Modern Policing in the Age of “Social Media Fishbowl”

Many say the defining challenge of modern policing isn’t the opioid crisis, rapid policy shifts in immigration or social-media fueled public protest–it’s “living in the fishbowl”: having to operate in an environment choked with cameras (street cameras, security cameras, squad cameras, smartphones, body cams, and more). Every officer interaction is surrounded by eyewitnesses (living and electronic), and every event is liable to be scrutinized frame-by-frame by an ever-expanding pool of individuals eager to offer their expert (and, even more often, entirely non-expert) opinion–in real-time or within minutes.

This can have deadly outcomes. As one officer put it, “a lot of officers are being too cautious because of what’s going on in the media.” That officer was specifically citing a 2015 incident when an Alabama police detective–fearing social media repercussions–failed to use substantial force and was subsequently beaten unconscious by a suspect.

The “Optics” of Modern Policing

Booker Hodges is widely regarded as an expert on police/community neighborhood relations. He has decades of experience in law enforcement, including stints as a school resource officer, patrol deputy, sergeant, inspector, gang detective, and SWAT operator. He also served as both undersheriff and acting chief deputy at the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office in St. Paul, Minnesota, and as the Chief of Police for the City of Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Over the last several years, Hodges has written and spoken often about the challenges of modern policing in the fishbowl.

At every opportunity, Hodges reminds officers that “Everyone has a smartphone with a camera ready and waiting.“ As a result, officers must “conduct yourself as if you’re always being watched–because you are.”

As a further warning, Hodges adds that, because of both the reach of social media and its tendency to foster and fan the flames of a mob mentality, “Our family members and friends have also joined us in the fishbowl because of technology and the public’s hunger for information.“

Training Officers to be Aware of–Not Hindered by–the Fishbowl

Robert McCue, FAAC’s MILO Training Systems General Manager, agrees: “This is something that instructors are always telling us they struggle to impart to their trainees: That their words, actions and behaviors are currently being watched and critiqued, and they have to adapt to it like never before.”

MILO’s simulation systems are designed not only to help officers hone their skills in observation, de-escalation, communication, and tactical response–but also to develop a critical awareness of how they will look and sound when captured on camera.

Every MILO simulation solution is equipped with audio/video capture and debriefing tools. The simulator provides a sensory-rich environment, designed to trigger real and vivid emotional responses. The cameras capture that response. The instructor and trainee then review these recordings as part of their debriefing process. Not only can they spot moments in each scenario where they could hone their timing or skills, but also they get to see exactly how all of this will look–and how their decision might be second-guessed–once it’s torn loose from the immediate context and uploaded to YouTube.

“Some leading instructors..,” McCue says, “..He’ll watch how that trainee responds, and as they review, he or she will say ‘Even though the law doesn’t care about how you feel–how do you feel walking up to this house? How do you feel watching what you did and said there on the screen? How might it look later, to someone who wasn’t there in the stress of the moment?’ In this way, we can really effectively raise awareness of the appearance of possible implicit biases, and how to make really simple changes that allow us to sidestep that whole mess.”