Jennifer Seeley was glued to her phone, safe at home but terrified nonetheless.
There was an active shooter at the Texas mall where he works as an assistant store manager. And she was desperate for information, praying. Was the bomber dead? Did her associates die? What was happening?
As law enforcement in the city of Allen, Dallas, slowly released information that terrible afternoon on May 6, she turned to social media for answers, came across videos showing the bodies of some of the eight dead. She desperately texted her co-workers.
“That’s where all my information I’ve seen on Twitter comes from. And you know, no one has really released any information about what really happened,” he says now, almost two weeks later.
The shooting at Allen Premium Outlets this month is being discussed by public information officers across the country. They say social media has sped things up. Now anyone can post photos from their phone. This means that if the police do not talk, reporters and the public will simply go online, as was the case with Allen.
And that’s a serious problem, says Katie Nelson, social media and public relations coordinator for the Mountain View Police Department in northern California. Nelson teaches about crisis management and social media best practices. And these days, as he says when it comes to answering, “the luxury of time doesn’t exist.”
THE APPROACH OF THE POLICE HAS CHANGED
Police began using social media a decade ago, most famously after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The four-day manhunt ended with the police tweeting: “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is over. The terror is over. And justice has prevailed. Suspect in custody.”
It was groundbreaking at the time, says Yael Bar Tur, a police communications consultant and former NYPD social media director. Now, he says, this is the basic level expected from law enforcement.
“It’s not enough to be on social media, you have to be good at it,” he says. “Ultimately, you know, we have to use this tool because if you don’t, it will be used against you.”
In Allen, the mall shooting happened around 3:30 p.m. Allen Police sent out their first tweet around 4:20 p.m., simply announcing that police were at the mall and that they were investigating. Seeley was still concerned that her associates at the Crocs store were hiding and the gunman was still on the loose.
At around 7 p.m., Allen Police said the officer had “neutralized the threat.” That meant he was dead. But the often-used term can be confusing to the public, says Julie Parker, a former radio journalist and law enforcement officer who now advises government agencies on how to respond to critical incidents.
“Normal people who don’t work in law enforcement don’t know what neutralized means,” says Parker.
Moreover, the initial press conferences were short and infrequent. One lasted less than two minutes and the police asked no questions.
Eventually, she learned that her co-workers had survived, but among the dead was a bodyguard she knew. A few days earlier, twenty-year-old Christian LaCour had helped start a client’s car.
“Very anxiety-inducing,” Seeley said of the whole experience.
USE THE BEST SOCIAL MEDIA
Getting the most out of social media – and fast – was on everyone’s mind last week as public information officers gathered for the International Association of Police Chiefs’ mid-year conference.
“You had a little more time to get information five or six years ago. It wasn’t expected to be immediate, and I think it is now,” says Sarah Boyd, who is a board member of the association’s public communications group.
She says her colleagues often text each other to discuss how to communicate after tragedies. She has a responsibility; he is well aware that the messages the police tweet during a mass shooting can be read by someone hiding from the shooter.
“All they have is a phone, and this tweet is their lifeline,” says Boyd, a former newspaper reporter. He is currently the Clay County, Missouri, public relations manager for the Kansas City area sheriff’s office.
This latest group of public information officers, who like Boyd are far more likely to be former reporters than in the past, also clamor for a seat at the table as officers plan how to respond to mass incidents and police shootings.
They note that the flow of information can go both ways, generating clues from the public, who may have a cell phone or doorbell video that can help investigators.
However, this can be difficult as police across the country struggle to regain public trust in the aftermath of the George Floyd attack the 2020 killings and the protests that followed. Multiple factors – for example, is the suspect still at large? — play a role in what can be released. And even if the suspect is killed, the investigation is not over; Law enforcement still needs to determine whether the shooter acted alone, says Alex del Carmen, associate dean of the criminology department at Tarleton State University in Texas.
Mistakes after mass shooting in Uvaldewhen law enforcement has released variable and sometimes conflicting information, it shows how important it is to get the details right.
“People were just scratching their heads on the second or third day,” says del Carmen. However, he has sympathy for officers who are faced with communicating the unimaginable; whole careers can be defined by moments like this.
THE EXAMPLE OF QUICK INFORMATION
Most national police forces are small and there are huge differences in what each state allows them to release. For example, in Missouri, 911 recordings are off-limits to the public.
However, the audience itself has no such limitations.
After a man killed 10 people at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado in March 2021, a part-time freelance journalist went live on his YouTube channel even before the arrival of the officers. The effect can be immediate – and for the authorities, downright staggering.
“We’re sharing information faster than ever before,” says Dionne Waugh, Boulder Police Public Information Officer. He says, given the speed of social media, he simply has no choice.
In the media rush, each victim’s family was assigned their own Public Information Officer. All along, what was going on hit Waugh personally; among the victims was police officer Eric Talley, a friend who was killed in a rush to the store.
Although she described the experience as “life-changing” and “terrible”, she conducted training in the years that followed. He hopes that re-experiencing will help others.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after Nashville Police Department spokesman Don Aaron asked her to speak with him that he learned that there was a mass shooting involved. In Marchthe shooter killed three children and three adults in March at a Christian school in his town before being shot dead by police.
Police the tweets were quick. The first reported that the shooter was dead. Surveillance video was released ahead of the 10 p.m. evening news. The body camera footage surfaced the next morning, in line with the department’s policy of releasing such videos quickly. The stream of information was fast, continuous, and generally accurate.
“When we made the decision to slow down the body camera for police shooting situations, I told some of my colleagues around the country, especially when it started, that I was flying the jet trying not to crash it,” says Aaron, a 32-year veteran of the police force. “And so far it hasn’t crashed.”