c'est moi, @lawscomm

I’ve done a few interviews recently on my favorite topic of social media use by law enforcement. In each interview I’ve been asked what affect social media will have in the world of crime in the future. While it felt a bit audacious to say, in each case I answered that I truly believe social media will have a direct affect on lowering crime. It sounds utopian perhaps, but social media is shrinking our world. We’re learning more and more from and about people all over the planet. Part of what we’re learning more about is what crimes people are committing and exactly WHO is committing them. As we learn that, and as the people likely to commit them learn that the “jig is up”, doesn’t it stand to reason that they may smarten up? That there will develop an overall awareness that we really all are in “this” together and that our actions are seen by many (and many many more all the time). Am I delusional? Some people think so. The programs described in this article are far from perfect. But the fine law enforcement professionals who are brave enough to carry them out are true visionaries and I believe much good will result.

It’s always bigger in Texas

In Montgomery County Texas, DWI is a huge problem, they say like everything in Texas, bigger than in most parts of the country. In fact, according to the District Attorney’s office, it’s the number #1 most committed crime in the county. If someone suffers a violent death in Montgomery County, the DA’s office says it is most likely caused by an intoxicated driver. “You are three times more likely to be killed by an impaired or reckless driver in this county than you are by all other weapons combined”, according to Warren DiePraam, the Assistant DA and Chief of Vehicular Crimes. The DA’s office wants to send a message. DiePraam said, “what we want people to know is that Montgomery County takes DWI seriously. If you commit that crime here, it’s going to be costly for you.” And these days, it’s costing offenders a lot – its costing them their privacy.

Get busted for DWI in Montgomery County during specific “heavy drinking” holidays, and your name is blasted out to the DA’s 675 followers on Twitter. The Twitter account @MontgomeryTXDAO bears the name and photo of DA Brett Ligon, but it’s DiePraam’s brainchild and it’s he who tweets from it.

Here are some recent relevant tweets from the account.

It probably isn’t a surprise, the program has met with a fair amount criticism from legal professionals and citizens alike. Most pointing out that until someone is proven guilty, they shouldn’t be treated as though they are and to them, tweeting the offenders’ names amounts to being punished before being convicted. But the DA’s office says arrests are public information and the arrestees’ names are also published on several websites. The difference of course, is that Twitter messages get delivered to consumers without their having to put forth effort to see them.

DiePraam says they’ve received a fair amount of congratulations and appreciation for their efforts as well. The feedback that came via Twitter has been mixed:

Many critics are asking if the DAO will tweet when someone is found not-guilty of the DWI offense. DiePraam said he’s not opposed to that and thinks it’s a good idea and stated he would consider doing so. He added that 95% of people arrested for DUI in the county get convicted. They have a 100% conviction rate for arrests made with a blood search warrant.

It’s less about legalities and more about social media norms

So, what’s the big deal? It’s legal to publish the names of people convicted of a crime. Just because it’s Twitter, is that why it’s more controversial? Is it because a law enforcement agency is doing it? Perhaps it has something to do with the newness of the idea? The issue has less to do with it being legal, I would suggest, and more to do with it being a new idea and perhaps some of the things the DA is doing are counter to currently accepted social media practices.

Jeremy Lipschultz, Professor of Communications at the University of Nebraska in Omaha has spent the better part of his career at the intersection of communications and technology. He’s worked as a police reporter, radio News Director and college educator. Lipschultz spoke to the newness of the idea of news being posted on Twitter. “I think it goes back to a cultural tradition. When we reporters were the conduit to this, we only picked the most important stories and so people are used to that. There’s a feeling that there’s a threshold through which information passes before we citizens find out about it.” (*See footnote)

But social media is also about transparency, about openness, about laying ALL your cards on the table. If the DA is going to publish DUI arrests only during specific holidays, is it fair then if the person arrested on a non-holiday does NOT get their name published? Is that really being fully transparent? I suggest not.

“Once you make a decision to stop for a period of time, you’ve placed yourself in an editorial position at that point, and I don’t think that’s where public agencies ought to be.”
~ Jeremy Lipschultz

Currently the Montgomery DA office plans to follow a plan to publish during what they call “no refusal holidays” which includes St Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Lipschultz is concerned about that, “Once you make a decision to stop for a period of time, you’ve placed yourself in an editorial position at that point, and I don’t think that’s where public agencies ought to be.” I think he’s right and I shared this opinion with DiePraam. He listened and seemed to appreciate the input.

Other law enforcement agencies are undertaking similar initiatives. In Honolulu for example, the PD posts every Wednesday, for 24 hours, the names and mugshots of people who had been arrested for OVUII (Operating a Vehicle Under the Influence of an Intoxicant) on its website, a program they started November 25th, 2009.

Major Thomas Nitta of the HPD Traffic Division says reaction has been mixed but is mostly positive and the public has been surprised to learn just how many arrests they make for OVUII. He said “If asked most people would feel that in a week on Oahu maybe 30-40 people would be arrested for OVUII, when the actual numbers from 2008 averaged between 80-90 persons per week.” As posted on Wednesday, January 13th, 53 people had been arrested the week prior.

Nitta added the program is also intended to educate people that the persons arrested are usually friends, relatives, co-workers who are violating the law. Nitta told me that since the mugshots are taken down after 24 hours, it’s not a problem if someone wins their case in court because the information has been removed.

If this program is successful, acts as a deterrent or increases awareness to the problem of driving while intoxicated, Nitta said they may add similar initiatives to include domestic violence, prostitution or narcotics, “depending on the interest”. The department does not use social media tools and has no immediate plans to do so, bummer. 🙁

Other departments tweet their arrest reports regularly, but some are adding more information to what they publish via Twitter. The Schenectedy Police Department, for example, is one PD tweeting its daily arrest reports which include a link that takes anyone who clicks to a pdf file of mugshots, names and other information.

The Montgomery County DA will continue to list suspected offenders’ names on Twitter during stepped-up DWI enforcement on major holiday weeks. DiePraam said, “It’s not going to be the magic solution, but very recently we got a letter from a citizen who lost the use of her legs as a result of getting hit by a drunk driver. That makes it worth it, when you get a good person who’s a victim saying thank-you”.

(See Chief Dan Alexander’s article about the dissolving of the media “filter” as well as his Public Information Manager, Mark Economou’s article about cops as journalists, both here on ConnectedCOPS. Both articles addressing the ability of law enforcement to publish their own “news.”).