How the mayor's office exerts control over CPD social media
In late June, the Dispatch reported that Mayor Andrew Ginther’s office had been controlling news releases and social media updates for the Columbus Division of Police.
The discovery followed a series ofCPD social media posts that became a source of embarrassment for the department, including one about a bus that CPD pegged as a source of violence during Downtown protests. Alive's reporting later revealed that the bus, dubbed Buttercup by its owners, was home to a small group of hippie street performers. The story ended up gaining widespread national attention, appearing everywhere from “All In with Chris Hayes” to “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
“The City is at a critical moment, and words matter,” wrote Robin Davis, Mayor Ginther’s director of media relations, in an email to the Dispatch regarding the office’s move to take greater control of the narrative emanating from CPD. “The Mayor’s office began reviewing social media posts to assure the right tone and message.”
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Davis was comparatively blunt in describing the reason for the policy shift in a June 10 email directed to Deputy Chief Jennifer Knight. “We are trying to avoid social media posts from the Division that can be seen as inflammatory,” Davis wrote.
In an attempt to ascertain how the new policy works in practice, Alive made a public records request to gain access to two days of CPD emails copied to Davis, from June 10 and 11. At that point, the practice was still in its infancy, as evidenced by multiple emails asking questions about the developing policy.
“It has been brought [to] my attention … [that] until instructed to do otherwise, we shall not post anything to our social media accounts, schedule any in person, camera, phone, radio, or print interviews of any kind without vetting through either of you or a representative from outside CPD?” Sgt. James Fuqua asked in an email copied to Davis and Kate Pishotti, Mayor Ginther’s deputy chief of staff. “We don’t mind following these guidelines, we just want to have some clarity on how the process works.”
Another email from Deputy Chief Timothy Becker requests clarification as to whether detectives and supervisors are prohibited from giving statements to the media at a crime scene, as “this would not be a scheduled interview,” he writes. “If so, is there a standard message that we can provide as this is a major change in policy and the media will be asking why?” (Davis later responded that “detectives/supervisors giving a statement to the media at a crime scene is fine.”)
For the most part, the emails are cursory, with CPD public information officer Denise Alex-Bouzounis copying Davis on press releases and requesting permission to post, which Davis tended to grant in short order. “Another release I typically post on social media. OK to post this?” Alex-Bouzounis wrote in one email accompanying information about a late-night shooting on Taylor Avenue. (Davis’ response: “This one is fine. You’re just asking for the community’s help, right?”)
But there is one June 11 exchange that is slightly more illustrative, centered on a photograph in which CPD officers posed with former Ohio State star and top NFL draft pick Chase Young, where opinions shifted as the image was given more careful consideration.
Lt. Duane Mabry sent the initial email, which detailed a Short North run-in officers had with Young, during which Mabry said Young talked about “his LE friends and family members, including his dad who is a corrections officer,” before posing with the group for a photo.
“Chase said if we posted it on social media make sure he is tagged,” Mabry wrote, attaching the picture.
Alex-Bouzounis then forwarded Mabry’s email to Davis accompanied by a note that CPD would “love” to post the photo if permission could be granted.
The next email in the exchange comes from CPD Chief Thomas Quinlan. “Great picture but he’s wearing a mask and officers are not due to riding a bike which is allowed but there is no social distancing,” he wrote. “Still a violation.”
Deputy Chief Richard Bash also registered opposition to making a post. “I don’t think that would go well for [Young] as I would expect backlash, I recommend no,” Bash wrote.
Several hours later, a reply arrived from Davis. “We’re OK with it,” Davis wrote, “but if you don’t feel comfortable, don’t post it.”
Despite the thumbs up, the photo never appeared on any CPD social media accounts.