Baltimore police reverse stance on cutting back on use of Twitter

The Baltimore Police Department reversed course Monday on a shift away from using its popular Twitter page to notify the public about shooting incidents, after news that "criminal-on-criminal" violence wouldn't always be disseminated brought an outcry on social media.

For the past five years, the agency has issued prompt notifications over the micro-messaging service of confirmed shootings and homicides from across the city, garnering the department nearly 40,000 followers who want to receive crime alerts directly from the agency as they happen.

But with nonfatal shootings up 19 percent this year, the department's page fell silent over the weekend as four more people were shot and wounded in separate incidents in Curtis Bay, Barclay, Belair-Edison and the Patterson Park neighborhood. It instead featured mug shots of people charged with handgun violations and photos from a community event in Northwest Baltimore. The agency continued to send brief summaries of the incidents to the news media via email.

Jack Papp, the department's chief spokesman, said the social media policy had been revised after the circumstances of several recent shooting incidents had changed subsequent to being sent out on Twitter. "Details can change, so rather than tweet something out, we clarify and then send out to the media," he said.

In a follow-up email, Papp said "the department is not going to tweet out every time a drug dealer shoots another criminal in the leg for nonpayment, i.e. criminal-on-criminal crime that we know," he said. "We will still tweet out instances where nonfatal shootings involve citizens, public safety issues, etc. in real time, as well as homicides."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, the vice chairman of the council's public safety committee, said he was stung by Papp's comment about pulling back on disclosing "criminal-on-criminal" incidents, calling it "inappropriate and unacceptable."

"We cannot go around valuing one life over another," Scott said. "The simple fact of the matter is, the department and the city of Baltimore have made far too much progress in transparency to take a step back. We should be doing more with social media, not less."

On social media, the reaction was decidedly against the move.

"If their purpose is to provide information, I think it's a bad idea to limit that — already pretty limited as it is," one wrote.

Before 5 p.m. Monday, Papp said the decision had been reversed.

"We saw a lot of concerns from the community, and we listened to the community, and we said, 'We won't change it,' " Papp said.

Baltimore police were one of the earlier adopters in law enforcement circles of Twitter, the now-ubiquitous social media service, and experimented with other tools such as text alert programs and email distribution lists. Officials said city residents had "a right to know what's going on in their community."

They have also been criticized for not going far enough, most notably in April when the city police union president took the agency to task for using social media for "public-relations propaganda." Robert F. Cherry, the union president, said major crimes too often went unmentioned because "police don't want you to know everything."

Seattle, for example, has dozens of feeds tailored to individual neighborhoods. Philadelphia and other cities have encouraged individual police officers to tweet crime information from their own accounts.

Lauri Stevens, a social media consultant for police departments, said some agencies have difficulty balancing the benefits and drawbacks of social media.

"Overall, there's definitely a trend toward putting out more information, but for each agency there's growing pains, and they have to figure out things that work for them, given limited amount of resources and trying not to be the test case that goes to court," Stevens said. She said some agencies pull back if they feel the information isn't building relationships or helping to solve crimes.

One of the weekend shootings that went untweeted occurred in Curtis Bay early Saturday, with a woman shot in both arms in the 1600 block of Elmtree St.

An email sent to Southern District officers said that a man ceremoniously dubbed "public enemy number one" by police last week — because he is charged with an attempted murder of an ex-girlfriend — is a person of interest in the case. Police did not disclose this detail to the media.

Papp's comments about the type of people involved in shootings highlights an increasing refrain from public officials in recent months, who have described this year's rising gun violence as contained to a criminal element.

Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said in a recent interview that "close to 90 percent" of the city's violence "is gang member-on-gang member, drug dealer-on-drug dealer." Batts did not respond to a request for comment.

The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, an activist, said the policy change comes at a time when the department should be working toward greater transparency. Information will help involve Baltimoreans in addressing city crime, he said.

"We can't be partners in this fight if we're not kept abreast and apprised of what's happening," Witherspoon said.

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