Don't Tweet: In D.C., a New War on Public Safety Information

Citing safety concerns, the city opts to filter which public safety incidents citizens get to hear about

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Courtesy Washington Area Bicyclist Association

Local news reporters here in Washington, D.C. have been up in arms for a couple of weeks now over the sudden disappearance, then (somewhat castrated) reappearance, and now finally removal and reassignment of one of the city's most useful sources of information: former D.C. fire department spokesperson Pete Piringer, a veteran of regional public safety PR and, up until recently, the voice behind the prolific @dcfireems Twitter feed.

The hiring and firing of individual public information officers is the kind of story that only journalists care about. These are the people who reporters rely on to get back to us quickly with accurate information, and when they appear to lose their jobs for over-sharing with the media, it naturally rankles. Not only is it a sign that the current administration is interested in making it more difficult for reporters to do their jobs, but the best PIOs, like Piringer, tend to have personal relationships with the journalists they talk to everyday. Nothing can set off a wave of resentment across an entire press corps like the removal of a decent flack.

But this particular move by the District, to stem the tide of information coming out of the city's fire department, should alarm anyone who cares about transparency and responsiveness in local government. It's also part of a larger picture that's emerged over the last several months of the current administration's desire to keep crucial public safety information out of the hands of the public.

In August, the D.C. police department announced it would begin encrypting its radio communications in an effort to prevent people with police radio smart phone apps from listening in. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier argued that the proliferation of such apps has made it too easy for criminals to track the comings and goings of her officers, putting them at risk. But what the move really means is that the city's newsrooms will no longer be able to dispatch reporters to the scenes of major crimes, fires, and other emergencies as soon as they happen. Lanier's argument also barely holds up to scrutiny: police radio apps may be easy to get, but the bar to anyone intent on listening to dispatches so they could theoretically show up and harm a sworn officer was awfully low already. All you need is about $75 and access to a Radio Shack.

Which brings us back to the fire department's twitter feed, but first some important context: the D.C. police department has never had a good reputation when it comes to keeping the public informed. Press releases about major investigations are routinely posted to the department's website days late, if at all. Freedom of Information Act requests are almost always denied or, worse, ignored. Calls to the public information office, while handled professionally, are often answered by officers who either can't or won't share the most up to date information.

So when a couple of years ago the fire department started regularly tweeting the details of any major fire or emergency medical call it was responding to, it was something of a revelation. Anyone following @dcfireems suddenly had a very clear picture of just how many times a week the nation's capital is forced to shut down a street for suspicious package investigations (answer: a lot). Young gentrifiers were made painfully aware that the transitional neighborhoods they'd opted to live in were still plagued by the types of violent crime that don't always make the evening news: every non-fatal shooting, stabbing, or brawl was being broadcasted in real-time. And, perhaps most pronounced, residents here woke up to the alarming frequency with which pedestrians and cyclists were being struck by car and bus drivers in the middle of the city. Seemingly endless updates like the one above eventually inspired a cadre of local bloggers to launch the Struck in DC website and related Twitter feed, a grassroots effort to increase public safety awareness for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike.

Then last month, the tweets suddenly stopped. At first the fire department said Piringer was merely on vacation, but it soon became clear there was another motive at play. Lon Walls, the fire department's communication director, eventually admitted that the feed was being reassessed under pressure from "another agency," and went so far as to deride the entire concept of communicating via social media as something that's "for parties." After an initial burst of outrage from local media, the feed briefly came back to life, but then yesterday WTOP reporter Mark Segraves revealed that Piringer had at last been removed from his position and reassigned to something called the Office of the Secretary, a marginal outpost dedicated to largely ceremonial endeavors like handing out keys to the city and drafting letters of proclamation. The @dcfireems feed had indeed already started to reflect Piringer's absence with a stream of banal public relations announcements:

What we still don't know for sure is which agency or agencies were uncomfortable with the information that @dcfireems was dishing out. But Segraves offers some likely candidates:

Piringer was prolific in his tweeting of breaking news and information, but sources inside the mayor's office say there was blowback from other agencies that Piringer's tweets were making them look slow and unresponsive. D.C. Police recently began encrypting police radio transmissions so the public, the press, and criminals can no longer listen.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has denied she had anything to do with shutting down the fire department's twitter feed, but Walls acknowledged that he did speak to Piringer about scaling back his tweets.

"We had a discussion, I told Pete he was going out of his lanes in terms of other agencies," Walls says, referring to tweets Piringer put out about active crime scenes and fallen trees during recent storms. D.C. Fire and EMS were not the lead response agencies on some of those incidents, despite the fact that the department responded to them.

Between this throttling of @dcfireems and the encryption of the police department's radio signals, the D.C. government is now sending a clear message: it doesn't think the public has a right to know what's happening.

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.