WALLINGFORD — Police officials want to be more active on social media but it raises free speech issues, especially if police want to limit interaction.
Currently, the only town department that maintains a Facebook page is Animal Control, created by former Animal Control Officer Katie Elhers.
Staff use the page to show shelter animals up for adoption. In 2016, an online campaign helped a dog who had spent three years at the shelter find a home.
Last week, Police Chief John Ventura and Deputy Chief Anthony DeMaio spoke to the Town Council recently about creating a social media presence for the police department.
Ventura said that the current method of posting press releases on the town website is an antiquated, inefficient form of communication.
“We need a mechanism to put some more information out,” he said. “We have a lot of programs...We have a lot of partnerships that we’re forming with a lot of different agencies, so there needs to be some sort of medium to get that information out besides press release.”
Ventura said police would also be able to announce local road closures and parking bans.
He said police need to be aware of other issues with social media, such as addressing comments from the public, so training would be needed.
Other area police departments that use social media told Ventura they have a dedicated officer to monitor accounts and post updates.
“The most important thing, if you’re going to commit to a (social media) platform, is that you need to be current with it,” he said. “It has to be updated so that the public knows it’s monitored…”
Democratic Councilor Jason Zandri, who runs a Facebook group for Wallingford community news and information, said that police might be able to disallow comments and avoid tedious or problematic conversations.
“It’s not an effort to squelch comments or input,” he said. “I’m sure you’d much rather have it being an announcement mechanism rather than an interactive thing, which would consume time.”
Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein said Facebook is like a “mini neighborhood watch for the entire town.”
“I think it’s really important to community relations that you’re not strangers,” he said. “You’re part of our community and I think this is a way to do it.”Pros and cons
Adam Chiara, University of Hartford associate professor of communication, said Monday that there are pros and cons to law enforcement having a social media presence.
“A big goal for many police departments and government officials is to be accessible, part of the community fabric, and the community is on social media,” Chiara said. “It's not just turning on the TV and seeing what the police have done, or looking at the newspaper and taking a look at something that the police have done for our community. It's social media, they're going to interact...”
He added there are legal issues to consider, especially if police want to limit speech, block people or delete comments.
Courts have been siding with members of the public when it comes to cases challenging bans on seeing or interacting with social accounts used by politicians or public officials for government purposes.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in the 2018 case, Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump, that then President Donald Trump created a public forum using his Twitter account and his actions blocking people on the social media platform were unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.
Locally, the City of Meriden’s insurers agreed to pay resident Christopher Dingwell Sr. a settlement of $40,000 to withdraw his complaint against city officials in a 2017 federal lawsuit. In Dingwell’s complaint, he claimed, among other things, that Meriden police had deprived him of his First Amendment rights by blocking him from posting to the department’s Facebook page. The settlement does not include admissions by the city of liability regarding Dingwell's claims.
“Especially if it's police and it is a government function, it’s a public account,” Chiara said. “You need to treat it that way … You know that you’re going to get some comments, some feedback on there, that is not going to be kind to you, and you can, of course, delete it, but then you have to also know that a challenge could come.”Officer training
Chiara said ongoing training would help police stay on top of issues that arise. Having an officer dedicated to social media is also crucial.
“You need to stay active on that account,” he said, “because if somebody feels like this is a channel that you have communication with the police department, and you ask a vital question or you make some comments, and you're expecting some kind of response and you don't hear anything back, now, all of a sudden, you turned what could be a positive asset into something that's giving people negative sentiments. “
Officers should know about the potential for libel and exposing confidential or personal information.
“It's more than just an art,” Chiara said. “There's a science to it, too.”