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Recap Vancouver: Police, Citizens, Social Media, Privacy, and Safety

This post was co-written by GovLoop’s own Joseph Porcelli and Lauri Stevens.

You’ve likely seen the pictures and videos from Vancouver: the looting, the beatings, the couple kissing. And how can we forget the videos of the few courageous citizens who, in the midst of the violence and chaos, stood up for their community?

After the Canucks’ championship hopes were dashed in a dramatic Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, some people took to the streets and trashed blocks of downtown Vancouver. This post explores how the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) leveraged its relationships with social media fans and followers and enabled concerned citizens to play a vital role in mitigating the impact of last week’s unfortunate turn of events.

Vancouver Police Department Had Already Embraced Social Media:
Prior to the Stanley Cup’s Game 7, VPD actively participated in social media, particularly on Twitter (www.twitter/vancouverpd) with approximately 8,000 followers. After the game, their following count rose to over 16,000 as both concerned citizens and bragging rioters mounted an extensive digital conversation during the melee.

VPD’s Public Information Officer Constable Anne Longley commented that VPD’s solid social media foundation was critical to the department’s ability to respond to the public in a timely and authoritative way: “It was not the plan, but I’m so glad we were already here!”

In the aftermath, VPD received hundreds of messages every day via Twitter and email. Longley was overwhelmed trying to respond single-handedly to requests for help or information. She and the rest of the VPD were “blown away” by the messages of appreciation and support. “Our officers would tell us they’d be on patrol and people would just come up and hug them,” she added.

What the Vancouver Police Department Did:
The VPD was quick to respond and was completely transparent. The public information office answered comments on Twitter and candidly shared information about arrests:

They repeatedly told citizens how to report crime anonymously through Crime Stoppers, and provided instructions via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube about how to privately provide evidence to police.
Social Citizens Respond:
A similar riot broke out in 1994 after the Canucks’ playoff bid, putting police in the position of scrambling for evidence. Most news organizations refused to comply with requests for video or photographs without a subpoena. This time around — in the age of citizen journalism — police were inundated with digital evidence handed directly to them by people who wanted to help the police or were disgusted by the behavior which they thought failed to represent real Canucks fans.

Vancouver Police say they didn’t ask people to send in digital evidence, but several sites were quickly formed for the purpose of providing such information.

One page on Facebook called “Vancouver Riot Pics: Post Your Photos had over 93,000 fans less than 48 hours after the game ended. A page called “Canucks fans against the 2011 Vancouver Riots had over 66,000 fans. Another website provided photos and links for witnesses to share information if they could identify the suspect is called “IdentifyRioters.” That sentiment is echoed by many Canucks fans. In fact, the office of British Colombian Premier Christy Clark has taken action to honor citizen activists, clean up the city, and bring the criminals to justice.

A website called “Canucks Riot 2011” was formed specifically to archive digital evidence. The site was created within an hour of the end of Game 7 by Dave Teixeira, (twitter.com/davedotca) who said he was watching Twitter and, even before the game ended, noticed the shifting virtual mood. After he finished building the site, he tweeted that he wanted people to post their photos and videos. He received such a huge response that he had to upgrade the server three times overnight. He then realized that people who had posted videos of themselves “doing stupid things” the night before would wake up and try to take them down. So once again he called upon Twitter followers to help him store files that might disappear.
Why does a citizen like Teixeira step up to assist?
“I love my city,” he said. “I want these people caught. They really put a black on the city. … these are people who thought they could, with impunity do these actions… videotape and mock the authorities, beat up people, attack the police, and defile the city. Hopefully these cowards will get busted.”
The Heroes of British Columbia Facebook Page was formed by Clark’s office to identify the people who have stepped up to defend the city and showed bravery and heroism in the wake of the Canuck’s Game 7 loss. For instance, thousands of Vancouverites showed up in the downtown area, wielding brooms to clean up the city.
But what has a lot of people talking and may prove, in the end, to be a real test of technology’s worth was the use of facial-recognition technology to identify the perpetrators. The Insurance Corporation of British Colombia (ICBC) has used facial-recognition technology in insurance-related cases of theft and fraud. The ICBC has offered its facial-recognition capabilities to the authorities to match photos collected from all sources to drivers’ license photos.

Privacy and Safety Concerns:
All of this good citizenship does not come without risks. A person who posts publicly or on a web page is potentially placing themselves in a situation where they can be called upon as a witness. In addition, those same people could be placing themselves in danger if the person they identify is inclined to try to get revenge.

In one case already, the future of a 17 year-old water polo player with Olympic aspirations has been damaged, but more significant is that his family has been threatened. His father, a surgeon has even temporarily closed his office for safety concerns.

Privacy vs. Technology:
With the ICBC offering up its drivers’ license database, civil liberties experts are arguing that it is way beyond the appropriate use of such a database. “Back in 2009 when the ICBC first began using this technology, they insisted it was expressly for the detection of fraud,” said Micheal Vonn, President of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “We said then that we could foresee all kinds of law enforcement uses and the temptation will simply be overwhelming, and here it hasn’t even been two years later.”

The VPD would need a court order to gain access to the database. Vonn wonders what that court order would look like: “We don’t know who these people are. The nature of the surveillance is that it’s population based… the court order is that we know some crimes were committed but we have to run those images against a database to try to figure that out.”

Vonn said even the “mountain” of data generated by doing that creates a record, a new database in and of itself that becomes part of a person’s “digital shadow.” She added, “we really need to rethink from the ground up what happens when the warrant is based upon these massive populations.”

Perception: Is What We Saw What Actually Happened?
Take the photo of person to the left. Is he destroying or protecting?
Next, watch this video. Does the video change your answer?

We must ensure that due process and rights are not violated and at the same time, find the balance of leverage the good will, power, and efficiencies afforded to law enforcement by the widespread adoption of social media.

Our Recommendations:
  1. Vancouver Police should keep on doing what they are doing. They have built a considerable following on their social networks. They have been able to leverage that following and benefited greatly because they were in a position to be proactive rather than reactive. They were already in the lead and Vancouver citizens were quite willing to listen to what they had to say as well as assist the PD by soliciting digital information.
  2. Invite and facilitate their social followers to help brainstorm how they can work together and what concerns needs to be explored. All public safety agencies need to remember, social media is a two-way street.
  3. Create and promote a “social” process for the public to share their concerns about the police with the police. The process needs to go both ways. For example, in the UK the MyPolice (mypolice.org) platform offers a way for law enforcement to gain constructive feedback from citizens as well as a way to respond. Tayside Police in Scotland are currently testing it’s effectiveness.
  4. Law enforcement and any other public safety agencies can be more proactive by devising a social media emergency management strategy that takes into account the potential for any kind of public emergency. Strategic planning in advance can help agencies like VPD be even better prepared to handle the dialog and investigatory challenges that are inevitable in social media.

Let’s Discuss:

  1. What other concerns do you have that might be productive to discuss?
  2. What other recommendations would you make or what tweaks would you add to ours?

Note: All quotes were given directly to Lauri Stevens.

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Diedre Tillery

Excellent post! This is a great case study about engaging customers not only for marketing but for civic reasons. Every gov. agency that deals with a community-based constituency needs a social media component in their emergency management strategy. I don’t believe this is optional anymore.

Considering the role that the US Postal Service (my agency) plays in binding the nation together, I think we need social media to help our customers during natural or man-made disasters (for example, how to interactively communicate on a local or regional level about the status of mail services in the active floods, fire and tonado ravages zones around the country). Currently we only release statements on our website which won’t work if you don’t know where to look. Social media can drive that information into the community.

I would like to hear more about how Vancouver handled (proactively are in reponse to) issues of protecting citizens once they volunteer their videos and photos into evidence. Or, in the millenial age of “sharing” via social media is this even a issue at all since citizens openly volunteered this information? Aside from that, I am pleased to see positive examples of Twitter being used to aid the common good.

Lauri Stevens


You’re so right: “Every gov. agency that deals with a community-based constituency needs a social media component in their emergency management strategy. I don’t believe this is optional anymore”. The LE agencies who are watching what happened in Vancouver are hopefully getting that lesson loud and clear.

And if they’re really REALLY paying attention they’re seeing how they will be potentially overwhelmed with intelligence with which to deal.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. ~Lauri