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A screenshot shows Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, SPD’s public affairs director, in the Twitch online video game “Destiny” during a broadcast after a police-involved shooting in June. (YouTube screenshot)

In the midst of the giant PAX West gaming convention in Seattle this past weekend, one panel dedicated its conversation to not playing games. More specifically, the discussion on Monday centered around the Seattle Police Department and its short-lived use of Twitch to stream games that were mixed with dialogue on department and community matters.

“Eyes Up, Guardians. The Police Were on Twitch” featured a panel of Seattle journalists, including myself, and tech-minded individuals with an eye on the increasingly popular world of game streaming.

Members of SPD’s communications department, on the channel FuzzFeed206, had been streaming weekly conversations for several months while playing the popular alien-fighting game “Destiny.” The effort was aimed at increasing transparency and outreach to a community of younger people who may not necessarily interact with the police through traditional means.

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, SPD’s public affairs director, suspended use of the channel indefinitely in June after backlash over a broadcast in which he discussed the police shooting death of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant mother. Whitcomb was originally slated to moderate the PAX panel, but backed out over the weekend out of respect for the Lyles family and the ongoing police investigation.

PAX panel
Participants in a PAX West panel discussion about the Seattle Police Department’s use of Twitch.

James Feore, assistant director of the Seattle Online Broadcasters Association, led Monday’s discussion in front of a group of about 40 PAX attendees. Feore said that SPD, which had previously discussed a range of topics, from favorite donuts to legal marijuana, ran into trouble by using the casual gaming environment to address something as serious and emotional as an officer-involved shooting.

“Certain discussions need to have a certain limit,” said Nick Hunt-Walker, a software development instructor at Code Fellows. “Twitch, while being great for playing ‘Pokemon’ and streaming other games, isn’t necessarily the place to talk about things like police brutality and shooting people.”

Freelance journalist Tobias Coughlin-Bogue, who has written about SPD’s use of Twitch for Crosscut, said he thinks maybe it was a little early for that type of discussion on Twitch.

“Ten years ago if you were to tweet about a police shooting, people would have been outraged that you were using such a frivolous method of communication as Twitter,” Coughlin-Bogue said. “Now, if you didn’t tweet, they would be up in arms … ‘Why are the police hiding information from us?’ So, maybe it’ll be another 10 years before Twitch is seen as a place for that kid of topic.”

Panelists agreed that “Destiny” and whether Whitcomb’s avatar didn’t draw a weapon wasn’t really the issue — Whitcomb could have been playing “Minecraft” and viewers would have still been upset by the platform being used. But does that mean the police shouldn’t be streaming online at all, whether it’s on Twitch or YouTube or elsewhere? Not entirely.

The PAX panel offered up a few possible solutions about what might work going forward for Whitcomb’s team and SPD — if they returned to Twitch — as they continue to strive for transparency and unique methods of outreach:

  • Edit for sensitivity: Until there is a greater acceptance of Twitch and streaming/gaming platforms as a legitimate form of communication for police or any agency of a similar nature, better choices need to be made about which topics are suitable for broadcast. While the goal is to dispense information and answer questions, that objective is lost on a broader audience that doesn’t yet accept Twitch as just any other medium. SPD could stick to tutorials on how to drive in the snow or best ways to report car prowls, etc., but avoid altogether cases involving a death or excessive violence such as sexual assault.
  • Broaden the voices: Perhaps hearing about the police from only the police isn’t enough. Inviting other community leaders or folks of varied racial or socioeconomic backgrounds into a discussion would lend a greater balance to the effort. If the aim is to humanize police and connect with a wider range of people, then involve more “real” people.
  • Change the format to suit the topic: It is possible to stream on Twitch without doing so in a game format. Obviously SPD is trying to attract an audience, and young people are attracted to streams in which they watch people play video games. But plenty of viewers would tune into a talk-show style stream showing Whitcomb and his team members outside of the game, not as avatars, discussing sensitive topics in a professional setting when the subject matter called for that sort of reverence.

Citing the charged atmosphere around more serious incidences of police involvement, Hunt-Walker said there also has to be some respect paid to the many decades of history tied to some of those incidences, especially police brutality.

“It’s great if the police want to be more accessible,” Hunt-Walker said. “I fully applaud that and I fully applaud transparency. But there are certain things that have a lot of weight and need to be handled as if they have a lot of weight.”

Watch a complete Twitch stream of the PAX West panel discussion, here.

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