APD resorts to social media for public connections, bypassing news media

APD logo and art courtesy of NMPBS

By Jacob Leyba and Sarene Clayton / NM News Port

The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) has adopted an extensive  social media plan to connect with the community, in part to build community trust per reforms mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Journalists and community watchdogs are reacting with concern.

“It can be intimidating sometimes for people to go directly to a police officer, so social media is allowing people to interact with the Department in different ways,” said Celine Ezpinoza, the Communications and Community Outreach Director for APD.

Espinoza said the department is furthering its transparency via social media, and that transparency helps in developing more trust.

Albuquerque Police Department spokeswoman Celina Espinoza explains APD’s social media policy to a UNM journalism class, February 27, 2017. (Photo by Michael Marcotte / NM News Port)

A journalist for New Mexico in Depth who has investigated APD for most of his career, Jeff Proctor is skeptical.

“My job as a journalist is to stand in for the public,” Proctor said. “The police department has made major controversial announcements through YouTube, rather than holding a press conference. In doing so they have shut the journalist out of the room and when journalists don’t get the opportunity to ask questions what the public gets is essentially government propaganda.”

APD activated its messaging functions on Facebook and Twitter as a strategy to help meet requirements of a 2014 court-monitored reform agreement with DOJ.  Using this new form of public communication, the APD public information office keeps the public updated on the latest criminal activity and about recent happenings. It also allows for direct messaging and even hosts online Q&A events.

“It helps answer questions quickly, get tips and hopefully encourages people to ask questions they might not feel comfortable asking a police officer,” the APD tweeted during a February #TuesdayCopTalk, where the department answered questions on Twitter concerning repeat offenders, staffing concerns and theft.

APD Forward is umbrella group for 18 community organizations to monitor APD and help the agency be more engaged and more accountable.

“APD has to do a better job across the board with having serious discussion with the community in regards to the reform efforts of this troubled department,” said Steve Allen, Director of ACLU-NM and acting APD Forward spokesperson.

APD is part of a growing trend around the country, as more police agencies are using their social media accounts as the primary means to release breaking news.

Allen says that social media is a good means to connect with the community, but also provides a barrier between the media and the department.

“We certainly applaud APD for taking whatever steps they are taking to increase community access to the department and especially department leaders,” Allen said. “But it cannot only be social media. APD needs to give broad access to the media regarding department leadership. The media is there as a check for these genuine conversations in the community.”

APD made national headlines in 2014, when two police officers shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man camping in the foothills of Albuquerque. The incident sparked outrage across Albuquerque, triggering marches and protests featuring such signs as “Justice for James Boyd” and “Jail Killer Cops”.

Later in  2014, following a DOJ investigation, it was agreed that APD should be closely monitored because of DOJ concerns about the department using excessive force on those who pose minimal threats. The city of Albuquerque and the DOJ jointly selected an independent monitor to oversee a list of reform measures, and giving a progress report approximately every four months.

According to a joint statement between the City of Albuquerque and DOJ, the reforms include more focus on community engagement and civilian oversight as a means toward more public accountability and public trust.

Since then, APD has expanded its use of social media as a tool to serve the public. APD now has 43,252 followers on Facebook and 58,400 on Twitter.

“The goal is to promote a dynamic dialogue to be sure the public is informed with all of APD’s happenings,” Espinoza said.

“We think it (social media) offers news you can use and straight from the source. Plus, you get some of the positive you don’t always see on mainstream media,” APD tweeted during a recent #TuesdayCopTalk.

Powerpoint slide presented by APD Community Outreach Director Celina Espinoza to UNM journalism class summarizes the police department’s social media policy. (Photo by Michael Marcotte / NM News Port)

While APD frequently posts traffic updates, theft reports, and community crime updates on their Facebook and Twitter pages, it is now less likely to issue press releases.

Reporter Jeff Proctor says it is also less likely to respond to follow up questions from journalists.

“This is a bigger trend that APD is a part of that I find particularly disturbing,” Proctor said.

While Proctor says that social media does not make the department more transparent he does say there are advantages as well.

“I think some of those efforts (social media use) have done a good job of showing the human side of police officers and can be useful to get a 360-degree view of being a cop,” Proctor said.

Micah McCoy, with APD Forward agrees there can be a benefit in more social media access to APD, but it shouldn’t be the only form of engagement.

“There has to be in-person engagement because that is what the heart of community policing is about,” McCoy said. “It’s about officers actually being a part of the community that they serve and engaging with people on a personal level… and I think that hard to do from behind a computer screen.”

Ezpinoza is quick to point out that there is more in-person contact between APD and the community. She cites the expansion of the APD-hosted Community Policing Councils every month, plus other events like coffee with a cop, and visits with neighborhood associations.

According to the city of Albuquerque website APD is receiving approximately 250 direct messages via social media each month, but it is unclear how many are receiving satisfactory answers.

“We want to encourage people to ask us what is on their mind,” Espinoza said. But she also adds that if citizens need to report a crime, the better way to do that is to call (505) 242-COPS

Edited by Michael Marcotte and Danielle Prokop / NM News Port

Check out the archived first #TuesdayCopTalk here: https://storify.com/sarene13/apd-tuesdaycoptalk.html

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