Last Friday as news broke that an officer had been charged with assault in connection with the violent takedown of Dorian Barton on June 26, 2010, the official police twitter feed was sending out photos from a welcome-home ceremony at Pearson Airport for some cops returning from a police mentoring mission in Afghanistan.
On the Sunday night of the G20 weekend, Constable Scott Mills was experiencing technical difficulties. As the force’s designated social media officer, it was Mills’ turn to man the official Toronto Police Twitter feed, but he was distracted by a full email inbox that needed to be cleared to make way for evidence being emailed in from the public to the Integrated Security Unit. Mills says he tried his best to answer the questions and criticisms that were starting to stream in, but he just couldn’t do it alone.
Ever the optimist, Mills notes one positive thing that emerged from the G20 chaos: “It showed the police world the importance and urgency of getting a social media policy in place.”
But can social media help usher in new paradigms in police-civilian relations, or is the force just replicating their old style with the new media?
Officially labelled as the Toronto Police Service’s social media officer, Mills was put into his corporate communications job two months before the summit took over the downtown streets. Mills is 20-year veteran policeman, until last summer he’d always been a cop about town, a man involved in the community. He began using social media in his work around 2005 when he was within the community policing unit at 14 Division, then with Crime Stoppers Toronto before starting his current role. He’s still the social media advisor to the IT committee of Crime Stoppers International.
The fact that the Toronto Police force has a designated social media officer and are in the midst of developing an organization-wide policy for social media use isn’t exactly ground-breaking. The internet has burrowed itself deep into our daily experience, and tweeting has become quotidian—stories about tweeting maybe even more so.
And, of course, the police aren’t the only ones out there using Twitter; the bad guys are on it too. Policing efforts have to focus on social media networks just to catch criminals and prevent crime. And the city’s police use social media just like you’d think they would: to catch bad guys, to prevent crime, and to promote themselves.
Though some activists and academics take issue with the cops using social media for PR, the fact remains that concerted PR efforts can lead to more positive relationships with the communities that cops are working in. The kind of work cops do (interview strangers, ask for tips from the public, approach angry people) is way easier to do when people like you.
Mills is a likable guy. He wants to talk about his job, he wants to talk about how social media can be used for crime prevention, and he wants to tell us about the cases he’s been working on. He talks passionately and at length about all this (not to mention often), but when we press him to talk about the G20, he has to pull back. Mills has things to say about that. About what it was like working out of the corporate communications office over the weekend, and about how he and his fellow officers are feeling one year later, after all the backlash. But he can’t.
“It’s gotta be other people than me speaking for the organization,” he says.
And that, right there, is the crux of the problem for a monolith institution that props up the rules and codes that dictate our version of civilization using social media: where social media and the open internet portend an era of transparency, some organizations aren’t ready to be so open, and maybe never will be.
Police forces, especially great big police forces like Toronto’s, have fairly sophisticated corporate communications operations. They have sworn officers whose full-time job is fielding calls from reporters all day, confirming whether such-and-such report of gunshots is true or elaborating on something heard on the police scanner in the newsroom. Those media relations officers are part of an elaborate series of filters that traditionally transported information from the source of the action, through authorized knowers like public relations workers, into the hands of the professional press corps, who would then package it for public consumption. But the thing about social media, the thing that keeps proving itself (with wiener tweets from politicians and viral videos of crazy cat ladies) is most of those filters break down. Information can be transmitted directly, and quickly, to the general public. And those old barriers that distanced the public from the information are breaking down.
How many non-journalists would think to call the police’s media relations office if they had a question for the cops? There’s nothing really to stop them from calling, saying they’re reporters, and asking. But something about that feels wrong; it feels off-limits. But would anyone hesitate to tweet @TorontoPolice? As Mills later said in a public presentation on the police media strategy over G20 weekend, there were enough officers dealing with requests from traditional media, but only one guy on social media. Only one guy dealing with the public.
Mills is an active proponent of using social media to build relationships with the public to help police do their job. He has a waiting list for Facebook friends (since the site limits individuals to 5,000), mosly kids he built relationships with in his time as a school officer with Crime Stoppers. And he says social media increased anonymous tips to Crime Stoppers from 300 a month to over 1,000 a month over a two-year period. He’s even made presentations about law enforcement using social media for crime prevention at INTERPOL. So Deputy Chief of Police Peter Sloly brought together a team, including Mills and professional social media strategists to help build a social media strategy for the whole force. Though they’ve yet to develop a formal policy, Mills says he hopes one will be in place by the end of the summer. But there are some kinks to work out.
Privacy is a main concern for the police. What information should be shared with the public? Where is the line between an officer’s personal life and private life? Are re-tweets an endorsement? They’re the same quandaries faced by any large organization trying to both harness the power of social media and mitigate the risks.
“I’m fairly open in public, and I feel that leads to an increased trust, an increased flow of information, and an increased transparency. Other people are of the opinion that they want to keep their personal lives totally separate. So we’re working towards the balance. I really think we’re getting there. It might not look it from the outside looking in,” Mills laughs. “But we are getting there.”
Vocal police critics don’t have much faith that they will get there. According to Kate Milberry, an activist academic and postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, the nimble, conversational nature of social media presents a challenge for lumbering institutions.
“My main criticism is that it’s window dressing, simply using social media to parrot a line,” says Milberry. She posits that the police are so bad at using social media because “the internet is a technology of the people, more so than any earlier technologies. “It’s a people’s tool; it’s not a tool of social control, and it’s not a tool of economic exploitation.”
Milberry says the Toronto Police Services’ use of social media falls too far toward the more traditional paradigm of an older media broadcast style rather than using tools like Twitter to engage in a dialogue. In fact, she hashed out what she says is the hashtag-fail of the Toronto Police social media strategy over the G20 weekend at a recent NXNEi panel discussion, alongside veteran police tweeter Tim Burrows.
Over the course of his 12-hour shift on Sunday night of the G20, Mills did manage to make a connection, which became an ongoing dialogue and resulted in a combined effort.
“Somebody had tweeted something to effect of, ‘eff you @TorontoPolice. I’m blocking you the same way you blocked my civil liberties,’” Paisley Rae told us. She retweeted the sentiment, but before she had a chance to block the police’s twitter account, she got a response from them. An apology. And a question: can we talk this out?
“I wish more people would have had that opportunity, because it made me feel better,” says Rae. Both Mills and Rae admit the conversations they’ve had since the G20 have changed their perspectives. So when George Wass was killed in Parkdale, Rae’s neighbourhood, Mills asked her to make a video about it. She’s since made other videos in conjunction with the police, most recently for an effort to find a missing little girl, Pearl, who was last seen in Parkdale. Rae isn’t paid for this work. She is a freelance social media content creator and strategist. In an email she tells us, “I’m just trying to be a good neighbour.”
Social media enables police to do work that is exciting, yes, but it’s also essential. As we may marvel at the foresight and ingenuity that is Scott Mills scurrying from club to club in the entertainment district, checking in on FourSquare, and attaching a composite sketch of a suspected sex offender that was seen in the area, and applaud the Toronto Police force for their attempts to harness these tools to do the good work of catching bad guys, we have to keep in mind that the bad guys know how to use Twitter too, simultaneously developing new ways to break the law. The entire law enforcement machine is on a grand metaphoric chase, trailing behind pirates and hackers and e-predators.
As Mills tells it, he first understood the necessity of using social media in his police work while working a homicide case in 2005. Investigators found a clue scrawled on a billiards room bathroom wall, a hint at who might have been involved, identified by screen name. The street crimes unit went to work, and they tracked down the guy, but if you subtract the internet details, that’s really just a story about the police doing its job.
The internet enables the police to do better police work, and maybe that’s all we should expect. The mere existence of Twitter cannot make quick work of dismantling the blue wall of silence that has built up over decades. For all the wonders of social media in the world of marketing and journalism and running for president, it may not be up to the task of satisfying the rabble’s demands of transparency from organizations—whether it’s the police, the military, or the government—that watch over our society. Organizations have made a habit of shouting “You can’t handle the truth!” and leaving it at that, so what’s to stop them from tweeting it?
For complete G20 retrospective coverage, go to One Year Later.