The Facebook post that cried wolf

Local police are learning how to handle neighborhood watch groups on social media

The number and type of posts on the Maple Valley Community Facebook page is random, and sometimes dependent on the weather.

“If it’s rainy and bad weather outside we get a lot more posts of all kinds,” Page Administrator Jessica Zielinksi said. “If it’s a really nice, sunny day, we get more happy posts and photos.”

Zielinksi didn’t realize how much of a “circus” running a social media page would be, but it does keep her on her toes.

In recent years, posts about local crime and neighborhood watch groups has become more rampant, stirring up debate among communities and the local police.

“I’ve noticed certain things draw a lot of attention … like in spring when cars were getting tagged and the community came together to clean up the cars. But it kept happening again, and again and again,” she said. “So there was an outcry for the Maple Valley Police to do something. That’s just one example of how the page brings awareness to that type of thing.”

Awareness about local crime has gone up, but exaggerated posts and fear tactics among groups have also made the police put in extra effort to follow real crimes, and make sure accurate facts about their work is being shared.

Maple Valley Police Chief DJ Nesel said he has been trying to squash rumors more than ever since the height of community Facebook pages began. His department likes to send out newsletters to local neighborhood watch groups and on social media.

“It both helps and hinders,” Nesel said. “To give an example, via social media, there was an incident in Pierce County where someone local picked up on it and said ‘hey there was a child luring issue that I saw on a Maple Valley page. Oh my gosh something happened over at the library to my kid.’ But when the officer took the time to investigate all the way to Pierce County … the story kind of flipped flopped.”

The case ended up being about two young adults around 18 in Pierce County attempting to purchase a car, which almost led to an altercation with an older man. Parents became involved, Nesel said, but there were no children involved.

“To this day we can’t figure out why this parent stuck it on our Maple Valley page, but it made people think there was a child lurer,” Nesel said. “And we talked personally to people who were re-embellishing this story. Sometimes we have keyboard commandos.”

Besides posting inaccurate information, or too little information, on sites such as Facebook and Nextdoor, another trend is posting screenshots or posts from the new emergency app called 911 Feed.

The app shows a Google Map with red pins where 911 dispatch receives calls for aid. Many times people see these calls and post about the possible incident.

But the app is less than accurate when it comes to what is really happening.

“A lot of the stuff we get from 911 that is being typed in is what the witness or reporting party gives us, and it can be highly inaccurate,” Nesel said. “Someone may call in saying they heard three gun shots, but we show up and it was a car backfiring that someone was working on in their garage.”

Covington Police Chief Andrew McCurdy feels like society is still trying to learn how to use social media more responsibly.

“Unlike traditional news sources that are vetted and verified, stories on social media take on lives of there own,” McCurdy said. “I think we are trying to find out how to use it in a positive way.”

In Covington, the police department is trying to spread real information and manage negative comments on local pages, and they started the #9PMRoutine.

“I copied it from the Puyallup Police Department,” McCurdy said. “And we like it because a lot of property crime is preventable because criminals are stealing things from places where people like to leave things, like in their cars or near the home windows.”

The idea is for residents to take the time at 9 p.m. each night to make sure all the doors and windows in the home are locked, that nothing of value is left in a car, yard, porch or mailbox, and to double check on any security devices such as doorbell cameras and security lights.

“Everyone should set some sort of reminder or alarm for 9 p.m. at night before they go to bed,” McCurdy said.

Another popular topic to post about is a call to action for police to deal with the “increase in crime.”

For McCurdy, he sees a small, but steady increase in the number of calls each year in Covington. He said it is due to the incremental growth the city has been making.

In Maple Valley, crime rates have not grown much. Nesel said these pages bring more exposure to the amount of crime police have been combating for years, but more exposure makes it seem like crime happens more often.

Zielinkski has the role to make sure the page stays free from harassment, but mainly she allows it to “self police.”

“A lot of things are kind of a go, we let people self-police,” she said. “If people don’t like it we hear about it behind the scenes, but if it doesn’t hit our markers it kind of goes through. We don’t want the community page to censored in anyway but we don’t want it to be a complete free-for-all.”

Some of the things that are taken down are pictures of children who are victims of crime or bullying, along with posts that include slander or harassment.

Zielinkski sees a lot of things on the Maple Valley page that she does not agree with personally, but she tries to keep her role objective.

“These are the people you go to school with, church with or see at the store,” she said. “So if you censor so it’s only what you believe, then it’s not a community page.”

Nesel agrees with Zielinski when it comes to allow people to express themselves on these pages, but he hopes the police can continue to steer the posts in a more positive direction.

“For every negative post there is five to six good interactions,” Nesel said. “I overall love the idea of these neighborhood watch pages. But in many cases they are only getting 10 percent of the truth.”

So how can social media members make sure to help the police and not spread false information? The first step is to make sure to contact police before posting online, and to try and find the facts before responding to what they see in their neighborhood groups.

“The best thing to do is call the department,” Nesel said.