St. Louis police tweet warning to parents about toy guns. Why was the tweet removed?

Twitter screenshot
A screen capture of a now-deleted tweet from the St. Louis County Police Department.

Timing and context are critical communication elements.

A social media and communications expert who works with law enforcement has some advice for police: If you want to make a comment about recent events in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., or Cleveland, Ohio, – resist the urge.

“If you’re going to say something make sure your words are contributing something positive to the situation. If not, don’t say them,” says Lauri Stevens of  Boston, Mass., founder and principal consultant with LAwS Communications. “It’s not just law enforcement making that error. It’s happening on both sides.”

But today, it was a law enforcement officer. 

Twitter and Facebook users responded mostly with wrath over a St. Louis County police post relating to the fatal police shooting not in Ferguson but in Cleveland.

The post used the death of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old who was shot last month by a white Cleveland police officer who mistook his toy gun for a real weapon, as an opportunity for child gun education.

The St. Louis County police tweeted a lengthy post from the City of Fenton Precinct's Facebook page titled "Kids will be Kids?"

"If you or your children have an Airsoft or pellet gun please sit them down at talk to them about this tragedy. Your children should have rules for "toy" guns that mirror the rules of a real weapon. Pellet guns and Airsoft guns should nt be allowed to be played with throughout the neighborhood, common grounds or used to threaten or intimidate people... Warn them that these "toys" do look like real guns and could result in the police getting called on them. ... the Police will respond as though it is a real gun until it can be confirmed one way or the other..."

The resulting outcry resulted in the post immediately being taken down.

“It’s such a sensitive topic it seems to me you would want to be very, very careful with the wording,” Stevens says. “There are so many other things to post about. Why choose the one that has that kind of potential to go wrong?”

Lecia Brooks, Director of Outreach at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Monitor, "The shooting of Tamir Rice as well as events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, have understandably left people questioning the actions of the police in their communities. This latest statement by police in St. Louis County reinforces the sense that the police – particularly those in communities of color in this nation – don’t trust law-abiding residents and are too quick to use deadly force. It fuels the long-simmering distrust between residents and police in these communities.”

Rather than unifying the community to consider ways to prevent such tragedies from happening, the Facebook post ignited more criticism of the police.

As Twitter user Jonathan Glick of New York posted, “@eliasisquith @stlcountypd the folksy quotation marks around "kids will be kids" is the heart of darkness.”

“None of this is part of the solution,” Stevens says.

Stevens adds, “On any other case at any other time that post by the precinct would probably not have drawn this response. It’s always in good taste to express condolences, but to make comment on a case as this post did only give people another excuse to say ‘See? See? I told you cops are bad guys.’”

The big picture concern, according to Stevens is that by constantly pouncing on every single tweet and post made by law enforcement the darkness will block out the sunshine of communications.

“The real concern is that police will retreat entirely from social media and all the strides that have been made to build communications with the public will be lost,” she said. “That would be a step in the wrong  direction for everyone.”

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