The Paterson police announced the arrest of a murder suspect in July using their Facebook account. Police departments from small-town Hopatcong to big-city Paterson are using Facebook to put out information – sometimes leading to very-public commentary on the due process of law and order. Though police departments say it’s an invaluable new tool, some criminologists say it should be used with caution.Facebook
A 19-year-old man was arrested and charged with sexual assault of a girl younger than 16 in Hopatcong in late June. A week later, the local police released the blotter-style basics on Facebook, instantly getting the information out to thousands.
One person commented, then another and another. And so began an online public debate. Everyone in the small Sussex County borough seemed to know the accused — and the girl. Some questioned the arrest, others saluted it. But some took exception to the venue itself.
“I can’t believe that the Hopatcong police is (sic) posting like a teenager on face book (sic) with out (sic) even a conviction,” wrote one of the critics.
The response from the officer was swift and posted on Facebook as well.
“Society wants to know what is going on in their town and that is what we are doing,” the officer wrote. “Don’t break the law and you won’t be on here.”
Facebook and other social-networking sites have given police a new forum for releasing information and interacting with the community. Authorities say it’s a valuable new way to reach people who use Facebook more than they see the newspaper or even TV.
But by releasing public information on a forum that allows people to comment, criminologists warn that due process could be jeopardized.
“What is the purpose?” said Gloria Browne-Marshall of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “My major fear is inciting a lynch mob. It’s similar to marching someone through the town square.”
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies, also at John Jay, said law enforcement officers’ new approach with social media was refreshing, but he shared some of his colleague’s concern.
“It’s wonderful the police are leaving the typewriters behind,” O’Donnell said. “But there’s definitely serious questions about the role of law enforcement agencies in some of these situations.”
In Hopatcong, the tool is invaluable for reaching out to a majority of the tiny Sussex County town, said Lt. Thomas Kmetz, the department’s spokesman who curates the page. The department has almost 4,000 Facebook followers, and it’s currently the best way to reach directly out to the community who might not have ever interacted with the police, Kmetz said.
“You’re a law-abiding citizen — you don’t know anything about the police,” Kmetz said. “When do you see police — when they’re behind you, and on the side of the road. With this, we want to get back to reaching out into the community.”
Lt. Thomas Kmetz of the Hopatcong police uses Facebook to announce arrests – and actively engages the people who praise and criticize the department’s policy for doing so.Facebook Other departments like those in Sparta, Butler, Hanover, Florham Park, Sayreville, Piscataway and Union have Facebook pages but most of the posts consist of road closures, town events and utility outages.
Other departments, like Paterson police, post arrests on the site, even those involving serious crimes. The more attention-grabbing the case, the more the public wants to weigh in.
On June 26, an 18-year-old from Wayne was gunned down on a Paterson street just hours after graduating high school. When police announced three arrests in the case on their Facebook page, hundreds of people posted comments, ranging from speculation about the motive for the crime — including comments on race and religion — to wide-spanning arguments between posters.
That freewheeling online conversation, Browne-Marshall says, shows that Facebook can get away from simple police release of information — and approaches a kind of public rush to judgment.
When information is released to a journalist, it undergoes an extra layer of scrutiny — which doesn’t happen when it’s broadcast directly to the public, Browne-Marshall said.
“Is it the role of the police department to try a suspect in the court of social media?” she said.
But Capt. Heriberto Rodriguez of the Paterson police said he disagrees.
Anything on the department’s Facebook page would also be in a newspaper, he said, adding that their Facebook page is also regularly monitored for any offensive comments.
“If it’s derogatory, racist, or attacking someone else, we delete it, then ban them forever,” Rodriguez said. “It does have to be monitored — because we do get crazy comments. But otherwise we leave it — because it’s free speech.”
Facebook has also actively helped cases, Rodriguez added. The picture of an accused pedophile helped Paterson detectives to reach additional alleged victims recently.
A Facebook post reaches thousands more in the target audience than do other media, Rodriguez said.
“Almost every juvenile or young adult has a Facebook page,” he said. “Not every juvenile or young adult reads a newspaper. In crime, those are the people we’re dealing with, mostly.”
Regardless of its current use, experts say a conscious eye should be kept on the ultimate goal — justice.
“I think they mean well,” said Browne-Marshall. “But they should be thinking about the response they’re generating.”
“They have to emphasize that an arrest is just a first step in a very lengthy process,” O’Donnell said. “In this country, we don’t judge first — we judge las