Korryn Gaines case: Video posting by suspects poses new challenges for police

Baltimore County police request to deactivate suspect's Facebook account during a standoff was a rare move.

When the visit by Baltimore County police to serve a warrant on Korryn Gaines in her home this week escalated into an armed standoff, the Randallstown woman chose a path that has grown increasingly familiar: She began recording video and posting the footage online.

County police responded with a move that, for the department, was unprecedented: They asked Facebook to shut down Gaines' account.

Nearly seven hours into the standoff Monday, and with Gaines' Facebook and Instagram accounts turned off, officers shot Gaines to death.

Critics were quick to weigh in.

"Facebook helped Baltimore police kill #KorrynGaines in the dark," the artist Ferrari Sheppard tweeted. "Letting it sink in."

In an era when videos — recorded by police and citizens — have helped draw attention to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York, Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati and others, citizens approached by officers are increasingly pulling out their phones and pressing record.

The advent of live-streaming, meanwhile, has introduced a new dynamic to confrontations between police and citizens. When a police officer shot Philando Castile to death last month in Minnesota, his girlfriend immediately went live on Facebook to spread the news and narrate the aftermath.

The evolving phenomenon is presenting new challenges to police, and to social media platforms.

Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said Facebook must be careful about how it decides to comply with requests by police to censor content.

Facebook, Twitter and similar companies now "dominate the public conversation space," she said, but also "have pseudo-governmental powers" in deciding what content is allowed.

Rowland noted that the video recorded by Castile's girlfriend in suburban St. Paul has contributed significantly to public discourse around shootings by police.

She questioned the request by Baltimore County police to shut down Gaines' accounts — and Facebook's decision to comply.

"This is a situation where police have told the public that this woman was a security risk and the aggressor, and visual evidence would only have served to confirm their account," Rowland said. "We should all be troubled … when Facebook is making ad hoc decisions about when to cooperate with law enforcement."

Stephanie Lacambra, criminal defense staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said she did not want to speculate about the Gaines case without knowing all the facts.

"Generally speaking, social media platforms have the right to shut down accounts at their discretion," she said in a statement. "But they should do so sparingly and be as neutral and transparent as possible in how they make those decisions."

Baltimore County police say they were aiming for the best possible outcome when they asked Facebook to take Gaines' accounts offline.

"Followers were encouraging her not to comply with negotiators' requests that she surrender peacefully," Police Chief James Johnson said. "You can see the utility of taking that action."

To critics, Gaines was taking video to keep herself safe and preserve a record of the confrontation. Gaines' previous social media postings show she distrusted police.

County police said the Gaines case was the first in which they have asked that an account be deactivated during an "exigent" circumstance.

"We do expect that these requests will become more frequent now that live-streaming has become a part of everyday life," spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.

Facebook confirmed that it shut down and later restored Gaines' pages at the request of law enforcement.

The social media giant, which also owns the photo and video sharing site Instagram, has kept two of Gaines' videos offline. A company spokeswoman said they violated the site's terms of service.

The spokeswoman would not describe the material depicted in the videos, but noted that the site does not allow content that shows "credible threats of physical harm to individuals."

Police say Gaines raised a shotgun at officers and threatened to kill them. The officers and Gaines then exchanged fire, police say. Gaines was shot to death, and her 5-year-old son was wounded.

Rowland, of the ACLU, said she was troubled by the lack of footage of the shooting.

"That law enforcement sought to stop a video feed during this incident is particularly concerning when they themselves were not wearing body cameras," Rowland said. "As a result, we only have law enforcement's narrative of what occurred at the end of this standoff."

Police say they have asked Facebook to preserve all the videos from the encounter as evidence.

Two videos— one showing an officer standing in Gaines' doorway and another in which she converses with her son — are still online.

Data provided by Facebook show a steady increase in requests by law enforcement.

From July to December 2015, the site received more than 19,200 requests for information, and provided some data in more than 80 percent of those cases. Some 850 requests were described as "emergency disclosures."

The site did not provide more detail about the nature of the requests, or say how often accounts were deactivated.

Police in Baltimore said they have never asked a social media company to deactivate an account in the midst of a standoff or crisis, and a spokesman declined to say how police might approach such a situation.

"Each tactical situation is different and different approaches are taken depending upon what we have going on," spokesman T.J. Smith said.

In 2012, a local blogger known as The Baltimore Spectator went live on his internet radio show to announce that police were outside his home.

Officers were attempting to serve a warrant. Frank James MacArthur had posted taunts toward police and expressed a belief that they would try to harm him.

MacArthur live-streamed a call to 911 and his discussions with a negotiator.

"Basically the idea is to let people see what's really going on, as it's going on so that if something bad happens, everyone will have witnessed it and we won't have to wait for a carefully crafted police version," MacArthur said this week. "In doing so, they help introduce a certain level of increased accountability that otherwise might not be there."

There is an audience for video of interactions between citizens and police. When the Castile video went offline, Facebook drew criticism. The video is back up. The company blamed a technical glitch.

In Tampa, Fla., recently, the audience for one suspect's live stream included police.

The 30-year-old man barricaded himself inside his home and began live-streaming on Facebook.

Outside the home, police called up his page. In addition to gaining insight into his state of mind, they could see his location within the home as he moved around. They saw he was with his dog.

They also saw that he was armed.

Police fired tear gas through a window, and he fired two shots at officers. He ultimately surrendered.

A Tampa police spokesman said the live stream was helpful.

"We didn't ask that it be shut off," spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. "We watched it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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