BRISTOL — The Bristol Police Department, like many other municipal law enforcement agencies around the country, hopped on the social media bandwagon a few years ago. Since 2011, it had been posting public service announcements to its Facebook page and making full use of the site’s photo-sharing feature to share pictures of important events, like department members meeting the governor or receiving awards, along with some funny ones of officers goofing off with community kids.
But on May 13 something out of the ordinary appeared on the Bristol PD Facebook page: photographs of a 17-year-old local man accused of a crime. Two more alleged lawbreakers followed later that week: a 21-year-old from Hampton, N.Y., and a 28-year-old from the Bristol area.
The tone of the new photos and their sudden appearance ignited a community discussion on social media channels like Facebook’s comments feature and Front Porch Forum. These photographs were mug shots, and appeared below boldfaced type declaring their charges, which ranged from “Sale of Regulated Drugs to Minors” to “Embezzlement” to “Driving with a Suspended License.”
Some objected to what they perceived to be “Scarlet Letter”-type shaming in a public, searchable and permanent (at the discretion of the police department) venue. Many others lauded the police for keeping the public informed about criminal activity in the area.
The photographs were, as Police Chief Kevin Gibbs told the Independent in a Monday interview, the result of a change in the department’s press and community outreach policy.
After receiving comments from members of the Bristol community that the police logs did not appear in the local newspaper in a timely or reliable manner compared to police logs from Middlebury and Vergennes, Gibbs decided that a change was needed in the way the Bristol Police Department kept the community and the media informed.
“I sat down and pondered it, and I thought, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do — we’re going to change the way we do press releases altogether,’” Gibbs recalled.
Since the three-person department frequently found itself behind on writing up the police log, and also because some commented that “Nobody reads the newspaper” in any case, Gibbs asked his two officers to simply write up a “press release” each time they made an arrest or issued a citation. The information — which included a mug shot, if a mug shot was taken — was compiled onto an image file, and posted to Facebook and emailed out to the department’s media contacts.
He had looked at a number of options, Gibbs said, including printing out the police activity log and submitting that to the paper, but had rejected that option because the case narrative field in the database could have revealed too much personal information on suspects. Instead, Gibbs decided to put a “press narrative” in the department’s system.
“(Officers) are basically doing a release on everything they do, whether it’s (vehicle identification number) verifications, suspicious complaints, right up to homicides,” Gibbs said.
Thus, he and the officers arrived at a policy of writing up a press release every time they made an arrest or issued a citation and distributing it to the community through Facebook and to the media for publication via email, after review by Gibbs.
“One of the things we’ve been criticized about on Facebook (comments) is that we’re picking and choosing,” Gibbs said. “Every single arrest goes on there. If there’s no picture, it’s because we can’t take their picture. We can’t take their picture if it’s not a custodial arrest.”
The police chief notes that the page’s “likes” have gone up by the hundreds since the new policy began.
“So we must be doing something right,” he said.
Activity is certainly up on the department’s Facebook page. The press releases seem to have inspired heated dialogue, and both negative and positive comments have been pouring in.
Those accused of crimes occasionally sign on to offer their side of the story, to the cheers and jeers of other online commenters. Some posters appeal to the “haters” not to “judge,” and some occasionally invoke Biblical passages on morality to beef up their arguments. Others sign on to congratulate the police department for a job well done. Many believe that the community has the right to know the faces and charges of the people who allegedly commit crimes in the area, and as Gibbs points out, the information posted is not supposed to be any different than what appears in local newspapers, radio and television media. One thing is different though: Whereas online news media comments sections are rarely edited, the Bristol police do take down comments they find negative, particularly if the user has “dropped the f-bomb,” in Gibbs’s words. They have blocked at least three users for consistently negative comments.
Whether or not productive community dialogue occurs in the comments sections under the press release is also up for debate. Some posters drop names of other alleged criminals (some who have not been charged), and some make personal attacks, which Gibbs notes are sometimes aimed at police officers as well as defendants. Still others call out the flaws in some of the other comments (or, in some cases, perceived personal shortcomings of other posters or other posters’ family members).
“Sad you girls think so little of yourselves that you feel the need to defend them,” one adult woman commented, when a teenage girl posted a comment defending the character of a 17-year-old boy she identified as her boyfriend, who had been arrested on an unlawful trespass charge.
IS IT LEGAL?
While mug shots on new media outlets may strike an uneasy chord with some, it is becoming increasingly common for local law enforcement sites. As is often the case for electronic media, which surged in recent years and is infrequently challenged in the courts, there is little precedent for how it should be used by police and the community. As it stands, there is certainly nothing actually against the law about the way the Bristol Police Department chooses to distribute information to the public.
Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster said he had considered the legality of police posting the photographs on Facebook after Gibbs had asked him to look into it, though he couldn’t speak to whether the conversation had occurred before or after the department had instituted its new policy.
“I told him that I was not aware of any law that would treat it any differently,” Fenster said.
The state’s attorney said his primary concern had been that the information released via social media adhered to the same standards as the information released to traditional media sources.
Fenster added that the state’s attorney’s office would not have control over what a municipal police department releases to any media outlet, and that any with concerns would take it up with the municipal government, which hires and appoints the police department.
Gibbs himself will admit the system is not foolproof. Though he says the department makes every effort to post the releases as soon as possible, occasionally one or two can fall through the cracks for several days or more. And redactions of the press releases are not out of the question, especially in the case of misleading or false information.
In one recent instance, a Bristol woman originally from a different state was arrested and lodged based on information that Bristol police later learned was a data entry mistake on the part of the sheriff’s department in her home state.
The press release, which included a mug shot of the woman in her work uniform and stated that she would be extradited to her home state appeared as a recent entry on the department’s Facebook page for several days. (The woman was released, not extradited, the next day when the error became known.)
Gibbs took the press release down when informed of the error because, he said, “It was just the right thing to do.”
Gibbs added that the community dialogue in the Facebook comments section had led to tips and other statements that aided prosecution, though Fenster said he could not specifically recall any instances of that occurring (though depending on how the information was built into a case file, he added, the prosecution would not necessarily know where the police had gotten it).
How social media sites affect the public sector is something that public service officials will constantly need to adapt to, said Bristol Town Administrator Bill Bryant, who otherwise declined to comment for this article, telling the Independent in an email that the department had clearly “carefully considered” the new policy.