Police use of social media to deliver news raises concerns

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 …read more

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