City Police Caught In Their Own Web

CRIME BEAT

August 16, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

The posting on the Baltimore Police Department's Facebook page seemed innocent enough - a link to a news article about the imperiled mounted horse unit. The chief spokesman put it online, hoping to generate interest and donations to keep the unit alive.

Then the public weighed in.

"Think it over Sheila!" Ian Hall wrote, referring to Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Carol Taylor-Long compared Dixon to former Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., who had legal troubles of his own: "If anything gets cut, it should be her salary and replace her with a more honest person!"

Ashley Alexander said: "Now she's destroying the city. Pray that her ex has turned enough states evidence in to give her the boot!"

Added Ann Arnold, "I guess she is just going to get rid of what beauty is left, so all we have to look at is a bunch of #1's like herself!"

The "#1" is police code for a black person.

This free-flowing banter was posted on an official Internet publication of Baltimore City, run and moderated by police officials who are flummoxed about whether to delete comments that appear to cross the line.

And there's the problem. Some would say that to delete such comments is censorship. The big questions are, what line and who decides whether it has been crossed?

Is the indictment of the mayor on public corruption charges fair game on an Internet site moderated by the city? Should it publish only comments that say that she's innocent and doing a terrific job? What about people who say that crime is bad and cops do horrible work? Should government bureaucrats be making these decisions at all?

Longtime Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey is leaning against launching a Facebook page for his department.

"I'm truly agonizing over what we would do with comments that do not relate directly to the mission of this agency," he said. "I've been watching the city with great interest. Anne Arundel County has a Facebook page, and they don't seem to generate the same kind of passion that the city does.

"The problem is that when we get comments that are of questionable taste, borderline racist and highly personal, is it up to us to take them off?" Toohey asked. "I don't want to be a censor, but I also don't want to be a soapbox."

Municipal Facebook pages, along with other social media sites, in effect turn governments into publishers. City halls here and everywhere get piles of complaint letters full of vile messages and wouldn't for a second consider printing them in their newsletters or press releases. But those same comments are flowing into Web sites that are far more difficult to control and require editing after they've been published, a process that takes considerable time and makes public the very act of taking them down.

I looked at a smattering of Facebook pages from departments large and small around the country and found that the comments on most are benign to the point of being boring, such as "thanks for a good job."

Officer Ronald Gaines, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, said he blocks as many comments as possible and that there is no access to the agency's Facebook "Wall."

He said he views the site as a way to provide information about events and programs to the public, not for the public to discuss policing.

"There are plenty of ways for people to complain about police," he said.

It could be that Baltimore police invite criticism by posting controversial topics. Along with promoting feel-good programs and highlighting achievements, as most departments do, city police post breaking news about such crimes as shootings and stabbings.

Readers quickly turned the story on the horse unit into a debate over the way the city spends money, which seems reasonable enough, but that quickly led to talk about the mayor's performance, then to her indictment and then, sadly, as many things do in Baltimore, to race.

Anthony Guglielmi, the Baltimore Police Department's chief spokesman, should be commended for using emerging technology to quickly notify residents about crime and encourage input. It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that many in the city distrust cops and think crime is out of control, and allowing critical discussion makes people believe that they are being heard.

"This is a community page," Guglielmi told me. "It's designed to let the community know what's going on in their neighborhoods. It's designed to engage dialogue. What we'd really like is for people to get engaged in fighting crime, to step up and become part of the solution.

"People are allowed to criticize their elected officials," the spokesman said. "We're not here to hinder that process."

Anne Arundel County police spokesman Justin Mulcahy has no problem deleting comments he finds objectionable. People cannot post to the department's Facebook "Wall" but can comment on specific postings put up by the department.

"Most of the posts we've been getting are pretty positive, such as, 'Thank you for being transparent,' " Mulcahy said. "We like the connectivity it gives us."

But, the county spokesman added, "If there is anything that we deem to be negative, inappropriate or derogatory in nature, we remove it."

Government can sell itself all it wants on its Web page. But opening a social network site and then shutting down the social networking seems to undermine the very intent of the endeavor.

City cops may cringe at the criticism, but at least residents are going to the page and reading about police programs and arrests as they sound off about crime and government.

Once you invite the public in, it's difficult to shut citizens out.

It's even more difficult to explain why.

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