Officer Safety When the Public Uses Social Media in a Crisis

This blog series highlights some of the top Social Media Beat posts from the last couple years. For more information about IACP’s Center for Social Media visit the project webpage. This post was originally published on Monday, June 29, 2015.

Guest Blogger: Billy Grogan, Chief of Police, Dunwoody, Georgia, Police Department

Right at this moment while you are reading this post, a police department somewhere across the country is dealing with a crisis.  These crises vary in length, public awareness, outcome and many other factors.  You may never hear about some and others may be on the news for days, weeks or even months.  They involve murder, rape, assault, kidnapping, barricaded suspects, manhunts and many other crimes and tragedies.  Although they can be very dissimilar, they do have one factor in common.  The public taking photos and videos of the incidents and posting the information to their social media channels can put officers at risk.

In 2014, agencies in the Seattle, Washington area asked citizens to Tweet Smart and used the hashtag #TweetSmart.  They asked their community to not post information, photos or video on social media showing the movement, location or tactics being used by police officers during police incidents where the information could possibly put officers at risk.  The agencies also were concerned that citizens might put themselves at risk trying to get that information for social media.  Of course the real fear is suspects may be monitoring social media and get information and use that information to hurt police officers.

In 2011 in Ogden, Utah, that actually happened.  A suspect was barricaded in a hotel and had a hostage.  The suspect was updating his Facebook page during the standoff and was told the police were right outside his window.  Officers were definitely put at risk.  Fortunately, no officers were injured.

It seems like this issue pops up from time to time in various communities across the country after they have a crisis.  Recently, the Evansville Police Department was engaged in a 13 hour standoff.  There were a lot of people watching the event unfold posting photos and videos on social media.  Thankfully, no officers were injured as a result of this action.  However, the department spoke out afterwards about the danger of citizens posting information about real-time events that may put officer’s lives at risk.

Rather than wait for a crisis, law enforcement agencies should take a proactive approach and address this issue periodically before experiencing a critical incident.  When you are in the middle of one of these incidents it can be extremely difficult to control what the public is putting on social media.  Although it could still happen, your agency will have a much better chance of mitigating this activity if you have made a concentrated effort to educate your community about this dangerous activity.  Let’s all #TweetSmart!

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