Inside the NYPD's comms response to the Chelsea bombing

Peter Donald, the New York Police Department's assistant commissioner for communication and public information, talks about the steps his team has taken since Saturday night's explosion.

NEW YORK: Twitter has been an "invaluable" tool for the New York Police Department to communicate with the public after an explosion in the Chelsea neighborhood on Saturday night, said assistant commissioner for communication and public information Peter Donald.

The NYPD, which has 118 Twitter accounts spanning its precincts, used the platform to crowdsource photos of the suspect, who was captured on Monday morning, and to disseminate information to the public.

The department’s Twitter feeds let members of the public near the explosion know where to go, what to do, and who to call if they saw anything suspicious. Hours after the explosion on 23rd Street, which injured 29 people, a second device was discovered four blocks away on West 27th Street.

"We asked people to back away from windows on West 27th Street as we were moving the second device on Saturday night," Donald noted.

With more than 100 accounts, the NYPD coordinated all of its users to make sure its message about the bombs was aligned.

"Making sure you have the right message and you are communicating the right set of facts is key," said Donald. "One piece of misinformation, incorrect info, or mistimed information can be a problem." 

The department’s communications strategy was not limited to Twitter. The NYPD updated its Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts with information about the explosive devices. It also focused on media relations, Donald added.

A new crisis communications tool
Saturday night also marked the first time the police department used cell-phone-alert system Notify NYC to quickly get through to people in Chelsea. The alerts had previously been used to ping residents about weather emergencies and child abductions.

"First, we used the alert in a more localized application on Saturday night in the Chelsea area to warn people about [the second device] found on 27th Street," said Donald.

It used the notification system more widely on Monday morning to flash an alert on the cell phones of millions of New Yorkers with the name and age of suspect Ahmad Rahami. The virtual wanted poster told the public to "see media for pic" and call 911 if he was spotted.

Donald said John Miller, NYPD deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, contacted him at 7 a.m. on Monday to detail his plan to publicly release the suspect’s photo and name.

"He asked us to get this information out in a variety of ways," said Donald. "In addition to [the cell phone notification] we sent it out to the media and pushed it out on our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts."

Donald said he had no concerns about using the cell-phone-alert system to ask the public for assistance and credited it for helping police nab Rahami in New Jersey.

"We got the notification out to the public by 7:30 a.m. and by 11 a.m. [suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami] was in custody," he said.

In the aftermath of the bombing, the NYPD is focused on spreading the message that New Yorkers should be vigilant.

"We want people to know they should not live in fear, but be aware of their surroundings," said Donald. "It is important to communicate that during an event like this."  

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