When cops are attacked with social media: eight lessons learned at G20
by Lauri Stevens
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.
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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.