Home > Communication, Safety, Social media > Social media’s power to transform policing

Social media’s power to transform policing

Ferguson Prosecutor Bob McCulloch shared surprising words about social media when announcing Officer Darren Wilson’s non-indictment for killing Michael Brown.

Stated McCulloch, “The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about, following closely behind with the non-stop rumors on social media.”

His words surprised me at the time. “That’s the challenge in all this? Really?” I wondered whether he was deluded or his words were part of some bizarre but considered strategy toward an objective I couldn’t quite discern.

Since McCulloch’s bizarre press conference, I’ve followed the aftermath of several killings by U.S. police officers; in 2014 alone, there have been more than 1,000. I’ve paid special attention to those where the person killed was a person of color, in which I’m discovering police and media narratives almost uniformly draw on any past misdeed to characterize the deceased as career criminals who must have wrought his own death by antagonizing or threatening the police.

I still wasn’t totally clear about McCulloch’s purpose until I watched unfold the aftermath of 18-year-old Antonio Martin’s death by police shooting minutes before Christmas Eve. I awakened in the early hours of Christmas Eve and watched search4swag’s social media coverage, which began while Antonio was alive and continued well after he died without medical attention at least 30 minutes later. I followed #AntonioMartin for hours before falling into troubled sleep. Since Antonio was killed at a gas station, I anticipated later illumination via any of the many video cameras on site, for the Berkeley Police Department promised to soon release video footage.

It did release footage it claimed showed Antonio raised a gun to the officer, and in which Berkeley’s mayor expressed his confidence. Others did not share his confidence for many reasons:

  • Of 31 cameras present at the station, including four located just feet away from where Antonio was killed, the Berkeley Police Department offered only grainy footage from three cameras. The other 28 cameras, including those four just feet away, somehow failed to record any portion of the incident.
  • What little was revealed by the three cameras that alone captured any portion of the killing provided more questions than answers; while Antonio can be seen raising his hand in the distance before the longest video cuts off, it’s not clear he’s holding a gun in his hand. There are many things Antonio could have held up toward the officer, including–for example–a cell phone.
  • In another miss that feels most convenient in light of total circumstance, neither the officer’s body cam nor his dashcam were turned on to capture the shooting or the conversation preceding it.
  • The limited footage shows Antonio walking with a friend, who bolted as shots were fired. Antonio’s friend hasn’t yet come forward, which would be surprising if his account mirrored the official one. My concern when comparing the official footage released with social media footage, in a national landscape making increasingly clear that police officers can kill without so much as an indictment … even when, for example, video clearly records the killing by use of methods long prohibited by the relevant police department. On a local level, it’s easy to imagine Antonio’s friend not wanting to be the fifth young Black man killed by St. Louis police officers since August.

Do I know for certain what happened in the moments before Antonio was shot? No. Do I have sinking suspicions that what happened could vary from the official account? Absolutely. This suspicion is not acontextual but illuminated by recent police killings where the police account was later revealed as false by video footage distributed via social media. See, e.g., Tamir Rice and Darrien Hunt, as well as this commentary.

I’ve spent countless hours reading and comparing official accounts of police-involved killings with all accounts available since McCulloch’s strange press conference. McCulloch’s words no longer befuddle, but reflect what I perceive as evidence of growing pains within United States police departments.

Prior to social media enabling citizens to aggregate and share more comprehensive data than news outlets alone ever could, the police accounting of an officer-involved shooting was apt to be the only widely available accounting. This worked well for police while it lasted, but didn’t promote advancement of justice in all cases.

Now, social media enables rapid transfer of data and thought. This can lead to erroneous “information” being conveyed, but it also leads to rapid data transfer enabling people to see data supporting not only the official account but also alternative, sometimes credible ones. Police departments, seemingly unsure how to adapt to this changed information landscape, protest social media accountings as only rumors or speculation as if they can enduringly discredit the entirety of social media to their benefit.

That can work in the short term, when the officially advanced statement is what the wider public will by and large recall. But it’s my sense that this “social media is bad and wrong!” approach will fail as a long term strategy, with time and the flow of not officially endorsed data revealing more troubling discrepancies between official and other–including video documented–accounts.

Police credibility takes a hit every time there’s a variance between an official account and data revealing otherwise. The message in the discovered variances feels, uncomfortably, like police departments will protect their own at any cost, including the cost of other’s–especially minority–lives.

I perceive right now a powerful opportunity for police departments everywhere to effect change from within before it’s demanded from without. Rather than waiting until grown public outrage demands change, police departments can begin to shift now from (i) ensuring official accounts of officer-involved killings benefit officers involved (and castigating those who point to holes in such accounts) to acknowledging potential officer mistakes or missteps and (ii) incorporating those into official accounts.

They can, for example:

  • Partner with their communities to recognize things that could have been done better and strive to ensure they’re actually done better in the future
  • Take steps like requiring dash and body cams be not only present but always on, with penalties for any lapses in camera coverage
  • Take measures to ensure appropriate department procedures are (i) defined and (ii) consistently followed during and after altercations, without potentially police beneficial deviation
  • They can incorporate civilian oversight and engage in challenging but productive dialogue with the public.

It’s through fostering this accountability based partnership–not decrying social media or antagonizing officials elected to represent the public–that I believe police departments will thrive and flourish with full public support.

Until then, many uncomfortable questions will undermine confidence in police: What else might police departments potentially conceal to protect not the public but themselves?

And, more importantly: Who else must die before that changes?

  1. December 27, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Reblogged this on malibehiribae.

  2. December 27, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    Add this refysal to be held accountable to the recent extensive militarization of the police (and other non-military government departments) and the picture becomes plain scary. When will enough be enough? And when it is enough … what will we do?

    • December 27, 2014 at 4:43 pm

      That is exactly my question. I hope we don’t get there, though I fear based on recent reading we’ve gone too long treating officers of the law as outside it.

      (Some of the pictures and videos I’ve seen the last few months were terrifying even before NYPD officers turned their back on Mayor de Blasio today. In conjunction with some officers’ assertions they’re not going to work so hard to protect people who don’t capitulate unquestioning to their demands, the implications are terrifying.)

      • December 27, 2014 at 4:53 pm

        Have you ever read “It Can’t Happen Here”, by Sinclair Lewis? Frankly not his most gripping piece of writing – it lacked the humanity of “Babbit” – but certainly one of the most frightening I have ever read.

    • July 10, 2016 at 6:18 am

      Last night, I watched peaceful protestors in several cities be “attended” by heavily militarized police departments. One protest had a couple of drones. How is it that so much more is invested in threatening and controlling citizens than in ensuring citizens have the resources to flourish on the front end?

      I am so disturbed by this march toward militarization, which is not remotely, IMO, about protecting civilians.

      • July 10, 2016 at 7:33 pm

        So … have you read “It Can’t Happen Here”? Because … it can.

  3. December 28, 2014 at 7:23 am

    Excellent (but unfortunate) post! Very detailed and thought-provoking. You provide us all with a very important read. Thank you, Catie

  4. December 28, 2014 at 8:26 am

    There is a historical arch that can speak to anyone with the will to see. It should cause us to consider the the marriage of economics and power with the perceived loss of authority; it is a horrifying mix. Structural and institutional racism while an immense part and certainly the most visible part of this nations problem, is only part of it. The racism was built in the moment this nation agreed to slavery, the moment this first Europeans killed the first indigenous people without regard to their right to existence; none of these things were done due to racism per se, but rather due to manifest destiny, power, economics … when you strip what truly separates us it becomes more clarifying.

    Any person who does not understand the historical points and how we can never stop this until we insure economic freedom, access to education, access to employment and a true voice in the public square (democracy) doesn’t really understand the arch of our history.

    As you always do Deb, this was beautifully and sensitively written as only you can do.

  5. December 28, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Excellent points. The police should certainly have our, the public’s best interest in mind, and it’s hard to come to terms with how much reform may be needed to get to the point where “the public” applies to everyone in our country, not just a certain demographic.

    I think that social media can have a tremendously positive impact in increasing accountability (or at least awareness). That said, we also have to be careful to parse the information that’s going viral. I know I’ve inadvertently spread misinformation before because I saw something shared a lot and assumed it was true, only to later find that it was not exactly true.

    Thank you for this thoughtful and well-researched and presented post. I feel like I’m reading a news site, seriously.

  6. August 8, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Great article, and I’m so happy you made you public so I could read it. (I don’t know how I missed it back in December. )

    You express an important point, which is so many police reports do not agree with what actually happened, and now as we see, what is recorded. Before Rodney King, people in many communities knew that police reports were not true. Now we have video, and if police officers are charged, they are usually acquitted.

    Thanks again for an excellent post.

    • August 8, 2015 at 8:18 am

      Thank you for inspiring me to revisit it, and wonder why the heck I’d made–and left!–it public. I’m so grateful for your articulate, incisive articles keeping me thinking and evolving in my thinking.

      When I first started blogging, I was terrified of posting something that might later prove untrue. Now I see waiting for perfection is a sure way to ensure nothing (including understanding) changes.

      I feel ashamed when I look back at myself a year ago and see how much I didn’t understand. Of course, I can’t change that … but I can sure as heck work to change now.

  1. August 8, 2015 at 7:59 am
  2. July 7, 2016 at 5:53 am
  3. July 12, 2016 at 5:58 am
  4. July 31, 2016 at 6:22 am
  5. September 20, 2016 at 8:06 pm
  6. December 2, 2016 at 12:53 pm
  7. December 24, 2016 at 7:10 am
  8. June 16, 2017 at 1:01 pm

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