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Experts: Dallas Police Department Error Shows Need to Use Social Media Carefully

The department dropped the ball over the weekend when Major Max Geron tweeted that Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib was arrested for public intoxication when they had actually arrested his brother.

by Naheed Rajwani, McClatchy News Service / July 2, 2014
Major Max Geron, Dalls Police Department via YouTube

The Dallas Police Department has increasingly used social media to connect with constituents who might not care much about traditional crime watch meetings.

But the department dropped the ball over the weekend when Major Max Geron, a spokesman for the department, tweeted that Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib was arrested for public intoxication.

There was one embarrassing catch, though. Dallas police had actually arrested Aqib Talib’s brother, Yaqub Talib, instead.

Sunday’s online goof, experts say, is a sign that Dallas police need to tread more carefully in the future and re-evaluate how it disseminates information to the public.

Nearly two hours after he incorrectly tweeted that Aqib Talib had been arrested, Geron publicly apologized to the former Berkner High School star in a tweet and followed up with a news release that stated the incorrect information was sent out “not in keeping with normal protocol.”

But by then, his original message had been retweeted hundreds of times and screen shots of the tweet continued to circulate on the Internet even after it was deleted from Twitter. In addition, dozens of news outlets nationwide reported the mix-up.

Geron declined to elaborate on the matter Tuesday, but this was not the first time Dallas police have been involved in a Twitter controversy. In September, Police Chief David Brown tweeted out the name of a person of interest in a case involving a series of rapes in South Dallas. The man named in the tweets, however, was later cleared in the investigation but Brown’s action created a furor and talk of lawsuits.

Brown addressed the City Council’s public safety committee last week and he lauded his department’s efforts to increase its social media presence. The department has more than 36,000 Twitter followers and its blog — DPD Beat — has had more than 362,000 views since February, the chief said.

But experts say that with a large social media following comes an increased likelihood that one mistake will overshadow the benefits of tools such as Twitter.

In a news release Sunday, Dallas police explained the circumstances that led to the incorrect tweet about Aqib Talib. Police said they responded to a call early Sunday about a verbal and physical altercation inside a club on Main Street.

Police believed Yaqub Talib, 31, to be the “primary instigator in the disturbance,” the news release stated. He told officers that he played for the Denver Broncos, police said.

He was arrested for public intoxication and gave police his Texas ID. Police at the scene told the department’s communications unit that a Denver Broncos player had been arrested.

The communications officer dealing with the case didn’t understand the spelling of the man’s name and said she would Google the team's roster for it, according to the news release.

The miscommunication evolved into the tweets that incorrectly identified Aqib Talib, 28, as the man who was arrested.

“It’s unfortunate, the confusion, but they definitely should be verifying before putting it out. ... It looks like person manning the computer went a little out of bounds,” said William Ward, a communications professor at Syracuse University.

Aqib Talib’s agent did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. Yaqub Talib does not play professional football.

Representatives of the Dallas Police Association have long expressed concerns about the department’s strong push for a social media savvy force.

Christopher Livingston, an attorney who represents the DPA, said Police Department’s apology to Aqib Talib “was too little, too late.”

“The first thing that you learn in journalism school is that it’s better to be right than first,” Livingston said. The Police Department “is supposed to give out correct information and find out the truth, and here, again they are trying to beat the media rather than do their jobs.”

Still, Livingston said, social media can be valuable to law enforcement if used properly and carefully.

“It can be useful to alert the community of events. It can be useful to use the community through social media to try to solve crimes,” he said. “But the idea that we’re going to publish the names of arrestees because we think it’s sensational is just inappropriate.”

©2014 The Dallas Morning News

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