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Social media helps, hinders police

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Sunday, November 10, 2019

In October, the body of a young woman who disappeared more than 15 years ago was located by the Nash County Sheriff’s Department and, that same day, a suspect was apprehended for her homicide.

A local Facebook page, Fighting Crime, was credited with producing the tip that led to the solution of the case. Someone anonymously contacted the social media site with specific information about the burial site and gave closure to the family and justice to the victim.

According to the City of Rocky Mount, on Oct. 13, an unidentified suspect walked into a retail establishment and used a long rifle to commit a robbery. During the investigation, officers were able to obtain video surveillance of the suspect and his picture was posted on the city’s social media outlets and picked up by other social media sites. Within two days, the Rocky Mount Police Department had the information they needed to make an arrest.

But also in October, the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Department sent out a press release concerning the homicide of Dakotah Redmond with a warning attached.

“We encourage citizens to behave responsibly on social media and not post rumors or unconfirmed information as it taints possible witnesses and ties up deputies following up on tips that are unfounded,” the release said.

Today, social media sites abound. Newspapers and television stations are not the only ones with a social media presence anymore. Most law enforcement agencies have their own social media presence, usually at least a Facebook page. And private citizens, such as Katheryn Zughbi, have launched pages such as the Fighting Crime site that are having an effect on law enforcement activities.

But is that effect always positive? To get the answers, the Telegram reached out to local law enforcement agencies to see what advantages and disadvantages social media sites play in bringing criminals to justice. Representatives from both the Nash County and Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Offices responded readily with helpful responses.

The Rocky Mount police chief and Cpl. Clay Wilder, the communications officer for the Rocky Mount Police Department, apparently were not allowed to respond directly to these questions. Instead, a communications officer with the City of Rocky Mount assumed control of the email and responded with answers primarily touting the benefits of the City of Rocky Mount website and Facebook page. The Telegram repeatedly was told to “credit” those answers to Chief George Robinson. Robinson could not be reached to verify if he actually wrote the answers.

However, representatives of both sheriff’s departments were enthusiastic about the benefits of social media in law enforcement as well as concerned about its negative effects.

“Social media sites are essentially a force multiplier for us,” said Lt. E. Wilson Muse of the Criminal Investigations Division of the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office. “They have created a network of thousands of citizens who call in and give tips, oftentimes when they wouldn’t give the tip to law enforcement.”

Chief Deputy Brandon Medina of the Nash County Sheriff’s Office agreed that social media sites offer benefits to law enforcement and the community.

“Local social media sites are a benefit to local and regional communities because they provide awareness to quality-of-life issues, provide updates regarding in-progress criminal events and disseminate community-oriented events, which normally wouldn’t make the local media because of our geographical area and the time it takes to print or get a media outlet to report ‘live’ on some of the aforementioned examples,” Medina said.

Social media sites do offer faster access to information, often based on scanner calls or press releases from other organizations. But this is because they are not guided by journalistic principals. They do not rely on official sources of information and do not verify facts, efforts that take time. Newspapers and television stations do. As a result, unofficial social media sites lose something when it comes to accuracy. And the information provided on these sites may harm an ongoing investigation, authorities said.

“There are some disadvantages or dangers with local social media sites posting detailed information pertaining to an in-progress criminal event,” Medina said. “Some of the information released isn’t all the time correct or it may be preliminary information, which can change suddenly as the situation continues. Information posted on social media sites can not only be read by followers but can also be read by the alleged suspect. This can change the alleged suspect’s evading tactics or make the individual conscious that they have been identified and result in even further dangerous behaviors.”

Muse also said that rushing to post an event can have a detrimental effect.

“Media and social media users can complicate investigations by rushing to be the first person to post. Crime scenes are sensitive and the media in general wants to know details about the scene and can contaminate potential witnesses by releasing information of a sensitive nature,” Muse said.

Social media sites and the people who use them may often be insensitive about distributing information, a problem that both law enforcement officers mentioned.

“Another disadvantage with local social media sites is with the posting of information or releasing the name of an injured or deceased victim before the next of kin has been notified,” Medina said. “It is a known fact many local communities are connected to social media and information travels fast. However, family members don’t want to learn from a social media site about the injury or death of a loved one.”

Muse agreed.

“Often, family members of the deceased find out through social media rather than us, because we are taking the necessary steps to positively identify the deceased before contacting the family,” Muse said.

Social media sites have the advantage of engaging the public and spreading information that can generate tips to help solve crime. But while law enforcement agencies welcome tips provided through social media outlets, there are reasons that it is better to give those tips directly to law enforcement agencies, authorities said.

“It is better for people to contact law enforcement directly,” Muse said. “We know what specific questions we need to ask. We know the process of getting the raw information and taking it to court. But it is fine for it to be given to a social media site and passed on to us. Unless the witness speaks to us though, we cannot use it for court.”

Medina encourages the involvement of citizens when it comes to solving crimes but said there are more appropriate ways to provide information.

“We encourage citizens to contact law enforcement agencies with information and tips so we can follow up diligently and without any delay,” Medina said. “We know some citizens prefer to remain anonymous, and we definitely understand and respect their wishes. There are several means for citizens to provide information and tips so they can remain anonymous.

“The first is for tipsters to call Twin County Crime Stoppers at 252-977-1111. The caller can leave the message and they will remain anonymous.

“The second is for tipsters to send us a tip via social media. Messages can be sent to us via our Facebook page at facebook.com/NashCountySO.

“The third is for tipsters to use Text-A-Tip which is managed by the Rocky Mount Police Department. Tipsters can text police at 274637 by beginning messages with RMPOL and typing up to 155 characters about the information.

“The last means for citizens to provide information and tips is to contact these local social media sites who in turn can reach out to us and forward the information,” Medina said.

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