The shots were fired; then came the tweets.
Every movement of law enforcement's pursuit of Christopher Dorner across Southern California last month was under the social-media microscope of Twitter.
Journalists reported what dispatchers were reporting, what officers and witnesses were saying, and what they were seeing as Dorner, who launched the vendetta for what he said was his wrongful termination from the Los Angeles Police Department, made his last stand in the frigid San Bernardino Mountains.
The Dorner standoff illustrates the dominant role social media now plays in news coverage, and the challenges it poses to law enforcement in its ability to meet information demands on a real-time basis.
Under the `Twitterscope'
San Bernardino County Sheriff deputies search door-to-door along Willow Avenue in Big Bear for ex-LAPD fugitive Christopher Jordan Dorner on Saturday February 9. (Will Lester/Los Angeles Daily News)
During the Dorner standoff, social media provided a forum to criticize and question the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department's actions, whether it was over a SWAT team's use of pyrotechnic tear gas or the actions of the department's public-information officers.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Bachman took a beating on Twitter for not being able to answer certain questions and for her becoming frustrated with one reporter who repeatedly asked the same question, turning to the reporter and saying, "Have you been here? Listening to what I've been saying?"
Bachman's name was referenced so much by so many on Twitter the day of the standoff she became a trending topic.
Bachman acknowledged her slip, saying it was a brief lapse of judgment due to the emotions running high in the wake of two deputies being shot by Dorner, one fatally, and a lack of sleep during the week-long manhunt in the mountains.
"In my 23 years with the Sheriff's Department, it was my most difficult day so far. This was probably the most emotional case that I've had to deal with," Bachman said.
Steve Chermack, a criminal-justice professor at Michigan State University who specializes in media coverage of crime and justice, said the emotional aspect of high-profile stories, especially ones involving the death of police officers, must be factored into how law enforcement officials react.
"You're dealing with grief and having to do your job and pulling all that information together," Chermack said.
In the days after the standoff, the Sheriff's Department opted to address the media via news release and news conference only.
Bachman said that decision was made in response to the hundreds of media inquiries pouring into the department - not out of spite for the onslaught of criticism.
Redlands Police officers execute a blockade along Highway 38 and Bryant Street near Yucaipa while a police standoff ensues with fugitive Christopher Dorner in Angeles Oaks on February 12. (Gabriel Luis Acosta/Los Angeles Daily News)
"We couldn't answer hundreds of phone calls. That's why we did press releases and press conferences," Bachman said. "We were addressing questions; it just wasn't in our normal day-to-day fashion."
Assistant Sheriff Ron Cochran admitted the Dorner situation was raw, but he stands by the work of his department and its public-affairs staff.
"In our opinion, we were just not comfortable talking about matters we could not vet," Cochran said. "The event created such terror in the community, and we didn't want to perpetuate that terror by putting out information we did not vet."
Chermack said social media has removed a filter in the way information is disseminated to the public, and that has police agencies grappling with how they can deliver accurate information while also trying to satisfy the media's demand for instant information.
"The way the game used to work, even with big stories, is you had to get your ducks in a row by, say, 3 or 4 o'clock for a press conference that you controlled," Chermack said. "You had that time-filter luxury that has now disappeared. The real-time demands are different, and the fear is you lose control of the story."
Continual tweeting by the news media during the Dorner standoff prompted concerns of police safety, reaching a point at which the spokesman for the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office sent a request to the news media, via tweet, asking that they stop tweeting.
"There is certainly a gray area when you make a request like that," district attorney's spokesman Christopher Lee said. "Everybody is certainly entitled to their opinion, but the bottom line was there were already three people that were dead. If (the tweet) in some small way was going to save a life, then I stand behind that."
Lee clarified that it was only a request - not a call for a media blackout. He said he tried to contact sheriff's officials before making the request.
"I made an attempt to contact (public information officers) and for obvious reasons wasn't able to get a hold of them," he said. "It was a decision that was made. I felt confident that it was a valid response."
Experts tend to agree: social media is here to stay, so law enforcement better get used to it.
"We are a democratic society, and police do not have a switch where they can turn off social-media devices because there's an investigation going on," said retired Redlands police chief Jim Bueermann, who is now the president of the Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on innovation and improvement in policing.
Bueermann said the real-time world of social media is forcing police agencies to move more quickly and be more transparent.
"They need to recognize these things are going to go viral very quickly and opinions are going to be formed based on that," Bueermann said.
Los Angeles County sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker lectures extensively on the topic of social media and its growing impact on law enforcement agencies, touching on myriad issues including cybersecurity, emergency operations and crisis communications.
"This availability of social media has had an absolutely dramatic impact on the way we do business," Parker said. "If I'm not on Twitter, the news media is going to be frustrated, and they're going to be talking in a forum I'm not a part of."
He said it is essential for law enforcement to implement, adapt to and embrace the new technologies.
"Twitter moves so fast that the media has really adopted it, and it's very important we communicate in the forums where the public and the news media are." Parker said.
The Seattle Police Department is one such law enforcement agency that has implemented social media into its day-to-day policing operations. In September, it rolled out its Tweets-By-Beat project, one of the most ambitious in the nation, allowing citizens to monitor Twitter feeds of police dispatches in each of the city's 51 policing districts.
Changing with the times
The ever-evolving technologies will likely continue to pose challenges to law enforcement agencies and other purveyors of information in years to come.
"Everything you do now is consumed in a digital way, and that's where all news breaks now," said Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
"Some of these things are happening in a way they've never happened before, and how we negotiate that new world is a challenge for the media and the agencies who are used to having control over what they do."
For the news media, the biggest challenge is separating the wheat from the chaff, Bell said.
"You get a richness of information, but you also potentially get a problem with misinformation entering the news cycle," Bell said. "Even mainstream media outlets often fall into the trap of repeating nonverified rumor."
Bueermann said law enforcement agencies will learn to take the good with the bad in the new world of social media.
"It is explosive, and it is exponential, and it is something police are going to have to grapple with," Bueermann said.
"They may not like this, but they're going to have to welcome the transparency people will increasingly demand, because it's not going to go away."
Staff writer Lori Fowler contributed to this report.