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The Cops

The NYPD Is Posting by the Seat of Its Pants

As the department gets increasingly pugnacious on social media, its policies governing official posts remain inexplicably secret.

Chief of Patrol John Chell and some of his recent tweets. (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

For years, the NYPD's approach to social media communications had been cautious and relatively anodyne, emphasizing public safety information, cute dogs, successful gun busts, and painting precinct-level cops in a flattering light. Those days appear to be long gone, as the top leadership of the NYPD has fully embraced a thin-skinned, fight-me-bro posting style that is more akin to that of a brittle social media star who lives for online drama than a municipal agency committed to courtesy, professionalism, and respect.

Friday night, a little after 10 p.m., NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell tweeted at Queens City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, suggesting that she should be voted out of office. A few minutes later, he took a swipe at Olayemi Olurin, who had just grilled Mayor Adams in a challenging interview on live radio. Chell posted on X that Olurin "epitomizes everything that true NYers are against."  Sunday night, Chell slammed the New York Times as "disgraceful" and "deceitful" because, apparently, the paper didn't put coverage of the funeral of NYPD officer Jonathan Diller on its front page and, though it did note the officer's widow's eulogy, it did not quote the part of the eulogy that the New York Post thought should have been quoted.

Earlier on Sunday, Chell had turned his ire on New York Daily News columnist Harry Siegel. Siegel, hardly a wild-eyed police abolitionist, had written a column suggesting that the subways aren't as safe as police leadership is making out, in the process getting a statistic about subway murders incorrect. Chell posted at Siegel that he was "calling you and your 'latte' friends out on their garbage," and accused the staid nonprofit news outlet the CITY, where Siegel works as an editor, of being disdainful of the NYPD. The exchange culminated with the official main X account of the NYPD calling the columnist "Harry 'Deceitful' Siegel." 

NY1 host and New York Magazine columnist Errol Louis, the son of a cop and not exactly an ACAB guy himself, gently suggested this is not how the police should be conducting themselves. Chell wasn't having it. "Will be taking advantage of all social media platforms, radio shows and media appearances to confront the anti-police rhetoric by journalists who orchestrate it," Chell posted. Then he went on the radio Monday to promise more of the same. Siegel "hates the administration, he's anti-cop. We're battling a segment of the people that hates cops, we're not gonna sit back and just take it, we're gonna push back," he told 1010WINS. "We're gonna start pushing back, and I think the issue is people aren't used to it, 'how dare you speak to us like that.' Well, we're gonna do it."

Needless to say, the new NYPD strategy doesn't play well with journalists, and the available evidence suggests that it isn't playing well beyond people who already love the NYPD leadership. It's a weird and troubling look. But is it against the rules? What are the rules that govern whether senior police leadership can use their official social media accounts to attack critics? 

The very short answer is that we don't know, because the NYPD won't tell us. Hell Gate has been asking the department for the policy governing officials' use of social media for more than a month, and haven't gotten so much as an acknowledgment that we asked the question. The NYPD refusing to answer or even acknowledge reporters' questions is hardly uncommon, but it does make for an especially strange juxtaposition at a moment when department brass is railing against the Lügenpresse on the importance of accurate information. We also filed a Freedom of Information request for this policy back in February; the NYPD told us they'll get back to us in July.

Back in February, after Chell attacked the wrong sitting state Supreme Court judge for not jailing a defendant pre-trial—this was after he and NYPD Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey and Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry led an attack on independent journalist Talia Jane for questioning the police account of a scuffle with protesters in which a police officer was injured—Chell issued a non-apology apology, blaming others for giving him bad information, and sticking by his larger point.

"To the extent we've gotten things wrong, we've apologized and acknowledged it," Michael Gerber, the NYPD's top lawyer, told the City Council at a budget hearing earlier this month when asked about that incident, which in retrospect looks like a testing of the waters. "Going forward, we are going to be extremely careful."

At the hearing, Councilmember Cabán pressed Gerber on the fact that Chell had publicly posted false statements on an official account. Didn't this fall under the police disciplinary system? Gerber stuck to his line. "This was an honest mistake," Gerber said. "That's all this was. It was acknowledged. We publicly apologized."

Pore through the publicly available sections of the department's Patrol Guide and Administrative Guide—the department's internal rules—and you'll find references suggesting that the NYPD may have a policy governing the use of official social media accounts in section 304-19 of the guide. For reasons that are unclear, that section is not included in the publicly available version of the manual.

The NYPD's historical approach to social media is somewhat less shrouded in mystery. A 2019 Freedom of Information request by the Legal Aid Society seeking the department's social media training materials yielded a trove of documents, including a presentation from 2014 called "Twitter 101."

The training lists six purposes for NYPD officials' use of Twitter: "Spread public safety and crime prevention information, engage with the community, update during critical events, build trust, spread information about Missings and Wanteds," and "highlight the important work of your officers."

Another presentation, seemingly from 2017, offers some cautions to police using Twitter, including "avoid politics," "don't feed the trolls," and "stay in your lane."

That presentation was authored by Yael Bar Tur, a former consultant to and then director of social media and digital strategy for the NYPD who developed the department's original Twitter strategy. Bar Tur came to the NYPD via the Israeli Defense Forces, where, according to her website, she served as a press liaison "on the ground from the Gaza strip to the Lebanon border," before getting a bachelor's degree in counterterrorism and moving to the United States. For the NYPD, Bar Tur spun up the agency's Twitter presence, launching hundreds of accounts for the department's precincts and officials and creating trainings for officers on how best to handle the powerful public-facing tool of social media. The social media strategy rolled out by Bar Tur emphasized useful information, humanizing detail, and a foregrounding of street-level rank-and-file cops.

Bar Tur did not respond to a request for comment sent through her website.

Before joining the NYPD, Bar Tur wrote a master's thesis for Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, outlining how the NYPD should be approaching social media, sketching out a distributed precinct-level social media strategy that empowers local precinct-level cops to post, with guidance, direction, and coordination from NYPD headquarters. 

"Studies have shown that how citizens experience the police personally shows a significant impact on their general assessment of the police," Bar Tur wrote. 

The NYPD's new social media strategy, in which an aggressive and snarling top echelon dominates the department's social media footprint, is doubtless having an impact on how New Yorkers assess the police. Whether it is an impact that the current NYPD leadership anticipates and desires remains to be seen.

At his weekly Tuesday media availability, Mayor Adams backed the strategy, framing it not as police leaders being tetchy about criticism of their leadership, but as a noble defense of rank-and-file cops.

"I want the leaders of the administration to stand up for police officers who are placing their lives on the line," he said. "And I think that's what they're doing."

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