Social Media | A Gift And A Curse To Law Enforcement

Last week when a Scottsville woman said someone tried to abduct her from the Glasgow Wal-Mart parking lot, the story spread quickly on social media and included a picture of the suspect vehicle on Facebook with a very visible partial Kentucky plate number.

The story was shared multiple times before the photo was apparently removed. But not before many people began calling Glasgow police to ask if it was safe to go to the big box retailer. Someone even called the Bowling Green Police Department to report seeing the suspect van that had been pictured and was easily identifiable because of some of its exterior characteristics.

Days before the police received an official report, they were being asked questions about the incident that they didn’t know anything more about than everyone else who read about it first on Facebook.

The social media posting, sharing of the post and the resulting phone calls to Glasgow police prompted the police department to issue a press release last week asking anyone with information about the alleged incident to come forward. A Scottsville woman came forward Dec. 5 and told police she was the victim in the incident. After police interviewed her and reviewed surveillance imagery recorded during the time of the purported incident, Glasgow police charged the woman with falsely reporting an incident.

While police agencies nationwide use social media as both a way to disseminate information and as an investigative tool, social media is a double edged sword for police.

Police agencies nationwide were slammed with reports earlier this year about scary clown sightings after an initial report in another part of the country sparked a series of copy cat reports that resulted in calls to emergency dispatchers – calls that police had to check out as possible suspicious persons.

“We would ask that before you post something that you verify it,” GPD Lt. Jimmy Phelps said.

“When we get something like that (the attempted kidnapping report) and it’s not from a victim, it impacts us because then we’re overwhelmed with calls from everyone,” Phelps said. They’re asking ‘is it true,’ ‘did this happen.’ It’s time consuming to try and verify that something has or has not happened when a victim hasn’t come forward.”

In the case of the alleged false kidnapping attempt report, even though the purported incident had not been reported to police through any official channels, it tied up police resources from a very concerned public.

“It ties up our resources. Then our dispatch gets flooded with calls. We start getting calls. Then they are busy doing that when they need to answer other calls for services,” Phelps said.

Warren County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Stephen Harmon said often social media posts can incite fear when there is no cause for alarm.

“Social media can be law enforcement’s best friend or worst enemy,” Harmon said. “In the event of police in search of someone for questioning or a child abduction or a Golden Alert, in which we’ve had several chances to use social media, it gets the word out the fastest. It can be a critical investigative tool for law enforcement. But in instances where people use it for the rumor mill or to put out information that’s not accurate it can be law enforcement’s worst enemy.


“The good would be in a case where we’re trying to find a missing person with dementia, you can’t possibly spread the word faster soliciting the public’s help in a situation like that where every minute matters.

“Problems it causes us is when something happens in a school and it’s tweeted and Facebooked prematurely and what is initially reported is found not be accurate. At times it can incite fear in the public erroneously,” Harmon said. “It triggers parental response to a school when in actuality it may not be anything of a life-threatening nature at all. The fact that word travels so quickly on social media is both a blessing and a curse.

“… any time we release something to the media we release it on our social media accounts. Often times there’s a reason things aren’t posted immediately. There’s no replacement for accurate pubic information,” he said.

“An example of inciting public fear and draining emergency personnel responses resources would be the clown sightings in the past months when law enforcement could only confirm a few sightings in other places which prompted numerous local calls for service,” Harmon said. “At all times calls for service are prioritized by life safety factor; however, calls that are unfounded take man hours and attention to real calls for service away from actual incidents and emergencies. That’s time diverted from actual community needs when we could have spent it on something real.”

During the clown scare in October, Bowling Green Police Department also received several reports which officers responded to as they would a suspicious person call. The calls did not result in any other police action. No arrests were made and no one in a clown costume was ever questioned by police.

“Probably the biggest stir that I can remember would be a missing person that was old and someone reposted it several years later,” BGPD spokesman Officer Ronnie Ward said. “We got several phone calls asking why we had not put anything out onto the social media world about the incident. Ironically, it was someone who had been lost and quickly found. But it took me a little while to figure out what was going on. Fortunately, it didn’t require any other response except either by phone or social media. It didn’t put a drain on the resources but it did take up about an hours worth of an officer’s time.”

Ward said BGPD officers do monitor social media and the department uses both Twitter and Facebook to communicate to the public in addition to press releases sent out to the media.

“If we have questions that come in, we respond,” Ward said,

However, official police reports must still be made to an officer or a cadet either in person or over the telephone, he said.

Reporting a crime on social media is not considered an official report.

In Franklin, the public has attempted to use the police department’s Facebook page to report incidents, spokesman Lt. Dale Adams said. Adams set up the department’s Facebook page to send an automated response to anyone who sends a private message that the Facebook page is not monitored 24 hours a day and if people need to report a crime, they should call the department for an immediate response

via Alex Slitz

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