The Seattle Police Department (SPD) announced last month that it is asking Seattle citizenry to “Tweet Smart” during police activity.
Despite the name, “Tweet Smart” actually applies to all social-media sharing, it said. The request means, “Please don’t tweet about the movements of responding police officers or post pictures,” said Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste in the press release. “Sooner or later, we’ll have an emergency where the suspect is watching social media. That could allow an offender to escape or possibly even cost an officer their life.”
The request was prompted by recent events where information was being posted in real time that “could have compromised officer safety” — “could have” being the key words there.
The Seattle Police Department already has an uphill battle with its image. Asking people to limit their freedom of speech is not a good way to improve it.
It is true that, during breaking news, misinformation can spread around social media like wildfire. We saw this locally when initial reports said there were two active shooters at Seattle Pacific University, rather than the sole perpetrator.
But the likelihood of a criminal stopping to check Twitter to see if he can get a leg up on law enforcement seems slim to none. Only in the case of a stakeout or sting would that even be plausible. In those special cases, SPD could request a delay on social sharing.
And social media is as much a way for citizens to be a watchdog as it is an information-dissemination channel. Like columnist Monica Guzman said on Geekwire, when an agency with a lot of power is asking for limited speech, “it is probably better for us to err on the side of expressing more than it would want than less.” Besides, as The Seattle Times noted, how would the police enforce it? Take Smartphones away from all journalists and engaged citizens alike?
It is important to keep our officers safe and minimize the amount of misinformation on social media during criminal events. As Guzman wrote, “Stupid rumors and heroics help no one.”
In our profession, old news is no news. And with the fast-paced, social-media world, once an event is over, no one will care about the photo or tweet you delayed in honor of the “Tweet Smart” campaign.
In exchange of the “Tweet Smart” campaign, we say “Tweet Better.” Don’t tweet misinformation, stay out of danger and don’t get in the police’s way. But by all means, use your freedom of speech to share information and be a watchdog on our police force. After all, the Department of Justice confirmed, it needs it.