The Aug. 28 article “Crime spotters find audience online” correctly asserts that there is a large — and growing — audience for crime reporting on social media. In conducting research on this topic, I have interviewed dozens of citizen crime reporters and Facebook posters. I was amazed by their work ethic, dedication to public safety and demand for open access to information. In some ways, they operate as both crime-watcher and watchdog of police and prosecution.
Crime media exist, in part, because audiences are attracted to them. Classic sociological theory offers several reasons why. Crime functions to reinforce moral boundaries. Criminal punishment forces broader society to solidify judgments on acceptable moral behavior and achieve solidarity.
As always, though, there’s another side to this issue. The immediacy of online and social-media-based crime reporting has enormous potential to spread incorrect or misleading information. Online posters work without editors and fact-checkers, sometimes just copying and pasting information without considering the unintended consequences.
Another popular tactic is to post booking photographs, “mug shots” or the full name of someone who is arrested or accused of a crime. This sometimes permanent archive complicates our constitutional guarantee of due process and the presumption of innocence. It also sends a message of rampant street violence. However, the vast majority of arrests are for low-level and nonviolent crimes. Of the 11.3 million arrests in 2013, only 4 percent were for violent crimes. Many arrests for non-felonious crimes — as many as half, depending on the location — are eventually dismissed.
Publicly labeling neighborhoods and people as “criminal” has consequences that extend beyond Facebook chatter. The digital archive now means that even minor brushes with the justice system apply a stigma that is hard to shake. My research has shown that these labels profoundly shape people’s relationships with their families, neighbors, and co-workers. Having one’s mug shot appear online carries a broad set of consequences that span the social, psychological and practical elements of life. That is, once publicly shamed, people gradually avoid interacting with financial, labor market, educational, religious and volunteer institutions. This has obvious social and individual consequences. We must carefully define when criminal punishment should begin and end. It should not begin with a baseless accusation, and it must stop once the justice system has declined to press charges. The jury of our peers should not set these terms.
Neighborhoods are safer when neighbors know and talk to one another — but not from behind screens. If there is a public-safety benefit to live crime updates, those who administer these Web pages also carry the burden of fact-checking, moderating blatant racism and stereotyping of their fellow community members, and of updating and removing information that is incorrect, outdated or irrelevant.
The popularity of these websites should also serve as a reminder to media outlets to strengthen hyperlocal reporting and focus their resources on crime reporting that is thoughtful and contextual. Finally, social scientists and criminal-justice officials have been too silent on issues that are of deep concern for Minnesotans who do not feel safe in their neighborhoods. We need to step up in these discussions, share our data and results, and talk to the people we study. Online feuds, mistaken information taken from police scanners, and the resulting rumors and fears are not the solution to making our streets safer.
Sarah Esther Lageson, who received a doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota, is an assistant professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Newark.