Police take good with bad in social media world

Joplin Police Department Capt. Trevor Duncan logs on to the JPD's Facebook page on Thursday afternoon at the police station. Globe | Laurie Sisk

Ask Joplin Police Department Capt. Trevor Duncan about the best and worst things about social media for a law enforcement agency, and a particular phrase might be repeated.

The best part? If the department needs to disseminate a suspect's photo or description as quickly as possible, a public constantly tethered to smartphones and networks can reliably generate hundreds of shares in a matter of minutes.

"People are always on their social media," said Duncan, the department's public information officer, in an interview on Thursday.

The downside? When nearly anyone is able to contact the department simply by clicking "send," it can be overwhelming or even impossible to get an immediate response.

"People are always on their social media," Duncan echoed with a laugh, as he caught himself repeating the same line.

The JPD is active on both Facebook and Twitter, and while both have been around a decade or more, perhaps their ubiquity throughout society is a recent change.

“It works both ways," Duncan said. "Because they’re always on it to help us, but then they’re always on it to tip us. And we appreciate the tips, we get a lot of tips that aren’t time-sensitive, and those work out great. But the time-sensitive tips — you know, it’s just not the best way to notify us.”

Duncan is the primary administrator of the department's online presence, but he said other captains as well as supervisors have access to the pages so information can be distributed and received as efficiently as possible. Still, issues or situations that could be responded to if called into the department can slip through the cracks when sent by social media after hours or overnight, a problem Webb City police Chief Don Melton said he experiences as well.

"We pay people to sit there and answer the phones," Melton joked.

Where the two — along with Lamar police chief and Duncan's predecessor at the Joplin Police Department, Rusty Rives — agree, is that social media is beneficial in releasing information to the public in a timely manner.

"There’s times in severe weather when we can say ‘Hey, there’s a possibility of a tornado watch,’" said Melton, who also serves as the city's emergency manager. "As the city’s emergency management director, I’m able to push out that information. But (please) don’t rely on Facebook to be your go-to weather outlet."

Rives, the former JPD public information official and new Lamar chief, said the interconnected nature of today's society has fundamentally changed how law enforcement, media outlets and the public interact.

"If I send out a press release, the typical format (used to be) you sent it out in email," he said. "Well there’s been multiple press releases that I sent out (now) that I would just publish it and tag the media outlets in it, and they would respond to that. I think one of the driving factors of that is our society’s connection for instant information.''

Rives said that instant access to information might mean society doesn’t recognize a news cycle anymore.

"They don’t follow that standard, they don’t understand it, and they want information current, up to date and instantaneous, and they want it sent to them. That’s a situation that we as a society created amongst ourselves. And I think that’s the change that we see, law enforcement has to change how they distribute that information and media outlets have to change how they receive it," he said.

Jean Maneke, a Missouri Press Association attorney, said some public officials have used the advent of social media to avoid proper records retention or to block individual users, potentially cutting off access to messages she said should always be accessible to the public. The legal issues raised by such practices are, so far, unclear, she said. The Globe has seen no instance of such behavior from any area law enforcement agency and continues to contact police and sheriff's departments for explanations or follow-up questions on a daily basis.

"It’s opening a lot of doors that haven’t been considered before," Maneke said. "So I do think we’re going to see a lot of changes in terms of record keeping in terms of what’s accessible to the public, and it’s going to be a struggle for people to continue for fight for access considering what’s happening right now."

Globe Editor Carol Stark agreed with Rives' diagnosis of the shift from releases sent to inboxes to Facebook pages, saying posts from government agencies provide a starting point, but are considered tips or a form of press release and don't replace reporting.

"Our policy in the newsroom is to first verify," she said. "While we haven't seen it happen locally, there have been instances where fake accounts have been set up and bad information is sent out by those who portray themselves as a police or fire department. Journalists are always warned to make the call to verify the source first and then to ask more questions."

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