the three levels of government. That should include members of the PMO, since it is likely that one or more PMO staff was micro-managing the ISU, as they do everything else.It also needs to hear from observers from groups such as Amnesty International and the CCLA.

    The inquiry needs to be held publicly, and those running it need to be appointed by a multi-party committee, not the Premier of Ontario or the Prime Minister of Canada. This is no time for partisan ass-covering.

    If there were abuses by police, and the stories, video and still pictures coming out certainly make it seem very likely that such abuses took place, then everyone from individual officers to the highest levels of government must be held legally responsible.

    If the police feel they are being “attacked” in the social media, then it would only make sense that they push for an opportunity to clear themselves. If they try to evade an open public inquiry, it just points to them trying to hide their abuses.

    • lauri26

      Hi Reverend Blair, Thank you for your comment. I just feel that I need to clarify that the words “attacked by social media” were mine and not those of anyone at the Toronto Police Service. Good luck to you, I wish you well. ~Lauri

  • Jonah H

    I watched the police beat women, fire ammunition at the elderly, gas children, threaten sexual assault, arrest hundreds of innoccent people and then torture them in prison. Any officer who woke up on Monday morning, knowing even the tiniest bit of the attrocities comitted over the weekend, and put on their uniform is complicit in the crimes of their fellow officers. And they will all be brought to justice. One way or another.

  • Paul Roberts

    From the article:
    “Mills said he and the other media officers at TPS are handling the situation by “continuing to put out the truth and answer as many questions as we can.” And it’s working, sometimes just one person at a time as with this exchange between the Chief and an Ontario man.”

    Yeah, right, the truth. Read the “testimonial” on the link. If we’re supposed to believe that someone did that kind of about-face after being told that he had aligned himself with the criminals who had attacked the officers, you must think we’re incredibly naive.
    Produce the “Ontario man” who said this or put this “Fake Testimonial” where you put the “Fake Weapons Exhibition” and the “Fake 5-Metre Rule”

  • Paul Roberts

    A public inquiry is not going to happen unless sufficient pressure is placed on the politicians. Facebook users can sign on to the following page:


  • Alex Long

    The police at the G20 summit overall did a terrible job of protecting our liberties and Charter-protected rights. Maybe a few were honourable, but as far as I could tell the vast majority were not. I witnessed police abuse throughout the afternoon and into the evening on Saturday June 26, where innocent people were picked from crowds of peaceful protestors and taken away. Many were violently beaten as they were dragged away. I witnessed one man with his back turned to the police, who was grabbed by the back of the neck, thrown face down on the pavement, 3 officers piled on top of him with their knees in his neck, back and legs. They bound his hands then picked him up by the legs and dragged his face across the pavement for about a meter, then the others picked him up and took him across the police line. I also witnessed police horses charge a crowd of people without warning. One girl was sitting and couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. She was trampled by the police horses, then dragged away by the police. I’m disgusted to be a Canadian after seeing how our police treated people this weekend. Upset after seeing these atrocities, I joined the protestors as we marched peacefully into the evening around the streets of Toronto (after having been driven out of the free speach zone). My group of people was eventually surrounded outside the Novotel hotel, and EVERYONE present was arrested simply for being there. I was in the film studio for 22 hours, never got to call for a lawyer and was never read my rights. Why are you police officers surprised that you’re getting angry comments from the public? Why are you even supporting each other? You all either watched these atrocities happen, or directly participated yourselves. You people make me sick, and I’ve lost any respect I once had for the police. You are robots who can’t be bothered to think for yourselves, and you have lost your humanity. Shame on you.

  • Robin

    I have to agree with lots here and say that the Toronto Police did a terrible job at the G20 Summit because they blatently disreguarded the rules of conduct and broke their own laws that they took an oath to uphold.If you look on Youtube,you can plainly see first hand the dirty work that the Toronto riot police committed against unarmed innocent protesters whom were excersing their rights to protest,man-handling & threatening female news hawks with rape,not to mention the supposed verbal & physical abuse they carried out at there supposed Guantanamo bay jail vacility.Now you tell me,is this the work of innocent officers ? I say HELL NO ! Pretty well,the actions that the Toronto riot police showed over last weekend was the same actions that were perpetrated by Extremists Ss nazis back in Ww2. So,in closing here,the cops are an utter Disgrace and they should all be fired

  • Bruce Bleo

    Michael…..the footage is from the now famous scary cop lady video that is now WELL seen by many.

    In the video you can CLEARLY see a black bloc running WITH the undercover cops including scary cop lady behind police lines NOT being detained and clearly mingling with the cops.

    Google is your friend

    Ah never mind here is the link check it out…..this is a BIG question mark hanging over the TPS


  • Jenny

    Of COURSE the public responded to calls to identify people engaged in vandalism: 99.9% of people promoting their social causes were not committing crimes. The few that did need to be arrested and charged with those crimes. HOWEVER – the need for the public to police those vandals because our law enforcement offers were ordered to stay away is criminal in itself. We say to the officers, what were your orders? And turn over your unaltered videos/photos for public review – what are you scared of if you truly believe their was no widespread abuse of power?

  • Jamie

    Here is a link to the video Bruce shared with the camera slowed down for the few seconds that the person who is seemingly a cop dressed as a black block guy is in the frame:

    This and other stories (eg. here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5G7aCgXtWg) make people very worried about the police following the law, and as other writers have pointed out Chief Blair’s misdirection does not help police credibility.

    If I were a cop, I would be demanding an inquiry louder than anyone else. Either there’s nothing to fear, or law-breaking, politicized elements in the force will be rooted out. Either way the average cop who follows orders will be in less danger of being in a position of being forced to act against the constitution of our country, as well as less danger of receiving the anger of outraged citizens.

  • http://www.eoghan.org.uk/ Eoghan O’Neill

    Great piece. I agree wholeheartedly with almost everything you said – one quibble is that I’m not sure that engaging with EVERYTHING is necessarily the right tactic as police-related issues arouse such strong opinions, that some people will never be swayed and it would be easy to get into unwinnable arguments. This article has some thoughts which I think are quite relevant: http://smallbiztrends.com/2010/03/when-to-respond-to-negative-reviews-and-not.html

    Thanks for the retweet, by the way!