Policing Via Social Media

Local law enforcement ditches old school methods to reach the public

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When Melissa Mayhew was arrested Dec. 30 on drug charges and for an outstanding Placer County warrant, it wasn’t the six days in jail that shook her up. It was having her mugshot, along with details of the arrest, posted on Placer County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page six days later.

“I felt completely hopeless,” the 40-year-old Kings Beach resident said. “I felt like, ‘Why am I trying. I am not going to win this battle. No one is going to see me as nothing more than a drug addict.’”

The social media post garnered more than 1,100 reactions, 550 comments, and 41 shares. Additionally, regional media outlets picked up the post and ran it as a news story, including on Sacramento television stations. Mayhew, who had decided to get clean and received a Suboxone shot while in jail to help with recovery, said her 6-year-old son saw her on TV.

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“He saw mommy all over the news, how mommy is a heroine user and drug user,” said Mayhew, who was charged with possession of heroin, heroin for sale, and drug paraphernalia, all of which she disputes. “The post puts another layer of shaming … the comments are awful.”

The majority of remarks on the post commended the PCSO for the arrest and several spoke ill of Mayhew, who said she had to cut and dye her hair so she could go out in public. But then there were those who questioned the post and recognized that Mayhew likely needed help. Several of her past friends also reached out, including Brook Costa.

“It immediately made me want to reach out and help her,” said Costa, who is Mayhew’s former employer. “Everyone was making a joke of her addiction. I had a strong need to defend her.”

Although the two had not spoken in five years, Costa reached out to Mayhew, offered help to get sober, and ended up driving her former employee to appointments and keeping her focused. Costa, a former addict, said she understands addiction and how a social media post of that nature could send a drug user spiraling.

“I know how isolation pushes you into addiction,” shared Costa, a Truckee resident. “How do you expect her to recover if you are publicly shaming her.”

Mayhew, who says she is on the road to recovery from her five-year drug addiction, noted that several people reached out to her after seeing the post, which gave her hope. But, she worries for others who may find themselves in a similar situation.

“That post might have saved my life, but it almost killed me,” Mayhew said. “There are a lot of fragile people out there. Someone else may not have been able to take it.”

SOCIAL MEDIA BLITZ: Local law enforcement agencies use social media for a variety of reasons, including public service announcements, road and weather updates, seeking help in investigations, and breaking news. Here, screenshots of recent Facebook posts from Placer County Sheriff’s Office and California Highway Patrol-Truckee show the diversity.

Using social media as a newsroom

The Placer County Sheriff’s Office, headquartered in Auburn, posts several arrests and mugshots on its Facebook page weekly, but the decision “to post arrests is done on a case-by-case basis,” according to PCSO Public Information Officer Angela Musallam.

“There are times where posts are made to gain information from the public, and other times to keep the community apprised of the contacts our deputies make while they’re out in the field,” Musallam said. “There have been arrests that were posted at a later time because the investigation would have been compromised and jeopardized.”

Of the nine PCSO arrests in Tahoe in a 30-day period from Dec. 22, 2020 to Jan. 14, 2021, only one was posted to its social media page, and that was Mayhew. The PCSO also has a closed Tahoe Facebook group, where it was shared as well.

“We post certain misdemeanors and felonies that have compelling stories and compelling facts. Not every little crime is put out there,” Musallam said. “The purpose of the sheriff’s office having social media platforms is to continue transparency with the community through social media posts and educating the public on matters relating to public safety.”

The PCSO has a team of five who run its social media accounts, with multiple managers utilizing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and Nextdoor to communicate with the public. Musallam said they have done away with written press releases and use Facebook as the newsroom. The sheriff’s office has used social media to communicate with the community since 2011. Its Facebook page currently has more than 87,000 followers.

“Social media has changed the game a bit,” said Musallam, noting that the department still provides written arrest logs for the public. “It is an extremely valuable tool in capturing people.”

Musallam said PCSO has “extremely high success rates” when it posts asking for help in identifying suspects. Tips from the public typically come within a day or two and help deputies locate someone they are looking for, she said.

Indeed, police departments around the country have turned to social media platforms to communicate with their constituents and the media. But law enforcement agencies use the plethora of forums in a variety of ways. While PCSO actively uses Facebook for breaking news, public service announcements, educating the community, weather updates, and miscellaneous posts multiple times a day, other agencies take a different approach.

California Highway Patrol Officer Jacob Williams has worked in the Truckee office since April 2020, but he was previously the head of social media in Sacramento, overseeing 108 offices throughout the region as a one-man show. He noted the department does not post mug shots since they are the property of the county, and not CHP.

“Mug shots were always a matter of contention in Sacramento,” Williams said. “We didn’t want to dive into that.”

Instead, the office focuses on using social media for public service announcements, road conditions, “fun competitions” among offices, and more light-hearted posts. The CHP Truckee area office utilizes Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which are currently managed by public information officer Carlos Perez, who was on leave and not available for an interview.

Now, each CHP office dictates what goes on its social media pages. And the Truckee CHP Facebook page is a popular one. A January 2017 video of a FedEx truck sliding down Donner Pass posted on its Facebook page has had 61.1 million views. The account itself has more than 250,000 followers.

“It is encouraging to see the dialogue,” Williams said of the patrol’s page. “It used to be this community thing, and now people from all over the state follow us.”

Truckee Police Department takes a similar approach. While it does post mug shots, the last one on its Facebook page was shared on Oct. 12, 2020. The account, which has more than 9,000 followers, is also used as a public relations and investigative tool.

To monitor or not to monitor comments?

While the posts themselves can be a matter of contention, it’s comments made by the public that really ire those on the receiving end. Tara Guerrette’s brother, Taylor, was arrested in 2018 by the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, and his mug shot was put on Facebook.

“The comments were horrendous,” said Guerrette, noting people called her brother a “scumbag” and many other names. “Reading the comments is the worst part.”

The 29-year-old Tahoe Vista resident said she was thankful that her brother, who is now clean and doing well, never saw the comments because he was in prison. But, she said it was difficult for her and the rest of their family.

“It made it 10 times harder than it already was,” Guerrette said.

Both the PCSO and Truckee PD do not censor or delete comments on their posts, claiming it’s a violation of the social media user’s First Amendment rights.

“We are legally not obliged to take anything down,” Musallam of the PCSO said, noting there are special cases. “Facebook has filters in place to hide comments that are deemed to be inappropriate … The sheriff’s office reserves the right to remove a comment if the author of the comment is making a direct and credible threat, which would prompt a criminal investigation.”

CHP Truckee, however, does remove and hide inappropriate comments, and will ban users who are habitual offenders. Williams of the CHP Truckee office said they take screenshots of the offending comments before removing them for backup in case they are questioned on the matter.

“There is productive and not productive [comments],” Williams said. “We don’t have a problem removing the worst offenders from our page … It is our responsibility to make sure stuff stays appropriate on our page.”

First Amendment expert Gene Policinski, who is a senior fellow for the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, D.C., said comments on public posts are less about First Amendment rights, and more about contract law between the social media platform and the user.

“It is an area of law in flux,” Policinski told Moonshine Ink. “New technology has raised a new set of questions where the court has to make decisions.”

Policinski said law enforcement agencies would have solid ground in deleting comments if they impeded a police investigation. But, for now, each department needs to decide on their own rules.

“We are parsing these questions as we move through them,” he said.

Author

  • Kara Fox

    When she’s not writing or editing the news section for Moonshine Ink, Kara Fox can be seen hiking in the spring, paddle boarding in the summer, mushroom hunting in the fall, snowshoeing in the winter, and hanging out with her 7-year-old son year-round.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Simple solution. If you don’t want your mugshot posted, don’t participate in criminal activity and get arrested. It’s all public information whether it’s on Facebook, in the news, or on the jail’s website. It’s irrelevant!

    The people that feel differently are the same ones who vote to empty the prisons and de-criminalize everything, and than complain the loudest when their cars and houses get broken into.

    Stop the pro-criminal nonsense already. Your article highlights the feelings of not just a drug user, but a DRUG DEALER based upon the charges against her.

    I guess you want those in this community?

  2. It’s also worth mentioning that Anthony Coronado-Smith, the Truckee Pop-Warner President and Youth Football Coach plead guilty to sex acts with minors last week.

    This paper did a simile article questioning whether it was right for the police to post their investigation on their social media page.

    I guess they were right, huh? Maybe go cover the opinion of how the child molester didn’t like being on Facebook now too?