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After the #myNYPD "Bash Tag": How and Why Police Should Continue to Engage Online

BY Alejandro Alves | Wednesday, April 23 2014

A Twitter collage of trending #myNYPD photos (credit: Twitter screenshot)

Yesterday the New York City Police Department asked Twitter users to share pictures of themselves with police officers, using the hashtag #myNYPD. Overnight, the solicitation created a social media reaction quite opposite of what the Department intended. There are lessons to be learned from what media outlets are calling a major misstep – the “bash tag” backfire – but one hopes the lesson is not that police should shutter their accounts and shy away from public engagement online.

Police departments, in the modern age of fast-paced and widespread media, have tended toward reticence in their online communications. The NYPD has been particularly hesitant, until recently, to embrace social media, neglecting to claim control over their Facebook page until 2012, and still maintaining a very centralized and depersonalized Twitter account (see counter-examples by departments in Boston, Dallas, Toronto, among others). The latent social media animosity unleashed by #myNYPD may be a product of this historically ‘high-walled’ institutional approach to the online arena.

Certainly the tone of the backlash – allegations of misconduct, laced with racial undertones – is not unique to one city, yet the extent to which it is being voiced online seems, for now, unique to one department. Community disenfranchisement and tensions with law enforcement are longstanding topics of study (and not the focus of this article); but, those factors aside, the reaction may be particularly pronounced because of this department’s past approach to the online community. Where social media gives everyone a voice, the #myNYPD trend gave everyone a platform and an audience, and those most eager to speak up are, unsurprisingly, the same who have felt the most frustration in the past over a lack of communication and understanding between the Department and the communities it serves.

It also should be said that the nature of the request – ‘post your pictures with police, use our hashtag!’ – has the makings of a commercial gimmick, and could illicit at best a cynical response. The broad request seems to serve no other purpose than positive branding. The true value of social media, particularly to an agency charged with public service, is the potential for genuine and natural engagement. Police departments can do better than the type of traditional branding you’d expect from McDonalds or JPMorgan.

That is not to say that police departments cannot turn to social media to promote what they perceive as positive messaging. But the NYPD should take a much more targeted approach – one guiding the conversation towards the purpose of improving their connection with the community. “Were you at our latest community event? Share your pictures.” “Do you know a recent police academy graduate? Help us congratulate them.” “Have you been on a ride-along? Tweet about it.” The broad nature of #myNYPD created space for open expressions of frustration and anger. This may clear the air, but it cannot be a long term approach.

The Department, and others interested in the developing relationship between police and community online, should see this moment as a growing pain of eliminating barriers to communication. As the walls come down and the initial outbursts of pent frustrations subside, the stage can be cleared for more productive dialogue between police and community – a legitimate and valuable goal for all parties. Police leaders should recognize this, and not be discouraged by the unfolding #myNYPD backlash. Public leaders, as well, should recognize this opportunity for greater and more productive direct engagement with their police, and not let it go to waste.

In that sense, what we have seen yesterday and today is familiar territory in the history of law enforcement. The community policing movement – born in earnest out of the 1980s and today considered a successful and progressive criminal justice development – saw similar obstacles at the outset. Community leaders were hesitant about embracing a greater police presence, and police themselves questioned what seemed a fundamental change in their profession. Those obstacles were overcome with time. Social media presents similar obstacles to overcome, but it would be a shame for this incident to halt that progress.

The Department should not hide from this, but should acknowledge and learn from the feedback, and move forward. The timing, ironically, could not be better. Bill Bratton, despite a previous tenure as Commissioner in New York, is still in the early days of his current assignment. Though he cannot simply place blame on previous leadership, he is at least in a position to say that new leadership is observing, listening, learning, and ready to chart a renewed path towards genuine public engagement.

Alejandro Alves is a 2012 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, whose graduate work included a review of the New York City Police Department’s social media strategies. He recently co-authored, with Commissioner Ed Davis, and UCLA Professor David A. Sklansky, a National Institute of Justice Report on the Boston Police Department’s use of social media immediately following the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013.