The Information Balance

The Information Balance

Published on Apr 02, 2014 by Pat Backen


My wife walked in the door and before she even set down the shopping bags asked “What’s going on at 35th and Grimes, right by Tim’s house?”

As much as I like to think I know everything, I was at a loss this time.

As she described the police cars, ambulance and crime scene tape the concern and questions immediately started.

And knowing the speed of Facebook, Twitter and the old fashioned grapevine I headed out to see if I could get some info before the news hit and the rumors started.

The Pressures of Social Media

The speed of news spreading across our community is incredibly faster than it was just a few years ago. In many ways this is a great thing. In others it is not, and can lead to some unrealistic expectations. Frequently in Robbinsdale a second officer will arrive at the scene of a routine vehicle pull over. This is a “just in case” type of normal backup. But naturally two cars with flashing lights grab far more attention than one – so much so that it can lead to a question on Facebook.

There have been times an officer was still talking with a driver when a post hits the Birdtown Club page asking what’s going on.

Almost always it is just the day in, day out work of the police – a speeder, expired tabs or an occasional outstanding bench warrant for unpaid tickets. Stops that happen hundreds of times a week in Robbinsdale, and until recently often passed without notice.

Of course there are larger events too – the recent shooting on Regent, and the body found at 35th and Grimes as two examples.

In situations like this, people are often concerned, curious and even scared about the police presence in their neighborhood.

This is also where people are the most upset about a lack of information. The police are in the middle of an investigation, or even still tracking down a suspect, and people are looking for answers – and sometimes angry when they don’t get them.

The Investigation/Information Tension

Investigations are methodical and plodding far more often than simple and obvious. The more serious the event, the more methodical they must be.

It takes time to do the job thoroughly and correctly, to gather and record all the information and to get all the questions answered.

Aside from the distraction that releasing information would cause, if premature, an investigation or legal case could be damaged.

Take the shooting on Regent, working with the description given of the shooter the police thought they had the correct person in custody more than once. If they had publicly stated that, only to find out they are mistaken a short time later, the public would be furious. A false sense of security is given – leading to a loss of confidence in the department, and potential charges and trials put at risk.

Of course if you are a neighbor you won’t always know or care about these things – something happened in your neighborhood or city and you want answers.

This friction between careful police work and the desire for information is long running, but recently taken on a whole new dimension with social media becoming a primary means of communication for many people.

Within minutes, a neighbor can post pictures of a house on fire, an arrest or emergency vehicles at the scene of an accident and just like that, thousands of people have become aware of the situation. In some cases this might be helpful, with more eyes available to look for a fleeing suspect for example. But in other – probably in most – situations this can cause unnecessary confusion and complexity.

Information, Respect and Privacy

There is a long running debate in technology circles about managing privacy in the age of “citizen journalism”. What is appropriate to post on the internet, and when?

Specific to the current conversation about police activity, the legal line is usually clear – if an issue or event happens in the public, it is fair game.

Although there are some legal issues too – everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. If you post pictures and statements of someone arrested, are you violating that persons rights by not saying they are the “alleged” perpetrator or suspect?

There is another, far more subjective line as well. This one deals with respecting individuals, whether it is victims or accused suspects.

What happens if you come across a fatal accident, do you post a picture on Facebook? What if the family isn’t notified yet? And how would you know? There is never a good way to find out about a loved one’s death but in my book, seeing it as a Facebook post would be among the worst.

If your house burns down, would you want a picture of it online and have people speculating on its cause? Given the somewhat unruly internet, this could go south in a hurry.

For the police, adding to the complexity of publishing information are laws and policies protecting the privacy of both victims and perpetrators, not to mention an active investigation.

In some ways it is easier for them – they have been thinking about and creating rules, processes and policies for years.

But in other ways, it is more difficult. People have access to the information, far more easily than in the past. And a lot of people have expectations that are not grounded in the current laws and policies, leading to mistrust and anger when information can’t be released. Some use the same laws and policies to further their own selfish interests with little regard to others.

Finding the Balance

Both sides of this see-saw are probably going to need some adjustment and ongoing tweaking to find a balance.

We have become accustomed to getting questions answered immediately with a simple web search, but real life doesn’t usually work that way. The public will need to find some patience and understanding as they wait for information from the police.

And the police are going to need to adjust to this era of instant information as well. Expectations have changed and the standard timing and wording of current releases probably isn’t going to cut it for much longer. Police are likely to find public opinion and confidence in their departments falling if information is hard to come by.

Personally, when posting to Facebook and Twitter, I try to err on the side of caution – partly due to legal reasons as an official representative of the city and partly out of respect for people I may or may not know.

Information Gathering

Back to my trip to gather information…I spoke with the interim Chief at the scene and found out there was no danger to the community (and then passed that along to the Facebook and Twitter posts I saw).

But neighbors and others remain frustrated that the investigation is still not complete 5 days later. Unfortunately this isn’t TV, and the case isn’t wrapped up in an hour – it takes time “to do a complete and competent investigation of the incident” as the interim chief reminded me.

He also reiterated that they “have found nothing to indicate a public safety threat to the community”.

So we are all forced to manage our anxiety and concern, practice patience, and wish we could have (or give) more information.

This era of instant news will take a while to get settled into a new reality, but one thing is certain – social media isn’t considered a “disruptive technology” for nothing.