Law enforcement on social media: Instant info or controlling the message?

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DENVER – Sure, we all get information from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

But a growing trend of law enforcement using social media to communicate with the public has led to growing concerns that they are not responding to questions from journalists or not being fully transparent with the public.

"I want to share some information with you, the citizens of Douglas County," said Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock in a January social media post following the deadly shooting of Dep. Zackari Parrish. The post included body cam video that had never been seen before, an edited version of the events that night.

That post represented a shift to some journalists and open government advocates, because several media outlets were denied access to the same body cam video until after the sheriff released his social media version.

When asked if it was an effort to control the message, the Sheriff replied: Yes.

"I controlled the message in the sense of... quantity of information was so important to make sure I got out to my community what had happened," said Spurlock. "I'm not going to be able to tell my community what happened in the one-minute thirty seconds or two minutes that I get in a news story."

Spurlock said social media has become the best way to directly communicate with the community, sharing information instantly and managing how the story is presented.

"I wanted them to hear from me what had happened and the sequence it happened and not get it twisted by someone else, a third party," said Spurlock. 

For many journalists, the social media post showing video that had been denied to news outlets under open records requests because of an "ongoing investigation" caught their attention.

"We have these laws about open records for a reason," said Kathleen Foody, an Associated Press reporter who has been reporting on the increase in law enforcement use of social media. "So that media and citizens can get information about what's happened."

Foody pointed out that officers dancing in viral videos was just the start of social media use by law enforcement, but recently in El Paso and Adams County, she pointed to examples of law enforcement directing journalists to social media and not taking questions in early press conferences. 

"In the moment, journalists also had questions about exactly what had happened, and there wasn't always an opportunity right away to ask those when you're getting information from Twitter or from Facebook," said Foody.

She found that nothing suggests the Douglas County post inaccurately portrays the shooting. In other cases of law enforcement using social media, there are questions about transparency.

In San Antonio, a newspaper discovered a police department promotional video featuring "real 911 calls" actually included a fake call.

"That's a pretty innocuous example, but it demonstrated the larger point of when the agency in charge of the information... they need to be really transparent of where it's coming from," said Foody. "The more agencies use these tools, I think, the more the public needs to expect of them. They need to ask, 'Are you telling us everything? Is this the whole story?'"

Meanwhile, the Denver Police Department said they are using social media as a tool to help the public, but also the media.

"It serves the media also," said Sonny Jackson, the Director of Communications for the Denver Police Department. "If we put out a picture of a missing person on Twitter then you're able to get it out on your platforms quicker, and it serves the public."

But many open government advocates are skeptical and watching.

Legal analyst David Beller said law enforcement has the right to keep certain information private and to tell their story, but it's up to the public to decide how much tolerance they have if that story is one-sided.

"It's happening across all branches of government, the effort to try to control the message, to control the narrative and do a run-around the media," said Beller.

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