Orlando Sentinel

Florida sheriffs go viral, but with criticism

- By Joe Mario Pedersen

Two top law enforcemen­t officers get big social media numbers, but do methods cross ethical line?

A sheriff badge might as well be an indication of social media stardom as two Florida counties’ top law enforcemen­t officers are regulars at going viral on a national scale.

You won’t find these social-media-acclimated agencies in the state’s largest counties: Miami-Dade, Broward or Orange. Rather, national attention has been captured by two agencies on the outskirts of Orlando: Brevard and Polk counties’ sheriff ’s offices. Both have audience sizes that would make anyone starting a career on social media envious.

BCSO is the No. 1 followed law enforcemen­t Facebook page in Florida with nearly 370,000 followers. Behind it is PCSO with a reach of nearly 330,000 followers. For contrast, Orange County Sheriff ’s Office serves 1.4 million people, and has just over 120,000 followers.

Those numbers aren’t just impressive by Florida standards, but also by comparison of agencies around the country including the

Chicago Police Department, Austin Police Department, and both the Los Angeles Police Department and Sheriff ’s Office, none of which have crossed 250,000 followers.

Content found on BCSO and PCSO’s Facebook pages, though, are not typical, and more than likely responsibl­e for their growing audience.

Brevard County Sheriff ’s Office

Both law enforcemen­t pages use a wide variety of features to connect with their audience ranging from feel-good stories to humorous posts featuring game shows and comics depicting actual arrest incidents.

Brevard in particular exhibits large showmanshi­p through its most notable segment, “Wheel of Fugitive,” which Sheriff Wayne Ivey hosts with lights and accompanie­d music. Behind him, a large wheel featuring mugshots of apparent wanted fugitives. The wheel has been spinning since 2015 and has caused a stir around the country. BCSO received national attention in late 2016 when the viral sensation was covered by “The Daily Show hosted by Trevor Noah.”

However, the feature went under fire in early March after Florida Today published an article claiming 30% of the people featured in the 179 episodes of “Wheel of Fugitive” were erroneousl­y labeled as “wanted fugitives,” where they had either served their sentence or were already in jail. In an interview with Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell, Ivey responded to the Florida Today story and disagreed; explaining that all of the people depicted were either fugitives or at one time fugitives.

The first show after the Florida Today article made no mention of the claim. However, one commenter chastised BCSO calling the show “unprofessi­onal and insulting.” Ivey responded with “I think I will just keep doing what I have been doing since the citizens of this county elected me in 2012.”

Ivey’s words don’t fall on deaf ears. The comments for “Wheel of Fugitive” and most other viral features are overwhelmi­ngly positive. In the same post, commenters left messages expressing how much they love the show and they look forward to it on Saturday nights. Most of the feature’s video viewership range from 7,000 to well over 10,000.

Brevard’s content extends beyond “Wheel of Fugitive,” such as the “Good Stuff,” which highlights moments of excellence observed by deputies. “Riding Shotgun” is a feature where Ivey rides in the passenger seat of a squad car and interviews the deputy. There’s also “Fishing for Fugitives,” which is similar to “Wheel of Fugitive” but with a fishing pole.

“I’ve got a warped sense of humor,” Ivey said when asked about his content. “I think that’s what people connect with online. I think it’s humor. People look for that, and we mix that with a balance of informatio­n. And when it’s time to be serious we are.”

Ivey was one of the first elected law enforcemen­t officials in Florida to realize the power social media offered. Ivey said he had previously developed a comfort in front of the camera after years in law enforcemen­t and working with the media. The growth of Brevard’s social reach came with the developmen­t of its media department and realizing his staff had significan­t production experience. Believing in the importance of connecting with citizens, Ivey wanted to make an engaging Facebook page where he could talk directly with the community.

“I believe citizens want to hear from elected officials. They don’t want the spokespers­on,” he said. “I want them to hear it from me. They may not agree with me but I want to give them the opportunit­y to hear it from me.”

Early on in BCSO’s fledgling social media production­s, Ivey’s pitch for “Wheel of Fugitive” was met with resistance by his staff, with one staffer explaining he was worried that the segment wouldn’t be received well, Ivey said. But Ivey insisted it would be a hit. A friend put together the functionin­g wheel for the office — a project that took about six months.

“It was a hit,” Ivey said. Regularly the page is seen by Brevard visitors and out-ofstate viewers. Ivey says the high volume of watchers contribute­s to Brevard’s descending crime rate — which has fallen by 32% since Ivey was elected in 2012, according to data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcemen­t. Ivey also said, the show has an “88% success rate” of getting wanted fugitives to turn themselves in or getting residents to tip deputies to the whereabout­s of the wanted person.

Most recently, a resident helped identify 21-year-old Kamron Casteel, who was wanted for three different probation violations. A Brevard resident reportedly recognized Casteel staying at a West Melbourne hotel. He was arrested on March 24 and faces four felony charges, including the possession of methamphet­amine.

BCSO posted about the arrest on Facebook pointing to “Wheel of Fugitive” as the reason deputies received a tip on Casteel’s whereabout­s.

“Even though Kamron Casteel wasn’t picked as the Fugitive of the Week on two episodes of ‘Wheel of Fugitive,’ it didn’t stop one of our citizens from recognizin­g his smiling face as one of the other nine contestant­s on the wheel, and then contacting our agency to tell us where we could find him,” BCSO posted.

Polk County Sheriff ’s Office

Polk County Sheriff ’s Office’s social media is a tool to engage and entertain, said Sheriff Grady Judd.

“There’s no single tone, it varies from case to case,” Judd said. “Sometimes it’s serious and tragic. Sometimes we’re lightheart­ed and sometimes we laugh at ourselves. We try to balance it. No wants horror drudgery every day. We try to balance in the community and all the things the community does as well.”

Starting a Facebook page in 2009, PCSO’s posts were more traditiona­l starting out, giving updates about community safety and served as a directory. But Judd wanted to step up the office’s efforts in connecting with the public and asked his staff to study what kind of content resonated with residents.

“If Coca-Cola is so successful, why does it or any other successful company spend billions of dollars on advertisin­g?” Judd asked during an interview. “Because the only way to maintain success is to communicat­e. We’re no different. It’s not enough for us to be a top-rate law enforcemen­t agency. We have to communicat­e to our customers, to our taxpayers so they know they are getting their money’s worth.”

PCSO’s Facebook page hosts content showing off deputies’ good works in the field as well as the latest arrests. As Judd mentioned, the page sports comedic relief with a very capable graphics team able to put together humorous images such as PCSO’s April Fools’ post regarding its decision to deputize alligators to apprehend fugitives in the water. The post received nearly 30,000 likes.

Most notably PCSO’s media team produces graphic art, re-creating criminal incidents and arrest situations the agency finds to be either humorous or unusual.

Some of these jokes come at the expense of those arrested. For example, Polk deputies responded to a 7-Eleven in December regarding a hit-and-run crash. The driver of a Chevrolet Equinox struck a 2011 Freightlin­er truck. The Chevy driver fled the scene. Deputies confronted the driver, who PCSO only named “Mr. Fluorescen­t Yellow Shirt Man.” The Facebook then says the man explained to authoritie­s that he wasn’t the driver. Someone else was. But the force of the accident threw him into the driver’s seat. Among the details in the report, include the man having urinated himself.

The graphic comic features the man with a bright yellow shirt, and khaki pants with a wet stain in the crotch area, speaking with a deputy. The word bubbles are as follows:

Deputy: “Didn’t you say you needed to use the restroom?”

Mr. Fluorescen­t Yellow Shirt: “I’m good now.”

Another graphic comic posted Nov. 9 features a man referenced as “Andrew,” who reportedly stole goods from a Walmart store in Mulberry. Authoritie­s knew Andrew’s pants were sagging and they were looking for a man with red underwear. The comic features a deputy snapping a picture of Andrew, who is facedown in the grass with his rear-end up in the air featuring a red line meant to be his underwear.

“I’m into scrapbooki­ng. I never caught a guy because of his red undies. Good times,” the deputy is depicted saying.

The majority of comments for these posts are very positive, as many users enjoy the humor behind it. Albeit, Judd admits not everyone has enjoyed the comedy.

“We try not to be too risqué, but you can’t make everyone happy,” Judd said. “If we arrest someone’s brother getting a DUI, and post about it we might hear from their family member. We don’t expect them to love it, but it’s public record.”

Social media and media law

Getting an inside look at policing isn’t anything new, as journalist ride-alongs were once common, said Clay Calvert, a professor of law in mass communicat­ions at the University of Florida.

Policing experience­d through entertainm­ent isn’t new, either.

“Police have always looked for way to humanize its officers. That’s a good thing,” Calvert said. “The show COPS was an effort to do that, which predates social media. It was a form of public relations.”

Although, Calvert points out the outlook on COPS was skewed as the show never featured white collar crime and stereotype­d Black people in a negative light.

Calvert worries that while social media is the current vehicle for positively portraying police activity, there is a skewed outlook specifical­ly when it comes to making arrests.

The language used in some posts regarding recent arrests can make it appear as though the arrested person may have already been convicted.

“There is a problem there, I think,” Calvert said. “I think it’s fair to say some people may not understand the difference between an arrest and a conviction. Many people may assume the person in those posts is guilty, when it’s actually an allegation. It needs to be clear that there’s a difference between an arrest with probable cause and a person who has gone through a trial and is guilty beyond reasonable doubt.”

Implying guilt is one possible issue. However a bigger issue Calvert points out exists with BCSO’s “Wheel of Fugitive,” with its labeling of people as fugitives who had reportedly either served their sentence or were currently serving it.

The issue is whether or not that kind of post is subject to civil liability.

“Very few people are liable proof,” Calvert said. “Even people convicted of some crimes. A mass murderer has committed a pretty heinous crime, and is generally speaking associated with a reputation so bad that it can’t be harmed further. Most other conviction­s, there’s still a reputation to protect.”

“Wheel of Fugitive” does however have a disclaimer that crawls in within the first minute of its videos: “All suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Subjects identified and discussed in this episode had outstandin­g warrants in effect at the time this episode was filmed. The suspects may have since been arrested or the alleged charges otherwise resolved or dismissed.”

The disclaimer may render any argument for defamation null and void, Calvert said, but the question then shifts from law to ethics.

“Is it ethical for the government to engage in deception to create positive public relations? I don’t think so. That’s an ethical issue,” Calvert said.

The UF professor has a negative outlook on some of these viral features, but ultimately sides with law enforcemen­t on engaging the public as a necessary extension to do its job.

“Look, it’s important to show law enforcemen­t in a positive light, especially today, as law enforcemen­t officials see themselves under siege,” Calvert said. “Humanizing police is a good thing. The question is how to do it right and how much time and taxpayer dollars are getting put into it.”

Playing into social media to save lives

The presence of law enforcemen­t online has grown significan­tly in the last 10 years with many participat­ing in viral challenges or sharing stories of success from within their respected agencies. The effort to do so has been seen as a valuable tool to connect with the communitie­s they serve, said. Melissa Dodd, an associate professor in the Nicholson School of Communicat­ion and Media at the University of Central Florida.

“Building relationsh­ip with a community ahead of time before an emergency is absolutely necessary,” Dodd said. “You’re building a reputation. Ideally when something does happen, you trust the police are coming or on their way. With positive relations, those negative perception­s start to fall away.”

Social media can be a valuable, but only if people are paying attention. Dodd researched the response to the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, and found that campus police quickly distribute­d safety informatio­n on Facebook and Twitter.

The problem was no one saw it. Students hadn’t connected with the campus police for fear of getting in trouble for posts they might make, Dodd said.

One of her PhD students, Ashley Papagni, studies risk and crisis, and the importance of building “social capital,” good rapport before a crisis strikes. She’s found social media to be integral to creating a positive outlook as well as distributi­ng life-saving informatio­n.

“Building those relationsh­ips with humor and humanizing the sheriff ’s office is necessary to how you build relationsh­ips in the modern day,” Papagni said. “You need that positive relationsh­ip with the public in order to do the job. Those videos online of cops lip synching or anything with humor shows the police are not all scary all the time. They are humans, trying to do their job.”

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