DENVER — It opens with a warning: This video contains footage from real police body cameras. Viewer discretion is advised.
Then, an introduction: “I would like you to hear from me, what happened,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock says, facing the camera.
The next eight minutes provide a carefully edited glimpse of the events that led to a 29-year-old deputy’s Dec. 31 death inside an apartment complex south of Denver.
The video posted Jan. 8 on the department’s social media accounts is punctuated by gunshots and shouts of panic and pain, and undoubtedly illustrates the danger Deputy Zack Parrish and other officers met during that call. Open government advocates also consider it a dramatic example of law enforcement agencies’ expanding efforts to release their own accounts of events to the public and media.
There’s nothing wrong with police communicating through social media, open government advocates said. But they worry it allows law enforcement to bypass questions from traditional media and warn that taking advantage of the tools requires agencies to be completely transparent, whatever the situation.
In Colorado, Parrish was among three deputies in three counties shot dead while on duty in barely more than a month. The calls that preceded the killings varied — a mentally ill veteran, a reported fight and a stolen car investigation. But the departments took similar approaches, relying on their social media accounts to release information and giving news outlets limited opportunity to ask questions about what happened.
Police have made use of social media for years, from viral videos of officers’ dance-offs with kids to the Boston Police Department’s extensive use of Twitter following the 2013 marathon bombing.
Agencies are eager to cut the middleman and tell their own stories, said Lauri Stevens, a former TV news reporter who founded an annual conference in 2010 that teaches departments about promoting themselves on social media.
“It’s not any less valid than any media, in this day and age,” she said.
Stevens said many agencies are getting better at connecting with residents on routine days, sharing updates and knocking down rumours during high-profile incidents.
Sgt. William Hutchison, Palm Springs police spokesman, presented at Stevens’ conference last year about his agency’s communications strategy after two officers were shot dead in 2016. Looking back, Hutchison said he would have posted even more information directly to Facebook and Twitter.
Hutchison said he doesn’t view social accounts as a way to avoid traditional media, and complimented local coverage of the officers’ killings.
“More people watch the news than the number of people who watch us, and you’ve got to maintain that relationship,” he said. “But law enforcement is becoming more skilled and has (our) own platform now that we didn’t have before.”
But that takes a staff capable of providing regular updates as they balance other responsibilities, a challenge for smaller departments on any day.
Sheriff Howard Sills leads rural Georgia’s Putnam County agency, which has no full-time communications staff. He became the primary spokesman during a June manhunt for two inmates accused of killing two prison guards on a transfer bus.
Sills provided …read more