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On a recent rainy afternoon at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, 150 cops from as far away as Australia are getting chewed out by one of their own. “A riot can go from zero to 150 with one Tweet,” says Toronto training constable Nathan Dayler. A veteran of both the G-20 riots and Occupy demonstrations, Dayler has had more experience than most policing the Twittersphere. “You can’t let tension just simmer on social media,” he says. “That’s not an option.”
Tweets, hash tags, and netiquette are the subjects of the day at the fifth installment of Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement (SMILE). A kind of boot camp for police departments training up on social media, the conference broaches issues as diverse as mining Facebook for open-source intelligence to getting the most out of your 140 characters on Twitter.
“There’s such a big gap between where law enforcement is and what they can achieve with these tools,” says Lauri Stevens, who started SMILE in 2010 and has 14,895 followers on Twitter (@lawscomm). The rare expert equally at home discussing perps and pingbacks, Stevens, 50, began her career in the 1980s as a journalist in Boston, walking the beat with police, paramedics and fire officials. She later chaired an interactive media department at a local college, becoming an early social-media convert.
Cops, she realized, need Facebook and Twitter at least as much as text-obsessed millennials. “I saw a real need for first responders of all kinds to do a better job getting the word out,” she says. The SMILE conference-as well as a blog called ConnectedCOPS and a booming media consulting practice-grew out of her efforts to get departments up to speed online. “They’re very good at telling people what to do, but they’re not always good at listening,” she says. “Too few of them understand the benefit of true online engagement.” A tool like Twitter, she says, enables police to gather evidence and gauge public sentiment while pushing out targeted messaging of their own. But few departments take full advantage.
The hot topic at this year’s SMILE is social media and public disorder. “We used to think of all this social media as pink-and-frilly stuff,” says Scottish deputy chief constable Gordon Scobbie, who’s delivering the keynote speech to a crowd of nearly 200 attendees. “Not anymore. You cannot police a public event without social media.” Burly, with fierce eyebrows, Scobbie directs social-media strategy for police across the U.K. He’s bullish on Twitter.
“There’s so much open-source information out there; it’s a free gift,” he says. In a rich brogue, Scobbie, also 50, dissects how Twitter can be used for covert surveillance, how it offers a real-time way to dialogue with antagonists, and how mapping features can pinpoint rabble-rousers. But he closes his address with a caveat: “Don’t try to set up your network while bricks are flying and cars are burning. It’s not going to happen.”
Burning cars should sound familiar. Among local experts at the conference is Const. Anne Longley, social-media officer for the VPD’s community and public affairs section. Longley, whose business card has a QR code, was Tweeting up a storm the night of the 2011 Stanley Cup riot.
Between presentations, we sit down next to a buffet table stocked with double-fudge cookies and mini bagels. Longley, who’s been on the force since 1991, became the department’s first social-media officer in 2010; she launched its official Twitter account, @VancouverPD, in December 2010. She had never Tweeted before. “I was like, ‘Facebook, yeah, I know that. But what’s this Twitter thing?’ ” Now she has 23,268 followers and spends two to three hours a day tracking social media. Her Tuesday Traffic Tests (“How many days do you have to change address on your BC Driver’s License if you’ve moved?”) are widely re-Tweeted.
Game 7 against Boston was a tough night at the keyboard. Only hours before, @VancouverPD Tweeted optimistically, “There are hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, but we’re ready.” During Game 6, social-media messaging had focused partly on a fun contest to give away a ride-along in a patrol car. When the city started burning, the department was caught off-guard, not just in the streets but on the Net.
“Were we prepared for the amount of information coming to us on social media? Absolutely not,” Longley says. “Within 20 minutes I had people on Twitter asking me where to send photos.” The department played catch-up as its Twitter following ballooned from 10,000 to 15,000 in a single week, and thousands of tips and photos flooded in.
After the conference, when attendees have retreated for drinks, I find Scobbie huddled with another U.K. official, having a tete-à-tete on social-media strategy for the upcoming London Olympics. He pauses just long enough to offer a few tips to Canadian counterparts as playoff hockey heats up once again this year.
“If there’s any learning to take out of the Vancouver riots, it’s that you’ve got to start the social-media conversation early,” he says. “You have to make it clear to people what behaviour you expect and what the consequence will be if they cross the line.”
Even that, however, may be wishful thinking. Amid the mountains of virtual rubble left from the riot is this Tweet from @VancouverPD, dated five days before Game 7. “Drinking in public: $230. Peeing in public: $230. Watching a playoff game with thousands of new friends: priceless.”