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Policing in the Age of Information

Typography

Interacting via social media is an increasingly demanding aspect of law enforcement. As a recent interaction on Facebook reveals, the Cottonwood Police Department is informing the public and generating conversation — among suspects themselves, people acquainted with suspects and the general, sometimes over-invested, public.

On June 30, CPD Sgt. Monica Kuhlt posted the following notice on the CPD Facebook page: “Employee steals over 14K from her place of employment in Cottonwood .... On June 27, 2017 Cottonwood detectives arrested 54 yearold Cottonwood resident Kelly Demers for allegedly committing fraudulent schemes and theft, both felonies. Between 2014 and 2017, Demers reportedly stole $14,245.59 from her place of employment while she was responsible for payroll. The business is located in the 600 block of East State Route 89A in Cottonwood.”

The same day, Facebook user Cory Felix responded, “Nobody’s innocent until proven guilty anymore, eh? Watch the assumptions fly and the soapboxes pile out. And people wonder why so many people hate Cottonwood.”

By the following day, numerous parties — some claiming to know suspect Demers and the woman who allegedly owns the window treatment business that Demers allegedly stole funds from — chimed in, arguing both in favor of and against CPD posting the notice of Demers’ arrest.

“Yes the police have charged her with theft,” Facebook user Will Wood stated. “I haven’t passed judgement — that’s for the courts to decide. I’m glad the CPD notified us in the community about law breakers — and that they are doing their job to protect us from such people that feel the need to break the law.”

“Kelly is a great person,” Facebook user Ronnie Miller stated. “[S]he made a bad decision, that’s all .... This report made her sound horrible. The owner did not want to do this but had no choice.”

Demers herself weighed in on July 1, stating on Facebook, “I had no idea what I was being charged with till this post came out. .... Guilty until proven innocent. I hate this town. You find out who has your back when the poop gets thick .... I haven’t even told my side of the story and I’m guilty [according] to all of you and CPD. They’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”

The interactions culminated in an exchange between Demers and Facebook user Rhett McGinnis:

McGinnis: “This is not an isolated incident. Years ago she was stealing from my boss and got fired .... Furthermore, I would be more than happy to testify for the prosecution.”

Demers: “I never have been fired from any job but this one. Stop the slander or you’ll hear from my lawyer too.”

McGinnis: “You’re a liar and a thief. That will never change.” On July 2, Facebook user Jack Olson wrote a long comment to the original post, stating, “The police conducted investigation has been going on since March. [Demers] wasn’t charged until they had over $14,000 in proof! And it’s the second time in three years she was caught. They didn’t just charge her off accusations, they charged her when they had enough proof.”

Olson, who claimed to be the son of the woman who owned the business Demers is alleged to have stolen from, stated that Demers had worked for his mother for 17 years.

“This investigation has been going on for 3 months, by CPD, who have all my mom’s financial records for the past three years,” Olson wrote. “They have the proof of the first time my mom caught her, and forgave her, and let her keep working. There is sufficient evidence for these charges.”

Kuhlt, who acts as one of the administrators of the CPD Facebook page, said she generally maintains a hands-off approach to moderating discussions that follow from public notices unless they contain explicit, inappropriate or threatening language.

“My position is, if they’re not using inappropriate language, or threatening, they certainly have a right to voice their opinion .... I think it’s an important part of our interaction with the community, especially the younger generation,” Kuhlt said, but added that she understands how posting arrests makes it appear that CPD has levied judgment on suspects.

“[That’s] not the case at all, though,” Kuhlt said.

According to Kuhlt, negative perceptions about CPD are an unavoidable result of being open and reporting about what are by all rights troubling interactions with the public. At the same time, Kuhlt said, cops are people too and deserve to highlight the positive impacts they have on the community — sometimes with a dose of humor.

“I don’t have a problem leaving [negative comments] up there, obviously,” Kuhlt said. “Whether I agree with it or not doesn’t matter .... My goal would be to incorporate a bit of humor [but] I have to tread lightly because I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Meanwhile, the legal repercussions of suspects commenting on Facebook are clear: CPD operates a public Facebook page, which means that interactions are viewable by anyone, including law enforcement and judicial representatives, with an internet connection.

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