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Considering this week’s events in Ferguson, Missouri, isn’t it smartest for the public to tweet more real-time police activity in some emergencies, not less?


spdA coalition of local law enforcement agencies, including the Seattle Police Department, recently put out a public plea that seemed tough to argue with.

“Seattle-area law enforcement agencies are asking you to ‘Tweet Smart’ during emergencies, to help public safety responders keep you safe,” the statement said.

Reading it over, I recognized what’s become a familiar call for mindfulness in a chaotic information environment.

But the more I thought about it, the more I worried.

What if this call for caution discourages people from doing something crucial — sharing what powerful public officials are doing in the public square?

There’s no question that mindfulness is in short supply in social media. People post things that are irresponsible or otherwise damaging to themselves or others all the time. There are good reasons to think about what you post and good reasons to spread that advice as far and wide as possible.

But this is the police, a public agency that serves us by enforcing laws and occasionally using force to uphold them. A public agency, in other words, that holds tremendous power over the public.

Because of that power, we can’t just smile and nod and let this call for mindfulness sink in unquestioned. We have to scrutinize the reasons behind this plea and protect as tightly as we can our most powerful check on any public agency’s authority — our speech.

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I’ll go one step further, and maybe you’ll think it’s too far: When any entity that holds power over us encourages us to limit our expression for any reason, it is probably better for us to err on the side of expressing more than it would want than less.

I’m showing my journalist’s bias here, but I like to think it’s a citizen’s bias, too. We in the fourth estate have a thing for anything that enables and encourages public voices. We believe the benefits of expression — unrestrained expression ‚ far outweigh the risks.

But it’s no good, either, to dismiss this as some instance of The Man asking The People to sit down and shut up. This is a careful, thoughtful statement — conscious, I think, of how its message informs a necessarily prickly police/public relationship.

So let’s look at a couple things that the law enforcement agencies’ statement doesn’t say.

It does not give any specific instance in which a social media post resulted in either harm to a police officer or damage to an investigation. It only insists on the possibility. Here:

“Sooner or later we’ll have an emergency where the suspect is watching social media. That could allow an offender to escape, or possibly even cost an officer their life.”

Here:

“We watched these incidents [in Moncton, New Brunswick and Portland, Oregon] as they unfolded on social media. In both cases, there was real-time information posted by individuals that could have compromised officer safety.”

And here:

Don’t tweet or post about the movements of police, or post pictures of officers. Even what seems like vague information could be used by a criminal familiar with the area.

Of course it’s possible that information shared in real-time about law enforcement activities can empower the criminal and endanger the officer. No one wants that.

It’s true, too, that the police are not saying that we should hold back from posting photos or observations of police activity at all, but only that we shouldn’t post them while dangerous things are happening.

I’d argue that the diminished social value of posting something after it’s already happened makes any discouragement of sharing in the moment a discouragement of sharing, period. But still, this is an important distinction.

“If it’s safe to do so, go ahead and take pictures of our deputies in action,” Kitsap County Sheriff Steve Boyer says in the statement. “We’re very proud of the work they do. We’d simply ask that you wait to post those pictures until the emergency is over.”

If all that mattered during a police incident or investigation was that incident or investigation, then there’d be little reason to ever post real-time messages about police activity.

But the public is not only a character in every police drama, but also a stakeholder and — ideally — a watchdog.

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All the time.

When something is happening, and law enforcement officers are reacting, we have the right to share what we see when we see it — and use our own best judgment to exercise that power.

Things could go wrong. But they have gone right.

During the 2009 manhunt of Lakewood, Wash., police shooter Maurice Clemmons, Seattleites were scared. Neighbors gave each other peace of mind by sharing what they saw, where, and where danger seemed to be headed, in real time. All that buzz drew attention to the effort, resulting in hundreds of tips to police from all over and a sense of unity that brought the city together in support of our officers.

Social media posts have produced important conversations about police excess, too, like this YouTube video of that UC Davis pepper-spraying cop.

Maybe a protest doesn’t always qualify as an emergency, but if someone equipped with a smartphone could have seen from a safe vantage point how unarmed black teenager Michael Brown met the officer whose gun would end up killing him in Ferguson, Missouri, on Saturday, sparking protests and intense national coverage, wouldn’t we have wanted him to share it the second it was happening?

And now that the events in Ferguson are escalating to disturbing levels, with confrontations between police and protesters resembling military engagements and professional journalists getting arrested for documenting events, isn’t it obvious that the “smart” thing for the public to do in this emergency is to tweet a lot more police activity in real time, not less? 

I can’t blame the agencies for pleading restraint from a newly vocal, often reckless public whose unpredictability means officers have to do their jobs with more caution than they’d like.

And I applaud the statement’s calls for thoughtful, safe sharing. Stupid rumors and heroics help no one, and the wildly inaccurate tweets of police scanner traffic during the Boston Marathon bomber manhunt in 2012 showed in the biggest way yet how much the public has to learn about sharing police activity responsibly.

But social media have given us an ability we should exercise and do everything we can to protect.

Which brings us to the most important thing the police’s statement does not say. It does not say you’d get in trouble for sharing police activity done in a public space. That’s because you won’t. No law exists to restrict it.

Hopefully, no law ever will.

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