For local law enforcement, engaging with the community they serve and maintaining a cooperative relationship is an important task. In today’s social media age, a lot of the interactions between police and community members happen online, especially on local Facebook community groups.
The Facebook groups, which have replaced local news for many towns, are a source of information, and sometimes misinformation, for residents.
NBC News recently reported on a Chippewa township Facebook group, “News Alerts of Beaver County group,” one of the main hubs of information for residents of the small Pennsylvania town. The group currently has 43,000 members, and is home to a constant flow of gossip.
Local law enforcement often engages with the online group, working to gather credible information from witnesses while dispelling rumors.
A 2019 incident captured the essence of this communal effort. Local and state police were searching for Kyle Michael Jones, who had just run from police after a traffic stop. As police combed through residents’ backyards, dogs searched the woods, and helicopters buzzed overhead, residents took to social media to share their thoughts and fears.
Rumors began to spread that Jones was a murderer and armed with a gun. Countless descriptions were offered of Jones that police had to sort through. Officers worked to dispel rumors about an attempted kidnapping.
Some of the information was clearly irritating to police officers. “When I started reading those posts, I was losing my mind,” said Chippewa Township Police Chief and 30-year veteran Eric Hermick.
Local police believe that the Facebook community’s posts, which came in too fast to be moderated, were responsible for a lot of the fear and panic regarding the incident.
When police attempted to intervene and clarify facts to the community, they were accused of organizing a “cover-up.”
Eventually, Jones turned himself in. He was charged with 14 traffic-related offenses and “fleeding to elude an officer,” but no murders, shootings or kidnappings.
Like most law enforcement agencies around the country, Chippewa police embraced social media for its ability to reach the community and access information to aid investigations, but likely did not anticipate the confusion that would arise.
“It’s just crazy. These people that sit around with nothing else to do except listen to a scanner and start sensationalizing stuff,” Hermick said. “I don’t think there’s any accountability or checks in place to make sure these people are putting factual information out there.”
Hermick believes that social media is also responsible for damaging law enforcement’s reputation.
“It destroys our reputation, our community, confidence in the police department, and we have to regain that,” Hermick said. “I never had a problem doing that, but let’s hold people accountable for what they’re putting out there.”
Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University, views social media, for better or worse, as the future of information.
“In a system with inadequate legitimate local news, they may only be able to get information by posting gossip and having the police correct it. One could argue this is what society will look like if we keep going down this road with less journalism and more police and government social media.”
Despite the negative aspects of the Facebook group, members are largely appreciative of its presence. The group contains job postings, affordable apartment listings, and restaurant recommendations. Shortly after a post about an accident, a victim or a close relative to the victim will usually go online and give an update.
“It allows people to make informed decisions about local situations without being told what to think about the issues,” a member responded to a post asking for opinions about the group. “It’s also a place to find news that pertains to us locally whereas the news covers more broader areas.