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Police walk fine line in social media world

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 9:44 p.m.

BETHLEHEM — Hours after a Dec. 2 gun battle that killed a woman and wounded five men, Bethlehem police posted a brief statement to their online blog that confirmed a death in the shootout, but gave few other details.

That evening, police officials posted a video from a freelance photographer that showed a chaotic scene of police cruisers with flashing lights outside a Puerto Rican social club on East Third Street. The video included an interview with a man who said he witnessed a fight that began when a group attacked another man with a baseball bat. The witness said gunfire erupted, which sent him ducking for cover.

Within days, the district attorney would order police officials to remove the video, saying the witness had recanted and the police blog post could cause problems for prosecutors when they make their case in court against two men charged in the shootings.

In each of the blog postings, police used their Twitter and Facebook accounts to alert their followers of the crime, part of a growing trend among police departments to use an online presence to connect with the community. Much like the police scanners of previous generations, these online postings often give the community its first news of such crimes.

As hundreds of police departments take up social media to fight crime sprees or ask for help in ongoing investigations, Bethlehem's post of the video underscores the fine line authorities must walk in the social media world. While Twitter and Facebook offer more tools to find witnesses and walk the virtual beat, police officials must also be conscious their posts carry the weight of their role as an authority.

Some local departments — including Bethlehem Township, Pen Argyl, Wilson and Salisbury Township — are in the beginning stages of using social media. Among larger departments, Allentown, Easton and state police do not use social media accounts.

In the Lehigh Valley, Bethlehem police are the most prolific users of social media.

Walking the virtual beat

Those who follow Bethlehem police on Twitter and like them on Facebook can read summaries from officials about crimes or requests for help in identifying suspects. The department also maintains its own blog site to release media accounts or post surveillance photos.

In posting updates about crimes or cracking jokes about cops munching on doughnuts, Bethlehem police Chief Jason Schiffer has built a following of thousands on the department's Twitter page @BethlehemPolice and on the department's blog. The informal banter helps to build a rapport with residents that he hopes will pay off when bigger crimes hit and police need help.

As details about the shootings outside the Puerto Rican Beneficial Society were collected, reporters used the video from the supposed witness in their initial reports to describe the hectic scene where the 23-year-old woman died and the five men were shot. But investigators later determined the account given by Jeffrey Noe wasn't credible.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli asked that the video be removed because it could “hamper” the prosecution of two men facing criminal charges in a gunfight he described as one of the worst he's ever seen.

“We should not be putting out information that is inaccurate and putting it on the police blog,” Morganelli said. “Obviously if police put it out on their blog, defense attorneys are going to use this in defense of their clients.

“When it starts to hamper the prosecution of the case, it needs to be addressed,” he said.

Schiffer said a miscommunication between police officials led to a delay in the removal of the video, which wasn't taken down until Dec. 12.

He said he posted the video because it gave a sense of the chaotic scene and what unfolded that night. He said Morganelli's concerns were valid.

“We weren't posting it like it was an exact account of what happened,” Schiffer said. “It gave a sense of what happened, and now that person has recanted. It's something that happens very often with eyewitnesses.”

Pros and cons

Bethlehem police Lt. Mark DiLuzio said social media, like other tools used by investigators, has advantages and disadvantages. He said it's fine to use social media to warn residents about break-ins or to publish surveillance photos in hopes of identifying a suspect.

“But we shouldn't be alerting the public to everything we do in an investigation,” he said. “If used improperly, (social media) could jeopardize an investigation.”

While he is surprised police would post an unvetted interview, Allentown defense attorney John Waldron doesn't believe the video raises many problems — the defense's private investigators likely would have found the video online anyway.

He also said a good prosecutor would try to neutralize the video early in the trial by admitting the mistake in posting it and dispelling any inconsistencies the interview has with the state's case.

Where such a video might be of interest is if the defense pushes for a change of venue or requests an outside jury be brought into the county to hear the case. An attorney could argue that the video was seen by so many people that they could be prejudiced in the case, Waldron said.

“That will surely be a question asked while selecting a jury,” he said.

Lauri Stevens, a social media strategist based near Boston, said it is unusual for police departments to post independent, unvetted material on websites. Even the stories tweeted from reputable news sources, she said, are usually checked to ensure police are cast in a favorable light.

While the video posted by Bethlehem turned out to be wrong, she pointed out the intent was good — to engage the public and get information out in a timely manner.

“I wouldn't spank him too hard over this. I hate to see agencies overreact, pull the plug and not use social media at all,” Stevens said. “We're all learning. If you visualize a bell curve, when it comes to police using social media, we're still climbing and we have a way to go.”

She said a good rule of thumb came from a California police chief's joke: “Don't do anything to discredit us.” Stevens said she wouldn't draw up too strict guidelines on what can be tweeted or blogged because that stifles the informal exchanges that help police build a rapport with the community.

Virtual rewards

And that rapport is what makes social media so enticing for law enforcement — the virtual beat can reap online what a patrolman on the streets could in the neighborhood.

“Social media helps police apply the community policing principles to the way we live today,” said Nancy Kolb, senior program manager at the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “Truly, we spend a good amount of time in virtual communities, sharing stories and personal information with those folks who know more about us than those living in our physical neighborhood.”

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 92 percent of 600 law enforcement agencies surveyed in 48 states use social media. More than half that don't are considering it.

The most common use is for investigations. About 74 percent of the agencies surveyed say social media have solved major crimes, while 77.1 percent say they are used to investigate crimes.

Some claims of success

The media are brimming with success stories about how police nabbed criminals by tweeting Amber Alerts or posting mug shots of fugitives. Philadelphia police have made more than 100 arrests as a result of social media tips. And one police department in Florida featured a virtual ride-along “Tweet on the Beat” to give people a glimpse of how police operate and ask officers questions or provide non-emergency tips.

And hearing the buzz on the virtual block also can ward off potential problems. One example happened last summer during Musikfest, a festival that can draw 100,000 people a day to Bethlehem. Schiffer, the city's police chief, saw plans for a photo scavenger hunt unfold on a local blog and knew it could spell trouble for police at an event where drinking sometimes takes center stage.

The contest called for various photos, including someone who was passed out, vomiting or being arrested, and police officials worried that a photographer could draw unnecessary attention to the situation and possibly spark a confrontation, which wouldn't be good for police or festival-goers.

So, the city's top cop took to the department's Twitter account, reaching out with a light-hearted quip: “Better to chat beforehand than after when it's too late... O(equals)O (those are handcuffs),” Schiffer wrote.

He also used social media heavily during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, when many people were left without power. Schiffer encouraged residents still in the dark to charge their cellphones on the city generators that were powering traffic lights, and issued warnings about downed trees and wires.

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