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Q&A: Police spokeswoman Llewellyn on social media during Columbia mall shooting

There has been a confirmed shooting at the Columbia mall. a PIO will be on scene shortly. No updates or new details yet.

— Howard County Police (@HCPDNews) January 25, 2014

Shortly after Darion Marcus Aguilar shot and killed two Zumiez employees, before killing himself, at The Mall in Columbia on Jan. 25, Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn was quick to act, taking to social media to keep residents and media outlets informed.

Llewellyn and the rest of the police department's public information office continued to rely heavily on social media, Twitter and Facebook, throughout the investigation.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Luke Lavoie asked Llewellyn about the use of social media during the aftermath of the shooting:

Q: Where were you when you heard about the shooting?

A: I was at my daughter's basketball game.

Q: Was your first thought to go to social media?

A: Yes. I left the game and before I started the car, I tweeted that there was a confirmed shooting at the mall and more information would follow.

Q: I think it's fair to say social media was the main conduit of information to the public from police during the shooting. Where did the idea to rely on it so heavily come from?

A: The idea was not to replace traditional media outreach, like press releases, but to supplement that effort. Recently, we had relied on social media as one of the primary methods of communication during an officer-involved shooting.

It was very well-received by the public and the media, so it made sense to use that model in this situation, as well.

No additional info yet. Police are working to ID the victims and shooter. Hope to have more info about them by the 4pm media briefing.

— Howard County Police (@HCPDNews) January 25, 2014

Q: Obviously it is important in the beginning as information is just coming out, but talk about the use of it in the days following? Specifically, the tidbits about the shooter's journal.

A: Sometimes in an investigation, new details are confirmed that can help update information that has already been released. While we certainly don't have the resources to issue regular updates in every investigation, this incident understandably garnered an unusual amount of attention with the community and the press.

One of the great things about social media is that we are able to update the public simultaneously with reporters. We also can offer everyone a single resource for the most accurate information, which helps dispel rumors.

Motive of shooting is unknown. Not determined to be domestic or any other cause at this time. Any other reports are complete speculation.

— Howard County Police (@HCPDNews) January 25, 2014
 

Q: How does it work? Do you receive info from officers, who OK that it can be relayed to the public?

A: In this incident, Chief (Bill) McMahon and I worked side-by-side for the duration. I am very lucky to work for someone who is open-minded and who trusted that this public outreach model could be a good supplement to our traditional communication methods.

We would receive updates from commanders in scheduled internal briefings, and then determine what could be released at each stage without interfering with the investigation.

#HoCoPolice Chief McMahon & #HoCo Exec @kenulman met with 300+ mall employees to provide info & offer crisis counseling services #HoCoUnited

— Howard County Police (@HCPDNews) January 28, 2014
 

Q: How many followers did you gain on Facebook and Twitter during the shooting?

A: Twitter, from approximately 5,000 followers to 20,500. FB, from approximately 10,000 "likes" to 15,000.

Q: Talk about the response from the public safety community, seems like people were complimentary of your use. Has anyone reached to you and asked to 'pick your brain?'

A: We have been glad to hear from people in the public safety community, the public and the press that our use of social media in this case was helpful to so many.

Thank you all for your continued support of #HoCoPolice this weekend. It is truly appreciated!

— Howard County Police (@HCPDNews) January 27, 2014
 

Q: Is there a downside to social media? Any cautions to be aware of?

A: This is a big question. The most important thing I think is to verify, verify, verify before releasing any information. Social media moves so fast, it can be tempting to want to keep up with that pace.

But it's important to take your time, be sure of the details and release only when you're truly ready. And if you make a mistake, correct it a quickly as possible.

Investigation shows speculation on photo circulating from Brianna Benlolo's FB page is wrong; young man pictured w/her is ID'd. NOT Aguilar.

— Howard County Police (@HCPDNews) January 28, 2014

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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