If you're planning on doing anything illegal in the next three days (not that you would), may we suggest keeping well away from the Aloft Hotel on Young Street? That place is crawling with cops.
This morning marked the start of the SMILE Conference -- Social Media Internet Law Enforcement -- which is, per their tag line, "using social media to improve law enforcement and engage citizens." The brainchild of Lauri Stevens at Laws Communications, a Boston media consulting firm that specializes in services to law enforcement, SMILE Dallas is the fourth such conference since last April, when the program debuted in Washington.
They're a diverse and varied-looking group, except for the fact that all the gentlemen have very, very short hair. At a meeting this morning, a balding man with a bristly mustache perused a pamphlet whose headline read, "Leadership in a Cyber World -- Perspectives From Six Police Executives." Behind him, two men in short-sleeved shirts looked up skeptically at the screen onstage.
"She's a speaker?" one of them asked, as a woman's head shot appeared onscreen.
"She's gonna talk about doin' her nails," the other guy replied. They chortled.
"Group discussion?" said the first one, as the next item flashed onscreen.
"Is that like group-think?" his buddy responded.
"Wow, this is gonna be fun," the first guy said, possibly with less than complete sincerity.
Scott Mills, the tech support guy for the conference, hopped onstage, a camera in one hand and a laptop in the other. He's also a social media officer for the Toronto police. He explained he'd be live-streaming the opening ceremonies. Then he explained what live-streaming was, and that he'd be walking around the room with his laptop in order to record using his webcam.
"Anybody who doesn't want to be on camera, let me know and I'll stay away from you," he told the crowd. He reminded them that the conference also has Facebook and Twitter pages. "So you can tell your friends, 'Hey, check that link out,'" he said. He pronounced the last word the way Canadians tend to.
"Eh?" said one of the guys behind me. There was giggling.
After "The Star-Spangled Banner," Lauri Stevens, the Laws Communications executive who created SMILE, took the stage. Each conference is hosted by police departments in different cities, she explained. The last was in Chicago, the one before that in Santa Monica. "The Dallas Police Department has been beyond gracious with the good old-fashioned Southern hospitality," she told the room. "They really just stepped up and gave it that Texas flavor." Everyone clapped politely for Texas flavor.
Chief David Brown stepped up to the mic to welcome the out-of-town officers. "Welcome to the Big D," he told them, encouraging them to "explore Dallas while you're here, especially the downtown area."
"I'm not as tech-savvy as the people who work for me who are 20-somethings or 30-somethings," he admitted, but added that social media was something he wanted the department to learn how to use better. "There's been some good, bad, and ugly" across the country, he said, "with police officers using social media inappropriately."
He's interested too, he said, in how social media could "bridge the gap" between the police and the news media. Or replace it. "In our free press society, we don't always get to tell our story the way we want to tell it," he said. As Stevens put it, tools like Facebook and Twitter give police departments the ability "to generate a lot of their own news."
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Brown thanked the attendees for coming. "We need your tax dollars, so spend a lot of money."
Out in the lobby (which smelled exactly like Fruit Loops, for some reason) Chief Brown was tapping at his phone before heading off to a city council meeting. Does he tweet, we asked?
"I'm terrible," he said, smiling. "I'm trying to get better." He wants to use Twitter, he said, both to address "things the department is struggling with" and to spotlight "the great work the officers are doing. Especially over the summer, they were just catching criminals right and left."
Twitter and Facebook are good tools, he said, to frankly discuss "controversy in the department and mistakes we made." Which, to his credit, the department does seem to be doing, although we wish they'd stop sending us emails telling us there are press releases on the department Facebook page.
"We want to be more transparent, rather than trying to hide it," he said. "The public doesn't want us to hide things."