Howard police turn to Twitter after mall shooting [Editorial]

Perhaps overlooked in the chaos of last week's shooting at The Mall in Columbia was the way the Howard County Police Department used social media to communicate with citizens.

From the start, it released details through Twitter, stringing together 140-character items about details and its investigation — including that it could not find a connection between the shooter and the two victims he killed in Zumiez, when some news organization were rushing to judgment to determine a motive.

Police provided an innovative way on how to use Twitter to quickly and accurately get the word out. It separated speculation from fact, and established itself as the authority on what was confirmed and what was not. 

Typically in these ever-changing, high-pressure situations, it can be a challenge for police, fire and government officials to get information out in a timely and useful way. Often, they are criticized for not doing a good enough job of communicating what they know, when they know it.

But last week, under the most trying of times, Howard County's emergency responders used social media as an effective tool.

Twitter updates came every few minutes at first, alerting not only those searching for facts amid the rumors but those who were trapped inside and cut off from other forms of communication. We heard from many mall shoppers and employees that they learned about the situation on their social media feeds on their smartphones.

Subsequent messages gave authorities a quick way to reach thousands in an instant. Police continued to use it later in the week when it released information from the shooter's journal. And the stream of information gave the investigation more transparency, something every government organization should strive to do.

The decision to rely on Twitter turned out to be a wise one. Before the shooting, police had not used Twitter all that much, showing about 650 tweets on an account that was started January 2013. After the shooting, more than 250 tweets went out in 10 days.

Under stressful circumstances, Howard County police might have become a model for other departments in how to communicate during a crisis. And how to serve and protect the public at the same time.

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