There's zero doubt that police forces across the nation are caught between the crosshairs of politics and systemic racism; their losses and crimes either championed or hurriedly swept beneath the rug on the campaign trail.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump addressed race relations in the United States as a symptom of a larger criminal justice problem. Trump went as far as to call America's legacy of police brutality a matter of "law and order," mirroring the strategic oversimplification of racism that has contributed to the killings of 285 black and Hispanic people by police officers in 2016 alone.
But despite desperate efforts by citizens to document the unlawful abuse of minorities by officers, police departments still wield considerable control over their images and public messages. Thanks to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, police are attempting to humanize themselves online, whether or not they're physically repairing their relationships with America's communities.
In Detroit, Michigan, where 47 fatal shootings involving police officers occurred between 1995 and 2000, the Detroit Police Department (DPD) has been using social media like any other image-conscious brand. Earlier this year, the department shared a fun Facebook video of several officers dancing around the city for a "Running Man Challenge." The DPD has also promoted the Susan G. Komen foundation, live-tweeted guest appearances on FOX 2 Detroit, and advertised community outreach events.
For a police force trying to resolve a record that includes the killing of a 7-year-old sleeping child, for which her shooter was cleared of all charges, documented brutality against black high school students, and the recent fatal shooting of 20-year-old Terrance Kellom, social media has proved to be a valuable panacea. A cursory glance at the DPD's accounts paints of portrait of a department that's at ease with, or even beloved, by their community. Any form of dissent is reduced to likely moderated comments or static Facebook emoticons.
The marketing site Entrepreneur once wrote that "For police departments social media is as valuable, if not more valuable, a resource than it is for traditional brands and businesses. It helps humanize the force by allowing departments to connect and converse with the general public." A survey conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2013 found that 95 percent of law enforcement agencies were active on social media. More than 73 percent of them claimed it had improved their relationships with communities in their jurisdictions.
However, not all of the police posts are fun and positive.
As several recent incidents suggest, police are also using social media to strategically portray disenfranchised citizens and communities. This month, police in East Liverpool, Ohio, posted Facebook photos of a couple who had overdosed in a car with a 4-year-old in the backseat. As NPR pointed out, the department neglected to blur the child's face, raising concerns over the privacy of a minor. Some critics also questioned the post's intent; whether it was meant to drum up awareness about the nation's opioid epidemic, or shame its victims.
In 2014, Maryland's Prince George's County Police announced they would be live-tweeting a prostitution sting, publishing photos, names, and the charges of people involved. After outcries over ethical issues, such as the reckless endangerment of sex workers, the event was cancelled, even though the department claimed it wasn't public dissent that caused them to call off the live-tweet.
And after the shooting of 12 people during a Black Lives Matter Protest in Dallas, Texas, this year, many police officers and civil servants took to social media to denigrate and threaten protesters. Derek Hale, a sergeant with the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections shared a meme on Facebook that stated: "If we really wanted you dead all we'd have to do is stop patrolling your neighborhoods...and wait." Captain James Morris of the Columbia South Carolina Fire Department wrote that he might "run over" anyone involved in the Black Lives Matter protests.
But should social media be allowed to exist as a public relations outlet for America's police? In an age where police officers are seemingly held accountable only by the victims of their wrongdoings, the internet can be a powerful tool for protest, but it can also fatally misrepresent the fissures between law enforcement and the people they serve.
Many police departments still claim that social media can humanize officers who might otherwise remain nameless badges. "I think police officers just want citizens to know that we are real," Melissa Bujeda, a spokesperson for Florida's Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, told WJTC. "We are human beings. We have feelings. We want to help people. We want to protect the citizens of this awesome city that we live in."
But for communities plagued by police violence, repairing decades of brutality and prejudice will be evidenced by more than online engagement. While everyday human interactions are increasingly becoming digitized, it's imperative to remember that things like justice, accountability, and trust cannot be attained on Facebook or Twitter. That's not where innocent people are shot.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.