Deconstructing Alaska: Nixle part 2
In the previous entry of this series, I talked with Alaska journalist Casey Grove about the implications and possible repercussions of Nixle. The question that permeated our conversation was, What does it mean to the authenticity of information if it’s being disseminated by those who receive the most public scrutiny from it? It’s a question of transparency—who watches the watchmen?
Deconstructing Alaska: Nixle part 2
By Cody Liska
Photo by Young Kim
In the months to follow, Crude will be releasing “Deconstructing Alaska,” an interview series aimed at promoting the transparency of Alaska institutions. We will explore past, present and potential future policies of a given institution through the perspectives of the professionals currently working in that field.
It is not our intention to belittle these institutions, but rather to encourage public discourse and critical thinking so that we, as Alaskans, can move toward a more symbiotic relationship. Because the better we understand each other, the better we can work together.
In the previous entry to this series, I talked with Alaska journalist Casey Grove about the implications and possible repercussions of Nixle. The question that permeated our conversation was, What does it mean to the authenticity of information if it’s being disseminated by those who receive the most public scrutiny from it? It’s a question of transparency—who watches the watchmen?
For those of us who scrutinize Nixle: is it warranted or have we just misunderstood its intentions? To get a better understanding, I reached out to MJ Thim, the Anchorage Police Department’s newest Public Information Officer (PIO).
Before MJ became the PIO for APD, he was a journalist for over 20 years. He started his career as a journalist in Baltimore, where he worked as a news manager. He was responsible for the day to day operations of the newsroom. What they covered and how they covered it was a collaborative decision, he says, it was a constant conversation with the reporters, the photojournalists, the producers, the executive producers and news management. Crime was an inevitable part of the news cycle.
His dad was a police officer in Baltimore for 25 years. “Working in Baltimore with my dad and his former police agency, I had a lot of internal context,” MJ tells me. “I got a chance to go in and observe and take a look at things. And that was more or less for me to make contacts and build relationships for my job as a journalist, but I’m now relying on those experiences as a PIO for the Anchorage Police Department.”
MJ moved to Alaska about 10 years ago. He has worked in broadcast news, at channels KTUU and KTVA. You might remember him as the guy with the novelty socks. He says he still has those socks. “People have come up to me and say that they miss me on [KTUU] Channel 2 and that they miss my socks. I still have my socks,” he tells me. “But then they’ve also been super nice and positive about what I’m doing for the [police] department. A lady came up to me a couple weeks ago and said, ‘I feel safe when I see you on the TV.’ And I thought that was one of the highest compliments I can get.”
Our conversation was much longer than I think MJ was expecting, but he remained gracious.
Here’s what I learned.
The APD Public Information Officer position used to be filled by a sworn officer. It’s not that way anymore. Do you know why that is?
I don’t. I can tell you, for me, one of the things that I wanted to make clear is that even though I was a TV person I didn’t take this job because I thought I was going to be on-air or the face of APD. And I didn’t want to take the job if they were looking for somebody to be the face of APD. I knew that that was some aspect of it, but my philosophy is that a uniformed person is the best representative of this department. It’s more effective, in terms of information and messaging, if the public sees the information coming from somebody who is in uniform or who is a sworn officer—we have detectives who don’t wear the uniform. Hearing it from somebody who lives it and breathes it every day, with boots on the ground, is a much more effective message than hearing it from somebody like myself. It doesn’t happen all the time because their priorities are public safety and I was hired on for public information, but any opportunity where I can get somebody in uniform to publicly speak on behalf of the department, that will happen.
What are your thoughts about the police scanner going dark and the flow of information from APD thereafter?
Well, it came down to personal information and Alaska state law. The type of information that was being shared on the scanner was personal information. For example, with identity theft, somebody listening to that scanner can take somebody’s personal information and run with it. And there was also a public safety component to it too. So, there were a bunch of variables that went into making that decision, and the chief is adamant about protecting people’s information.
You were a broadcast journalist at that time. Do you think it made it more difficult for you to do your job?
It didn’t bother me at all. [The scanner] was a really convenient tool to have to help us stay informed about what was happening, but with social media there are other ways to stay connected to the community and find out what’s going on. There are tons of social media groups out there talking about what’s happening in their community. So, [the scanner going dark] just put you back on relying on working the phones and working different avenues to build relationships and make contacts in the community to make sure you’re aware of what’s happening.
Do you think that the people of Anchorage should be concerned with the implications of Nixle—that a government institution like APD, an institution that is under the most scrutiny for city-wide crime, is in control of the crime-related information that is released to the public?
No, I think people forget that we have the Community Crime Map, and that Nixle is not used to put out every call or every investigation. Nixle provides the [police] department with the ability to reach the community directly, and ultimately helps people find value in the department by receiving information and sharing it, [information] regarding their safety. We have found Nixle to be very functional, dependable and really effective for keeping the public informed.
For example, the Aurora homicide investigation, where we had a description of the suspect’s vehicle, which ended up being the victim’s vehicle, and we put [a Nixle out] and a short time later a subscriber on the east side [of Anchorage] thought that they saw the vehicle and [APD] ended up arresting the suspect and charging that person.
How much feedback does APD get from the public about Nixles?
More and more people are signing up for Nixle because of the public interaction. It’s a tool for [APD] to not only keep the public informed, but also to have them take part in us solving a crime. We just crested over 46,000 subscribers, so we’re homing in on about a 7,000 subscriber increase since this summer.
We are very very conscientious of what information we make public. So, when we use that text option for Nixle, we really are conscientious of what kind of reaction the public will have to that. We want the public to take an action, and so when we use that text alert it’s going to be something that bubbles up to that situation. When it doesn’t, it’s an email, and that stuff goes directly to our Facebook and our Twitter accounts as well. We don’t want to abuse the text alerts because that is such an important tool for us. We don’t want it to become white noise.
Does APD consider the psychological impact of sending out Nixles?
The content of [a Nixle] is very intentional. What are we saying and how are we saying it? Because when [APD] says something, it carries a tremendous amount of weight, and with that comes a tremendous amount of responsibility.
The public wants to help. There is no question about that. So, now it’s about how do we get them to help us effectively? Our officers are trained, we got our investigative techniques, but we can’t do it without the public. So how do we keep them engaged and connected appropriately, but also respecting them as well? You know?
The few things I’ve reached out to you about, you’ve been very helpful, which is very much the opposite of my experience with past PIOs at APD. Their answers were very guarded and pre-packaged. Whereas this feels like more of a conversation.
Are you trying to give me a compliment and say I’m a relatable guy? (laughs)
(Laughs) That too, but I think being relatable helps in your position. When you’re in a communications position where you have to communicate information about something like a crime, and everyone is putting in their best efforts to convey what is going on, I think that process works best when no one is acting as a hindrance to that process.
One of the reasons I was hired was to strengthen and, in some respects, rebuild the media partnership because the police department is all about public safety, and journalists have a responsibility to keep the public informed about what’s happening in their community. So, you have both of these organizations that are working for the public, so we have to work together. There is no argument there. It’s gotta be functional, it’s gotta be productive, it’s gotta be a working relationship.
And this relationship between journalists and the police department ebbs and flows. It’s gone from accessibility all the time, to none, to some, to not so much. It’s been inconsistent and what has developed is frustration and misunderstanding on both sides.
When I was hired on, there was only one person in this department trying to manage every single aspect of public information and communication, and it’s not a one person job. Now we have three people because the chief believes in keeping the public informed as much as possible. A big responsibility for us is to keep the public informed, but another big responsibility for us is to protect the integrity of the investigation. And so, there is information that we would love to share with the public, but we just can’t because that will jeopardize the integrity of the investigation.
Maybe it’s true or maybe it’s people paying too much attention to what’s being said on social media, but a lot of people think there’s more crime happening in Anchorage now than ever before. How does APD view crime in Anchorage right now? Do they think there’s more crime, is there less crime or is it about the same?
Our officers work so hard; they dedicate their lives every day; they put their lives on the line every day to keep Anchorage safe. Are folks more aware of what’s happening in their neighborhoods than they were before? Absolutely. You go back decades and the only form of communication was a newspaper, then you fast forward to cable and 24-hour news cycles, and now you have social media added to that. So, people’s awareness of what’s happening in their neighborhood is a lot higher and that plays into public perception and how they feel in terms of their community.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there now because of social media. So, it’s really important to make sure [APD] can get the facts out there as quickly as possible. If journalists hear of something or they see something and they call [APD], then we can verify the information as fast as we can, but we also gotta be real careful to protect the integrity of the investigation.
There was a really great article that the Alaska Dispatch News did in terms of crime and rate. They went all the way back to the 80s, when crime was a lot worse.
Property crime definitely is the biggest impactor right now for residents because it’s impacting so many people… With the advent of the 24/7 information cycle, whether it’s on television, radio, print, or online, it’s having an impact. Social media has increased people’s awareness of crime in their community… [and] when you have access to all this information, people, I think, forget that there is an emotional element that’s attached to that [because] any type of information plays a role in perception. One of the cool things that’s happening right now is Nixle has helped engage the public like never before.
I think that people have a tendency to run with whatever they see on social media and then fill in the blanks with their own narrative.
People really should do their research when they read something or watch something on social media. There aren’t rules and regulations for social media like there are with traditional media. There’s a ton of misinformation on social media. My advice to people is to make sure they use reputable social media sites like APD’s Facebook page or your blog—you’ve got your followers who trust you—or other news organizations like the ADN, to get information, or at least verify it.
A lot of things we get in our office is just verifying information, and a lot of that is, “no, that did not happen” and “that’s not true” and us telling them, “this is what happened. Here’s the call that we got and here’s the location we got the call.” It’s really about dispelling a lot of those falsehoods and misinformation.
For example, I got an email with a screen grab from a Facebook group where somebody posted about a homicide and a dead body that was found and [the post] had details about what had happened or what they believed had happened. And it turned out there was no homicide at all, but it didn’t matter at that point because it got shared a bunch of times and people were commenting. Again, people really need to stop and do their research when they read something or they watch something on social media.
You mentioned reputable sources, but what’s another way people can mitigate believing everything they read and watch on social media?
Whenever there is a major public safety threat going on, [APD] will 100 percent, unequivocally be notifying the public of the situation. Whether it’s through traditional media or through Nixle… we will be using Nixle at first-go.
Who is your direct superior?
And who is his direct superior?
The public and the mayor.