(ABOVE) Louisville Metro Police Officer Lamont Washington demonstrates an interview technique he employs as the LMPD social-media public information officer. (Photo by Jim Robertson)
Whether it is a post, live stream, tweet, like or hashtag, social media platforms are the go-to means of communicating in many circles.
Law enforcement agencies also are taking advantage of these platforms to engage with residents of the respective communities. This includes Louisville Metro Police Department, which created a position solely for the purpose of cultivating social media.
LMPD Officer Lamont Washington has been in charge of the agency’s social-media presence since October 2016.
“LMPD got a (Department of Justice) grant that included 10 officers,” Washington said. “Nine of those positions created the community-policing unit we now have. The other position was mine. It was a position designed to focus on social media. It was an appointed position.”
Washington had little experience with social media prior to being appointed, but the self-professed “computer dork, gadget nut and YouTube expert,” was up to the challenge.
The early design of LMPD’s social-media presence looked similar to many other law enforcement agencies.
“It was just to post a picture here and there and to post an invite to an event, but there was no computer-
dorky look at it,” Washington said.
That changed when Washington took on the duties full-time and began to look at analytics.
“Google matrix, the analytics of social-media pages … none of that was looked into,” he said. “It was posting as it hit your desk, versus taking into account the demographics you are trying to reach with your post.”
When looking at ways to best use social media to benefit LMPD, Washington stumbled across an Internet sensation who is adept at simply doing the splits.
“Logan Paul has 800 million followers on Facebook and 900 million YouTube followers,” Washington said. “He has zero talent, other than he can do the splits. He started posting Vines – a short-form video hosting service where users could share six-second-long looping video clips – doing the splits.
“He would do the splits in the middle of a mall or restaurant and post a six-second Vine,” Washington continued. “So, quickly he eclipsed 500,000 followers.”
Washington said the key to Paul’s social-media success was his ability to understand analytics and how to reach his targeted audience.
“When we look at agencies who’ve been looking for a guy who committed a burglary, and the case has been cold for years, and this guy (Paul) has 800 million people who get notified when he wants to do the splits … why are we not tapping into that?”
By understanding analytics and outside-the-box thinking, LMPD’s Facebook following has grown to more than 90,000 people.
Owning the Message
There is no reason the news media has to be the authoritative source, Washington said. Social mediums now allow police departments to own the message.
“Let the media post LMPD’s story instead of the PD being the news story,” he said.
In early summer 2017, the city’s High View area experienced a series of violent robberies.
“This was a big thing a few months back, where a man and a woman were targeting senior citizens on violent robberies – pistol whippings,” Washington said. “The major of that division reached out to me and said they had a fairly good description of the pair, and one of the things that really stuck out was the guy had really good teeth … people were saying that he was well-manicured with his facial hair.”
The major wanted to put a post on Facebook with the description hoping the public would provide leads. Washington suggested LMPD produce a video.
“You’re a mom and your parents are alive, and this has to piss you off,” Washington told the major. “You’re the major of this division that is being affected by this, so let’s do a video. I did a face-to-face with her, and I flipped the screen up on the camera so she was talking to herself. I said, ‘Get those who are watching this to want to call in and tell us who these people are.’”
People may not know their neighbor is going around robbing people, Washington said.
“But you probably have noticed that your neighbor has really good teeth or has well-manicured facial hair, and that’s the guy we’re looking for,” he said.
The couple had been committing these crimes for more than a week. When the video posted on LMPD’s Facebook page, within 24 hours it had 75,000 views and reached 148,000 people.
“The next day, that division got into a pursuit and both were in custody because so many tips came into our 574-LMPD tip line from that video,” Washington said.
Because of the success of LMPD’s social-media presence, Washington said many news agencies have to begrudgingly adapt to the department’s practice.
“A local news director sent Lt. Phil Russell an email stating that the television station couldn’t afford to have someone just watch LMPD’s social-media accounts all day long,” Washington said. “That’s not our problem because 90,000 people are watching our social-media accounts.”
The key to getting the message out to the public is simple – less is more, Washington said.
“Your message has to be written in a sense that you’re not going to lose anybody,” he said. “The reason television reporters and print media are so good at Twitter is they have 10 seconds to grab your attention so you will continue to watch them. So, 140 (Twitter) characters isn’t a problem. For the layperson, those are the people who you have to read the tweets in reverse order, because they can’t do it in 140 characters. So they just ramp out one tweet after another to get it out there.”
Perception vs. Reality
If you are a policing agency, chances are that at one time or another, public perception hasn’t been favorable. Louisville is no different, Washington said.
However, using social media in a proactive manner has gone a long way in helping the public understand reality.
In May 2016, Louisville officers were involved in a police-involved shooting where a young man’s life was lost. The commonwealth’s attorney’s office was deciding whether to file charges against the officers, and public perception was against the department, so Washington put together an impactful response.
“I got with some of our local radio personalities who have a very large social-media following,” he said. “I ran them through our shooting simulator and did a scenario that involved split-second decision-making.
“I called the commonwealth’s attorney’s (public information officer) and said, ‘Can you give me a 24-hour notice before you announce, regardless if it is to pursue charges or not to pursue charges on our officers?” Washington continued.
The PIO gave him notice and he released the video of the simulation on Facebook, Washington said. In the video, an LMPD firearms instructor went though it frame-by-frame.
“You can see once officers gave the verbal command, you had two-tenths of a second, and you had a round coming down range at you or you had a knife pulled on you,” Washington said. “It showed how quick that time is.”
Within the first 24 hours of posting the video, there were nearly 260,000 people reached and 97,490 video views. Most importantly, public perception had changed drastically.
The commonwealth’s attorney decided against pursuing charges against the officers.
LMPD is one of the few agencies that release body-camera footage on social media.
Assistant Police Chief Lt. Col. Robert Schroeder said the department recognizes the importance of transparency.
“The use of police body cameras is one facet of that (transparency) commitment,” Schroeder said.
Footage of officer-involved shootings is released whenever possible, Schroeder said.
“This allows our community to develop a deeper understanding of what actually occurred in the incident,” he said. “It can give the public a clear and neutral picture of what transpired. This helps hold police accountable to the public while preventing the spread of misinformation regarding an incident.”
There are many factors involved before LMPD releases body-camera footage.
“When releasing a video, an agency has to weigh the public’s interest in the event against privacy concerns of those involved,” Schroeder said. “For instance, in the police-shootings videos we have released, the specific injuries were blurred out to protect privacy. The subject’s face after the shooting was also blurred to protect the dignity and privacy of the person.”
The assistant chief said there are also times when a video is not released.
“Juveniles and the victims of sexual crimes have enhanced privacy concerns and are protected under Kentucky law,” Schroeder said. “As leaders, we must work with our citizens to determine the best use of video for our agencies. Technology is a constantly-progressing field. Police video is here to stay. How that video is used will evolve with the needs of our respective communities.”
Tips for Smaller Agencies
LMPD is the largest law enforcement agency in the state, and an argument can be made that smaller agencies do not have the personnel to devote an officer to a full-time social-media position.
However, Washington said social-media has a place in every agency, no matter the size.
“The beauty of social media is everybody has a smartphone,” he said. “You can do it with a cell phone. Cell-phone adapter tripod costs are small. The equipment isn’t that expensive for the start up.”
Another thing departments need to keep in mind is their audience.
“Your audience isn’t the news media,” he said. “Your audience is those you protect and serve. Know your police department and know the community where you serve and know what is important to them.”
Also avoiding some pitfalls in terms of producing social-media content is important, as well. In other words, don’t make the production a big production.
“(Residents) will say if you’ve got the time to produce a professional-grade video, but we have a record number of crimes being committed … so, where are your energies going?” Washington said. “The stuff that doesn’t look professionally done gets a lot of energy because it’s creative. Again, it doesn’t take a lot of equipment. A cell phone and basic microphone to wire into your phone are all you need.
“It doesn’t have to be heavy stuff. Fireside chats are better received than seeing it as breaking news,” he concluded.
For more ways to make social media work better for an agency, email Washington or call him at 502-779-1295.