DALLAS — Police departments operate under a unique set of challenges. On one hand, they are expected to stare down difficult situations while making life-and-death decisions at a moment’s notice. On the other, they are expected to be open, collected and transparent servants for the public good.
This balancing act is difficult and requires a steady hand. The Arlington, Texas, Police Department has turned to video to help it meet some of the challenges, while also humanizing its officers, controlling the overall message and creating new opportunities within the community.
And on April 11 during the Government Social Media Conference and Expo (GSMCON), officials from the department discussed their mobile, bootstrap approach to producing and sharing video content. Though Lt. Chris Cook openly admits that he isn’t a digital media expert, his team has made a spirited go of producing entertaining and informational content within the community they serve.
One of the key takeaways Cook and his co-presenter Zhivonni McDonnell, a former Arlington officer turned department consultant, shared during the session was the need to engage with constituents and the media in the way it's expected in this modern age of technology.
“Over my tenure in the media office," Lt. Cook said, "what I’ve learned is that video is really the next big thing for our agencies and profession to tell our story."
And in doing so, the pair said departments reduce the risks of misinformation and sensationalized reports around the incidents they respond to.
“Everyone knows how big video is, whether you’re on the public safety side or if you’re a citizen out there, it seems like everybody has a smartphone nowadays and everyone is recording,” he added, referencing the recent forcible removal of United Airlines passenger from a flight. “What makes that story even bigger is that there is video to tell that story.”
The prevalence of cellphone video can help to piece together a larger story. But without context, he warned, it becomes something agencies must be aware of and address.
“Much in the same way, we need to be able to leverage that technology," he continued. "We need to be able to leverage our smartphones one the public safety and government side so that we can tell our own story, we can push our own images, push our own videos."
According to the pair, video isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and with social media networks like Facebook doubling down on the medium, all signs would seem to agree.
But rather than trying too hard to become the next online sensation, McDonnell argued agencies should let their successes happen organically.
“Viral is not a kind of video. It’s basically luck,” she said. "Don’t try to make a viral video because it’s based upon the viewers and how they share the video.”
One benefit the duo sees in working in the public sector is not having to pay to promote a message. Because the citizens they serve are inherently looking to the department for timely and accurate information, Lt. Cook said filling that gap with department-curated media helps to not only promote their public safety work, but also address the misinformation circulating online.
“Gone are the days of just having to rely on the traditional press release,” he said. “Typically before social media, before we were able to do these kinds of videos, you would send out that written press release and you would hope that someone would read it, hope that somebody would respond. But now, you know what, we are just going to take the message directly to our citizens.”
The Arlington Police Department videos have also helped to humanize officers in what Lt. Cook called the “post-Ferguson” environment. Planned videos of an officer singing the National Anthem at a Rangers game or an impromptu piano performance help to reinforce to viewers that the officers they encounter are more than just the embodiment of a badge and gun.
Despite having that built-in expectation of communication, the presenters said they also have had to learn the hard way as far as sharing content people will click on. McDonnell said they learned early that longer videos rarely get the same views as the more concise posts.
By their figures, 20 percent of viewers have dropped off after the first 10 seconds of a video, roughly 44 percent drop off after a minute, and 60 percent drop off after two minutes.
The speakers were quick to point out that producing quality content doesn’t have to come with a massive price tag. In fact, keeping their operations mobile and responsive only required some relatively minor tweaks and the patience to learn new skills.
For Lt. Cook, an Apple iPhone 7 Plus, a few hundred dollars in accessories and in-phone apps are all that’s needed for an in-field situational report or a promotional clip.
When on the go, the pair use a suite of readily available in-phone apps to add titles and layers and blur out any sensitive information.