Yesterday, the New York Police Department used its Twitter account to ask users to tweet photos of themselves with members of the NYPD along with the hashtag #myNYPD in an attempt to… what? Show how media savvy the NYPD is? Get in on all the fun kids are having with hashtags these days? It’s sort of hard to say what the original impetus was (although there was the promise that some photos would be posted on the NYPD’s Facebook, so!), but it’s much easier to say what the result was: chaos. Fun!
Within minutes of the original tweet, #myNYPD was trending on Twitter, but not because Twitter users were posting photos of themselves at the annual policemen’s ball (I don’t know if that’s even a thing, but I also don’t know what else policemen do other than play hockey with firemen?) and were instead flooding Twitter with photos of police brutality, of unjust arrests, of unarmed young men who were killed by the NYPD, and of a whole host of things of which the NYPD would rather not be reminded (including being rough with dogs!). Sure, there were some positive photos of the NYPD with the citizens it serves, but, for the most part, the hashtag was used by people who wanted to highlight that many citizens have interactions with the NYPD that are not exactly what you’d call public relations gold.
Despite the Twitter firestorm, the NYPD kept the hashtag alive, and issued a statement saying, “The NYPD is creating new ways to communicate effectively with the community. Twitter provides an open forum for an uncensored exchange and this is an open dialogue good for our city.” And police commissioner Bratton said at a press conference today that nobody would be losing their job over the Twitter debacle, and that the NYPD still wanted photos “good or bad,” because “it is what it is.” Which doesn’t seem like the most profound analysis of the situation, but what’re you going to do, right? If Bratton issued a cogent response to this hashtag mess just one day after it happened, then what would be left for the media to do?
Most news outlets covered the #myNYPD story by just presenting some of the best tweets and photos and failed to take any strong stance on whether or not this was anything more than just a social media stumble. The New York Daily News, however, spoke out against the Twitter firestorm, and published an editorial defending the city’s police department and its new leader, writing, “Commissioner Bill Bratton has bent over backwards to heal wounds real and perceived, vowing to cut down on the use of stopping, questioning and frisking New Yorkers, disbanding the demographics unit that had mapped Muslim communities and vowing greater transparency and engagement.” The News admits that “there’s always room to do better,” but concludes that “your NYPD—our NYPD—should make New York pretty damned proud.”
While it’s true that the NYPD has been working to improve community relationships (including, it seems, with its social media activity) the fact remains that beyond the existence of a brutal history, there is no consistent NYPD experience for people of this city. I know that as an educated white woman of a privileged socio-economic class, my experience with the NYPD will probably always be neutral or even positive. I know that unless I’m actively engaged in a protest or am breaking the law (and even then, do you know how many tickets I’ve talked myself out of? that most people would never have a chance to avoid? it’s ridiculous) I don’t have anything to fear. But the same can’t be said of a significant amount of New York City’s population. The majority of the photos sent to #myNYPD which portrayed injustice and police brutality featured people of color. Their NYPD is not the same as my NYPD, and it’s essential that their voices are heard and their photos seen. There are many heroic members of this city’s police department, men and women who put their lives on the line to help make this city safer. But there are also institutional problems that should not—that must not—go ignored in order to promote some sanitized version of what we want the NYPD to be. Much in the same way that the myth of a “safe New York” has been perpetuated as being true throughout the entire city (even though it’s only the case in the most economically privileged parts of it), the myth of a friendlier NYPD is only true for parts of New York residents. Maybe that will change, but it will require the NYPD to take a long, hard look at the photos posted on Twitter and acknowledge that those images are just as much a part of their identity as any others.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen