About a tone-deaf tweet and the best use of social media

A Sunday afternoon message on the official Boston Police Department Twitter page sparked a quick-moving controversy and subsequent apologies from city brass this week. The episode should also prompt the public to ask a fundamental question about the best use of the city’s most-widely followed public safety feed.

The tweet heaped praise on the late Red Auerbach in the context of Black History Month, noting that the former Celtics coach and general manager was a progressive for his time in hiring black players and coaches.

Critics pounced, BPD officials deleted the tweet, and offered a preliminary “sorry” to those who were offended. Mayor Walsh was more pronounced in his verdict the next day, calling the posting “completely inappropriate and a gross misrepresentation of how we are honoring Black History Month in Boston.”

In a tweet of “sincere apologies” on Monday, Commissioner William Evans stated, “The tweet was insensitive and does not reflect the values of the Boston Police Department.”

Reasonable people can disagree over whether or not this specific tweet amounted to simple tone-deafness or something more problematic that speaks to the department’s lack of diversity. But, no matter what, the initial critics and the mayor were correct:

The tweet in question was foolish and counter-productive. The city has a slew of Black History Month events going on right now— including some at City Hall involving members of the BPD— that could have been highlighted instead.

Some of the backlash has been over the top. One Rhode Island-based law enforcement group demanded that the BPD’s black police chief, William Gross, make a personal apology for his PR team’s error—an overwrought and unwarranted demand.

Still, in our view, Commissioner Evans, Chief Gross and their team should take this moment to reflect on the impact and best use of the department’s official Twitter account, which this week boasts more than 500,000 followers. It is a powerful tool for disseminating critical information about public safety, investigations, and real-time situations, like missing persons and the search for suspects. It’s a feed that the public— and the media—should be able to rely on for a better understanding of what’s happening as incidents unfold and for investigators to engage and, sometimes, warn the public.

Police officials have used it quite effectively in the last few years to give us all a deeper understanding of just how many illegal guns their officers are taking off the street on a daily basis.

But, the existing feed is also heavy with what can fairly be classified as BPD propaganda—posts and pictures that really aren’t of pressing public interest, such as the ill-advised tweet on Sunday. No one begrudges the BPD a forum to post their internal images and thoughts— and we appreciate that the department makes them available. But perhaps that stream of info would better be broken off into a separate account or page that is reserved for less pressing matters. Less clutter, less room for misinterpretation.

In our view, the public would be best served if the focus going forward is on enhancing the most important elements of the BPD’s social media presence. Give us more frequent and useful updates to shootings or break-ins that the public often tracks through other means before the BPD puts out its own info on unfolding events.

The city’s best public safety social media outlet is run by the Fire Department, which has dedicated staff that respond to fire scenes. They post real-time info and photos and offer the public a comprehensive understanding of events as they happen.

Police officials have a different set of problems to consider— ranging from the privacy of potential victims and suspects to the sanctity of a future criminal prosecution. No one should expect BPD to offer an unfettered stream of detail about events in a busy, complex city where multiple problems can pop up simultaneously.

Still, improvements can —and should— be made. We hope that the department will research best practices nationally and move in that direction.