One Police Department’s Embarassing Misuse of Social Media

Posted: November 4, 2013 in Humor, Policing
Tags: , , , ,

Social media can be a tricky business, even for those who should know what they’re doing. For those who don’t have the first clue how to use it – like the interim chief of police in Columbia, South Carolina – it’s a downright minefield.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, after announcing a successful pot bust by his department on Facebook, the chief received some criticism from a local resident, Brandon Whitmer, who wrote:

Maybe u should arrest the people shooting people in 5 points instead of worrying about a stoner that’s not bothering anyone. It’ll be legal here one day anyway.

Instead of doing the right thing and focusing on a constructive response, Chief Santiago decided instead to engage in a little thing social media mavens and high school principals like to call “cyber-bullying:”

@Brandon whitmer, we have arrested all the violent offenders in Five points. Thank you for sharing your views and giving us reasonable suspicion to believe you might be a criminal, we will work on finding you.

Everything was just fine until he got to “reasonable suspicion.” Why not just stop at “Thank you for your views” and leave it at that instead of straying into what is arguably an action, under color of law, that amounts to a thinly veiled threat against one of the citizens he is sworn to serve and protect?

Image courtesy of Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Well, the fine citizens of Columbia didn’t take kindly to the chief’s remarks and weighed in with some criticisms of their own. To which the chief – shovel firmly in hand now and resolutely prepared to dig the hole he was standing in a little deeper – decided this would be the way to clear things up:

This is Interim Chief Santiago posting. I was just notified that one of my staff members deleted my post. I put everyone on notice that if you advocate for the use of illegal substances in the City of Columbia then it’s reasonable to believe that you MIGHT also be involved in that particular activity, threat? [sic] Why would someone feel threaten [sic] if you are not doing anything wrong? Apply the same concept to gang activity or gang members. You can have gang tattoos and advocate that life style, but that only makes me suspicious of them, I can’t do anything until they commit a crime. So feel free to express yourself, and I will continue to express myself and what we stand for. I am always open to hearing how our citizens feel like we can be effective in fighting crime.

Somehow, advocating a political position gets equated here with taking part in illegal activity. Ken White of Popehat fame provided the best critique of the chief’s wrong-headed screed on modern crime fighting that I was able to find:

If that is Chief Santiago, the police chief of a city of about 125,000 people, thinks that his department should “find you” and investigate you if you support the legalization of marijuana or oppose the ruinous, amoral War on Drugs. Notice the collection of cop tropes in the second response: (1) the thug’s dance of first threatening to “find you” and then halfway backing off from it, (2) the “why worry if you have nothing to hide” routine, (3) the suggestion that advocating against the War on Drugs creates reasonable suspicion to investigate you — bearing in mind that “reasonable suspicion” is a legal term referring to the quantum of proof that supports cops, for instance, stopping and frisking you, and (4) the statement that the cops are always open to hearing from citizens after threatening to come find a citizen for criticizing them.

And even more to the point, below is the Columbia police department’s own mission statement:

It is the mission of the Columbia Police Department to professionally protect and serve with virtue to reducing crime, thus, enhancing the quality of life, in the City of Columbia. This will be accomplished through various pro-active Crime Prevention strategies, techniques and programs working closely with all citizens throughout the city. (emphasis added)

Awkward phrasing and general grammatical crumminess aside, their mission does at least appear to promote the idea of professional conduct and a commitment to partnering with their citizens in crime prevention efforts.

I’m not sure where threatening people who exercise their constitutionally protected right of free speech fits in there, but apparently we just don’t understand the chief’s approach to bullying working closely with citizens to fight crime.

So, what have we learned from the good chief?

  • Having a Facebook account is not a license to threaten others, even if you believe that you’re just “putting people on notice”
  • If you don’t know what you’re doing, resist any urges you might have to put that on public display
  • When you make a mistake, it’s often best to apologize, stop talking, or both
  • Don’t be a bully, ever
  • And, if you find that you’re confused about how to treat your citizenry, refer to your own mission statement, the constitution you swore to uphold and defend, and your own state’s laws for clarification

Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming yet another case example of exactly how not to apply social technology to modern public service.

Have a good week!

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