The Seattle Police Department is ending its use of the Twitch online video game streaming service as a form of community outreach, after a backlash over a broadcast this week that included discussion of the officer-involved shooting death of a mother of four.
The FuzzFeed206 handle on Twitch had been up and running since January, and was managed by Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, SPD’s public affairs director, and others in SPD’s communications department. The group’s goal in live-streaming 30-minute episodes of the first-person shooter game “Destiny” was to get in front of an audience that may not connect with SPD through other channels.
On Wednesday, Whitcomb’s broadcast was dedicated to providing more department insight and information about the Sunday shooting of Charleena Lyles, the 30-year-old pregnant Seattle woman who was killed by two officers after she confronted them with a knife when they responded to a burglary call at her home.
But negative reaction about SPD’s use of a video-game platform as a forum to discuss a shooting death was swift on social media, and late Thursday night the video of the streaming episode was gone and Friday the FuzzFeed206 channel was suspended and no new content will be produced.
“Any time there is a crisis in trust and damage to community relationships, that is the wrong time to shut down, but a time to engage and a time to listen,” Whitcomb told GeekWire Friday morning. “We’re certainly listening and hearing what people have said on other social platforms about this feed. So that is one reason why we are suspending it. Any good that can come of this would be neutralized by any additional pain it might cause.”
Whitcomb said the decision to stop using Twitch was made by his team and was not directed by SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole or Mayor Ed Murray’s office.
The conversation in Wednesday’s video was intended to provide a summary of information to date regarding the shooting of Lyles. Whitcomb, who normally plays alongside Det. Patrick Michaud, a public information officer, and senior communications manager Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, was in the game by himself because he said it’s “less noisy” that way. The decision was made to not engage in any game play and Whitcomb’s avatar, VesperBat, is seen just walking around, not blasting aliens.
“This episode is going to be a little on the heavier side because of recent incidents here in Seattle,” Whitcomb said at the start of the stream.
But the nuance of not actually shooting anything in the game was lost on those upset simply by the fact that it was a video game and a large gun can be seen strapped to the back of Whitcomb’s character.
“I wouldn’t have done the stream knowing that it caused a lot of hurt,” said Whitcomb, who has been with the department for 22 years, the last eight as head of public affairs. “But at the same time the question has to be asked, ‘What are the merits of this channel if you’re not going to talk about the things people most want to hear about?’ It just seemed really phony to not talk about the most significant and certainly one of the most tragic events in our city in years, on a stream that exists in a public space.”
Whitcomb and his team did not rush into the use of Twitch and the launch of FuzzFeed206 earlier this year. They regarded it, like any communications on other channels such as the SPD Blotter blog or SPD Twitter feed, as a serious, in-depth, strategic conversation, he said.
“The conversations we had on the front end before moving forward recognized that this is a video and there is video game violence and we are a society that often wrestles with violence,” Whitcomb said. “We weighed that against the understanding that without any judgement, this is where people are spending a lot of time and this is where there’s a lot of community.”
Whitcomb said that in any given week, the game conversations were dictated by events that are current and socially relevant.
“On our library we’ve got conversations about demonstrations; whether or not the federal government is going to crack down on marijuana; what it means to be undocumented in Seattle and what people can expect from us; the heroin epidemic; homelessness; gun violence. This is our third officer-involved shooting that we’ve talked about on this channel. So the question was, if this was going to have any value it would really need to be driven by transparency and access and not PR. And the format was always intended to act as just one more sounding board during any given time, whether it’s a time of celebration or a time of deep and profound grief and anger over a police incident.”
The audience wasn’t huge. FuzzFeed206 had about 250 subscribers on Twitch and another 50 on YouTube. The hope was to build an audience and a library and allow people to revisit older material.
“This was always meant to be an informal space, and this isn’t government trying to be hip,” Whitcomb said. “This is just time spent in an unconventional space dealing with people we might never have contact with.”
With the end of FuzzFeed206 and the department’s use of Twitch, Whitcomb shared his regret that the experiment turned out the way it did.
“This was never done maliciously or to cause hurt,” he said. “This was meant to answer questions and share information and be accountable.”
The June 21 video has been privatized but those who wish to see it can do so through the records-request process, Whitcomb said. Previous FuzzFeed206 videos can still be viewed on Twitch and on YouTube.