COMMENTARY: Policing in the age of social media

We are getting to an interesting place about policing in this country.

Just the other day, Baltimore police experienced a standoff with a woman armed with a shotgun and holding a baby. No shots were fired even though the woman repetitiously pointed the gun at officers. However, the more interesting issue is what Facebook did during the standoff and what various witnesses did with social media, including photos and videos.

Facebook was persuaded to take down the videos witnesses were posting in real time. Facebook often will cooperate with police in this way, just as Facebook’s monitors will take down raunchy pornography from time to time.

The point, though, is this. Smart phones and other devices that will photograph and video police activity in real time have changed, are changing or will change the way police do their work. Notwithstanding what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio thinks of “stop and frisk,” the fact remains that this procedure, along with now-former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton’s “broken windows” strategy of policing, reduces crime.

Reid K. Beveridge

Reid K. Beveridge

“Broken windows” means police should arrest anyone observed committing the most minor of crimes. The bad news is that this scoops up too many low-level drug users. The good news is that it also deters more-serious crimes, and it does that very, very effectively.

Bratton, along with his first boss, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, turned New York City from a five-borough crime scene into a pretty nice place due in some major part to “broken windows.” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly continued the same policies under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

However, de Blasio’s voters hated stop and frisk. They really, really hated it. In fact, a lot of de Blasio’s voters didn’t want the police in their neighborhoods much at all. The flip side of this was Giuliani’s statement a month or two ago to the effect that he put the police in the neighborhoods where most of the crime was reported.

The reason why de Blasio’s voters don’t like stop and frisk is because it embarrasses them in front of their friends, especially their girlfriends. So, picture this: Three or four guys in the “hood” are hanging out on a Brooklyn street corner. Two cops roll up in their squad car and stop, get out and approach the crew.

“Whatcha doin’, guys?” they wonder.

“What the f-bomb is it to yuh?” the leader sneers. One of the cops notices a distinct bulge under the leader’s jacket. “What’s that under your jacket?”

“None of your f-bombin’ business,” the kid says. So, quick as a bunny, the cops have the quartet spread-eagled beside the squad car, their hands on the roof. It’s a pat-down all around. Of course, the cops find a 9-mm Glock [semiautomatic handgun] on the leader. No carry permit. So, off he goes to the precinct, where he’ll spend the night in the lockup along with the druggies and drunks who’ve been swept up that evening. Also, bye-bye Glock, into the evidence bin.

Until recent years, an incident like this was routine in many cities and unremarked. And while the guys in the crew hated it, the single moms with kids afraid to play in the neighborhood often didn’t mind, unless it was one of their boys who was swept up.

Today’s big difference is smart phones and video. So, instead of an unremarkable police stop, this situation has all the potential of becoming big on social media. Now, rather than no one or a couple of other neighborhood folks witnessing, a big group is likely to surround the cops and the kids, smart phones recording it from every angle. And then, transmit it to the world via Twitter, Facebook, Youtube or whatever.

Moreover, this situation becomes very dangerous to the police very quickly. Before they even get to the spread-eagle point, they have to call for backup. And a couple of more cops as backup are still not enough if the crowd swells to dozens. New York, with its 35,000 police, may be able to swarm a big group for backup.

But too many cities — Wilmington probably falls into this category — can’t. They just don’t have that many patrolmen on duty at any given time. This would be particularly true of distressed cities like Bridgeport, Conn., Camden, N.J., or even Baltimore.

So, what happens? Well, the police back off, as they have in both Baltimore and Chicago. When they do, crime rates rise and murders skyrocket.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reid K. Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.

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