So­cial me­dia and jus­tice

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Mario Ni­co­lais

My wife locked her class­room door, moved away from any win­dows, and sent me a text to let me know a man with a gun had been seen out­side her school. The swift, pro­fes­sional re­ac­tion of teach­ers and staff at Sierra Mid­dle School locked down the build­ing and ush­ered stu­dents to safety. Train­ing and clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion from Prin­ci­pal Dar­rell Mered­ith kept ev­ery­one in­side calm.

Out­side was a dif­fer­ent story. Par­ents ex­pect­ing to pick up chil­dren didn’t see them stream­ing through doors at the usual hour, but in­stead saw mul­ti­ple po­lice ve­hi­cles pulling up. Fam­ily mem­bers like me — stuck in an air­port at the time — knew noth­ing about the sit­u­a­tion ex­cept that it is how night­mares be­gin and we were pow­er­less to do any­thing about it. I did not have an out­let as the fear and anx­i­ety within me mounted.

Then I found the Parker Po­lice Depart­ment’s Twit­ter feed.

In real time, the Parker PD used the so­cial me­dia de­vice to com­mu­ni­cate with a ter­ri­fied com­mu­nity. Tweets about what they knew, who they were look­ing for, where they were look­ing, why the school had been locked down. I scrolled and re­freshed over and over again wait­ing for each up­date. I texted them to my wife. I fi­nally took an­other breath when I read their tweet: “**UP­DATE Sus­pect in cus­tody.”

Those tweets did not come about spon­ta­neously. Clearly the Parker PD had thought through how to han­dle com­mu­ni­ca­tions in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion and un­der­stood the power of dis­sem­i­nat­ing in­for­ma­tion across a broad net quickly. For me, that made a world of dif­fer­ence. I never stopped fear­ing for my wife’s safety and the lives of all the chil­dren in her school, but thanks to the Parker PD, my mind didn’t need to in­vent sce­nar­ios that preyed on my worst fears. That Twit­ter stream gave me an out­let to get con­crete in­for­ma­tion to fo­cus on.

That mo­ment crys­tal­lized one of the many use­ful ways law en­force­ment — and the broader jus­tice sys­tem — can em­ploy so­cial me­dia. Be­yond emer­gency sit­u­a­tions, so­cial me­dia helps con­nect law en­force­ment and courts to com­mu­ni­ties. Face­book posts and In­sta­gram links let agen­cies high­light poli­cies, pro­grams and good works on a daily ba­sis.

Of course, so­cial me­dia can cut the other way, too. Look into any in­stance where law en­force­ment has come un­der a neg­a­tive light or in con­flict with a com­mu­nity over the past five years and it’s im­pos­si­ble to avoid the vi­ral spread of in­for­ma­tion across so­cial me­dia. Ev­ery­one has ac­cess to in­stant video and pho­to­graphs via smart­phones; it’s stan­dard pro­ce­dure for pro­test­ers to have their phones at the ready in case an of­fi­cer steps over the line. Con­jec­ture and con­spir­acy from all sides of­ten fly across the In­ter­net with such ve­loc­ity that the truth is washed away in its wake.

While univer­sal ac­cess to so­cial me­dia may help keep pro­tect pro­test­ers and po­lice from cross­ing lines, it can also be the bane of com­mon crim­i­nals. For ex­am­ple, just last sum­mer four in­di­vid­u­als used Face­book Live to broad­cast them­selves threat­en­ing, abus­ing and ul­ti­mately beat­ing a men­tally dis­abled teenager. They now face years in prison for hate crimes.

In some cases, the very same tool can be both bless­ing and curse. Eigh­teenth Ju­di­cial Dis­trict At­tor­ney Ge­orge Brauch­ler ad­min­is­ters one of the best, most use­ful Twit­ter feeds I’ve come across. He pro­vides up­dates on poli­cies, his per­spec­tive as a DA, and court pro­ceed­ings. Yet dur­ing the pros­e­cu­tion of the Aurora the­ater shooter, Brauch­ler’s sig­na­ture pros­e­cu­tion, he ac­ci­den­tally sent out a tweet while sit­ting in court. That drew a ju­di­cial rep­ri­mand and more than a lit­tle red flush to the DA’s cheeks.

This is the re­al­ity the en­tire jus­tice sys­tem ex­ists in to­day. It isn’t a ques­tion of bet­ter or worse, but rather ad­just­ing to a new en­vi­ron­ment. That hasn’t al­ways been a strength of our sys­tem, but one it must face

nonethe­less. Mario Ni­co­lais is a con­sti­tu­tional scholar and man­ag­ing part­ner of KBN Law firm.

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