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The myriad effects of social media on the justice system

A screenshot from the Parker Police Department's Twitter feed.

A screenshot from the Parker Police Department’s Twitter feed.

My wife locked her classroom door, moved away from any windows, and sent me a text to let me know a man with a gun had been seen outside her school. The swift, professional reaction of teachers and staff at Sierra Middle School locked down the building and ushered students to safety. Training and clear communication from Principal Darrell Meredith kept everyone inside calm.

Outside was a different story. Parents expecting to pick up children didn’t see them streaming through doors at the usual hour, but instead saw multiple police vehicles pulling up. Family members like me — stuck in an airport at the time — knew nothing about the situation except that it is how nightmares begin and we were powerless to do anything about it. I did not have an outlet as the fear and anxiety within me mounted.

Then I found the Parker Police Department’s Twitter feed.

In real time, the Parker PD used the social media device to communicate with a terrified community. Tweets about what they knew, who they were looking for, where they were looking, why the school had been locked down. I scrolled and refreshed over and over again waiting for each update. I texted them to my wife. I finally took another breath when I read their tweet: “**UPDATE Suspect in custody.”

Those tweets did not come about spontaneously. Clearly the Parker PD had thought through how to handle communications in an emergency situation and understood the power of disseminating information across a broad net quickly. For me, that made a world of difference. I never stopped fearing for my wife’s safety and the lives of all the children in her school, but thanks to the Parker PD, my mind didn’t need to invent scenarios that preyed on my worst fears. That Twitter stream gave me an outlet to get concrete information to focus on.

That moment crystallized one of the many useful ways law enforcement — and the broader justice system — can employ social media. Beyond emergency situations, social media helps connect law enforcement and courts to communities. Facebook posts and Instagram links let agencies highlight policies, programs and good works on a daily basis.

Of course, social media can cut the other way, too. Look into any instance where law enforcement has come under a negative light or in conflict with a community over the past five years and it’s impossible to avoid the viral spread of information across social media. Everyone has access to instant video and photographs via smartphones; it’s standard procedure for protesters to have their phones at the ready in case an officer steps over the line. Conjecture and conspiracy from all sides often fly across the Internet with such velocity that the truth is washed away in its wake.

While universal access to social media may help keep protect protesters and police from crossing lines, it can also be the bane of common criminals. For example, just last summer four individuals used Facebook Live to broadcast themselves threatening, abusing and ultimately beating a mentally disabled teenager. They now face years in prison for hate crimes.

In some cases, the very same tool can be both blessing and curse. Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler administers one of the best, most useful Twitter feeds I’ve come across. He provides updates on policies, his perspective as a DA, and court proceedings. Yet during the prosecution of the Aurora theater shooter, Brauchler’s signature prosecution, he accidentally sent out a tweet while sitting in court. That drew a judicial reprimand and more than a little red flush to the DA’s cheeks.

This is the reality the entire justice system exists in today. It isn’t a question of better or worse, but rather adjusting to a new environment. That hasn’t always been a strength of our system, but one it must face nonetheless.

Mario Nicolais is a constitutional scholar and managing partner of KBN Law firm.

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