Jessamy's office joins Facebook to promote prosecutors' work

Social network site used to heighten visibility in an election year

August 04, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Mrs. Jessamy's at a vigil for a slain church worker. Mrs. Jessamy is "excited to thank citizens for their help and support in anti-crime efforts." Look for Mrs. Jessamy on Fox 45 news talking about witness intimidation.

The office of the city's top prosecutor launched a Facebook page this week, and she's everywhere — testifying in Annapolis (four photos), at a Victims' Fund Run (23 photos) and in the community with the police commissioner (15 photos).

On the social networking site, she shed her full name, Patricia C. Jessamy, in favor of Mrs. Jessamy, and the goal is to promote her office and get out the news that the city's traditional media don't print or broadcast.

"We send out hundreds of press releases a year, and most of them do not see the light of day in your newspaper or other media," said Margaret T. Burns, the chief spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office. "This is the only way we can get our good work into the hands of the public."

It's a common complaint, and Facebook and other websites are increasingly a common remedy. Sure enough, along with Jessamy's schedule for National Night Out is a note on Facebook about Joseph Drummond being sentenced to 60 years in prison for attempted murder — a story not picked up by the city's news organizations.

The new Facebook page heightens the visibility of Jessamy's office weeks ahead of the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, in which she is facing her first serious challenger in years. Burns denied that the new public relations tool has anything to do with the campaign.

Jessamy has another Facebook page devoted to her re-election that contains instructions on how to donate money and offer support, but it does not mention events tied to her official duties. Her campaign Facebook page does not mention her appearance at the vigil for the slain church worker, and her office Facebook does not list the address of her campaign headquarters.

Jessamy's challenger is defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Gregg Bernstein, who has accused the top prosecutor of failing to aggressively prosecute cases.

In a statement, Bernstein, who is also using social networking in his campaign, said he understands the state's attorney "wanting to get the word out about her agency's work — election time or not." But he questioned why Assistant State's Attorney Mark J. Jaskulski, a prosecutor in the misdemeanor office, and Elizabeth Bayly, a law clerk, are heading up the social media effort at a time when Jessamy's office is short roughly 30 attorneys.

"I should think the State's Attorney would want every prosecutor and law clerk focused on fighting crime and prosecuting cases," the statement says.

Burns said several young prosecutors — she noted that Jaskulski has degrees in both law and communications — have repeatedly asked why the office wasn't on Facebook and volunteered to take on the project. The spokeswoman said that they manage the page on their own time and that most of the work is done by the law clerk.

Law enforcement agencies across the state and country use Facebook and other Internet tools to promote their offices, bypassing the traditional media to go direct to the citizens.

But that also means jumping into an unfiltered, uncensored anything-goes public debate. Like others, Jessamy is treading carefully by disabling the comments section on the office's Facebook wall.

Law-enforcement agencies seem unsure whether and how to engage the public and whether it's appropriate for a government agency to censor online comments. Anne Arundel County police carefully post only comments they deem acceptable. Baltimore City police allow a virtual free-for-all, even postings critical of the mayor. And while city cops post good news about gun and murder arrests, they also publicize shootings and other crimes almost as they happen.

Jaskulski said that if comments are ever allowed on the state's attorney's page, they would be "appropriate comments," which he defined as ones devoid of racist overtones and personal attacks. "People have different opinions, and I understand that," the prosecutor said.

But he noted, "This is a communication tool for this office."

Burns said Jessamy's staff has no time to monitor comments. But disabling that feature takes the social out of the social networking site.

"It's like saying they're going to publish a book with a nice cover and page numbers but with no text," said Zeynep Tufekci, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "What's the point of having a social media site if you're not getting social?"

Tufekci said that today's generation "does not like to be talked at without responding" and that disallowing comments "defeats the purpose."

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