The NYPD is using social media to target critics. That brings its own set of worries

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NEW YORK — The first “NYPD: Most Wanted” video was meant to be intimidating.

Over a pounding soundtrack, the montage cuts among stock images and body-camera footage of actual police raids. A fake gun discharges. Real officers break down a door, barking orders at a man asleep on a couch.

As a key turns in a jail cell lock, a New York City police deputy appears on screen to announce the arrest of a teenage suspect — not the person seen in the video moments earlier — in a shooting on a Bronx subway platform.

Produced in-house by the New York Police Department and promoted across its official social media channels, the dramatic two-minute clip reflects a concerted effort by the nation’s largest police force to engage the public and influence policy through a more aggressive online presence.

The strategic shift has brought criticism from former NYPD officials and civil liberties groups who say police leaders shouldn’t use public resources to advance their own policy agenda or attack other civil servants. But the NYPD hasn’t backed down.

“We want to go on social media and push back on the misinformation that’s out there,” Tarik Sheppard, the NYPD’s top spokesperson, said in an interview. “Because if we don’t, it could cause damage to the reputation of our cops and the work that we’re doing.”

In recent months, the department has added production-savvy staff to its communications arm, with plans to release a long-form documentary series later this year.

At the same time, it has encouraged police chiefs to be more vocal on social media, giving them the green light to go after judges and prosecutors seen as too lenient on crime and to criticize public policies that police oppose.

In a post shared on X last week, Chief of Patrol John Chell lashed out at a state judge by name, saying she had released a man he deemed a “predator” who had been accused of stealing a cellphone and carrying drugs.

The message was later found to have misidentified both the judge and prosecutor involved, though not before it generated dozens of hateful comments, some of them featuring the judge’s photograph.

“It’s a naked form of intimidation against the judiciary, which is dangerous and scary,” said Steven Zeidman, director of the criminal defense clinic at the City University of New York School of Law. “Their job is to investigate crimes, not to act as a mouthpiece to spew hate and fearmonger.”

Chell later issued an apology for the error, though it remains published on the department’s official Instagram and X accounts. NYPD officials said they would continue to hold judges “accountable.”

The NYPD has long used social media to solicit tips on crimes and to share news of arrests and emergencies. But close observers of the department see an escalation in both content and rhetoric under New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain.

In recent weeks, official NYPD accounts have gone after journalists by name, threatened to “flood” the jails with disruptive protesters, and highlighted instances of low-level transit crime — a push that coincided with a decision by Gov. Kathy Hochul to send hundreds of National Guard members to the subway system.

One video from last month featured Adams rallying officers before an early-morning raid on a public housing building. Three men are hauled away in handcuffs, described by Kaz Daughtry, the deputy commissioner of operations, as “migrants preying on vulnerable New Yorkers.”

Zachary Tumin, a former NYPD official who oversaw the rollout of social media accounts to precinct commanders and chiefs beginning in 2015, said police officials were initially instructed to maintain a positive tone.

“The basic guidelines were: Don’t attack, don’t personalize and don’t name,” Tumin said. “Picking fights on social media with members of the public … was something we wanted to stay away from.”

It’s not uncommon for law enforcement officials to use social media to assail judges and specific policies, such as changes to bail laws. Elected sheriffs from Arizona to Florida have increasingly embraced social media as a tool to push their own narratives.

An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank at the New York University School of Law, found that very few departments maintain public-facing guidance spelling out how police are making use of the platforms.

The section of the NYPD’s administrative guide dealing with department social media accounts is not available online. Under the patrol guide, uniformed police — a group including chiefs — are prohibited from publicly expressing opinions about “any public policy matter or legislation pending before any government body.”

In January, several chiefs shared a video opposing a City Council bill that would require officers to record additional data about their interactions with the public. The three-minute clip, described as a “simulation,” showed a frantic mother asking police to help locate her missing child. It claimed the law would require officers to record the race and gender of each witness they asked for help — a characterization the council disputed.

Another set of posts shared by top police leaders going after a freelance journalist for allegedly spreading “false narratives” about the treatment of pro-Palestinian protesters were later deleted without explanation.

A spokesperson for the NYPD declined to answer questions about why the posts were deleted. They also didn’t respond to inquiries about the amount of money spent on the department’s social media budget, including the added video production staff.

The NYPD’s new social strategy will soon extend beyond written posts and short video clips, moving into what Sheppard described as “long-form YouTube.”

In the coming months, he said, the department will resume production of a short-lived series, “True Blue: NYPD’s Finest,” that premiered last year without much attention.

The previous two episodes of the series relied heavily on body-worn camera footage of dramatic pursuits narrated by police officials, resembling a municipally crafted version of the long-running TV series “Cops.”

Michael Hallett, a professor of criminology at the University of North Florida who studied the effects of “Cops,” said he viewed the NYPD’s forays into social media as a natural response to a digital media ecosystem that rewards speed and sensationalism.

The proliferation of body-camera footage and, increasingly, drones, have made it easy for police to create their own reality series, free of delays imposed by the TV gear and network schedules, he said.

“They now have a proactive and sophisticated messaging system that is designed and intended to deliver messages on behalf of the police agenda,” Hallett added. “In the negotiation for control of the message, that gives them the upper hand.”

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