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.”