UPD Facebook Page Sparks Controversy
July 24th 2012 · 21 Comments
By Derek Scarlino
Most of the time, I’m going to write about national or international happenings on this blog, but this topic was recently brought up by some friends who moved out of Utica only within the last couple of years. As a local activist and writer known among some, it was actually requested of me, by these friends, to put some of my “talents” to use and bring attention to the issue at hand:
Chances are, if you live in or around Utica, and you have a Facebook account, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re unclear, well, keep reading. I hope it becomes clearer to you.
I can see where these friends of mine are coming from in their criticisms of the way social networking has been taken to by Utica’s Finest. It serves the same purpose as, say, a book of unflattering pictures and secrets used by high school girls to malign one another by evoking the scorn of the too easily impressed student body of petty teenagers.
What’s the Problem?
The mugshots of local suspects are routinely posted to the UPD’s Facebook page, along with their address, a brief description of the arrest and charges pending, and instantly subjected to the petty sneers of the Utica area’s most vitriolic, and possibly least clever, residents.
It is embarrassing, and it encourages the worst reactions from people who get their rocks off by pointing fingers at other people. Believing that they are moral, and morally superior. Stooges who act without empathy for those who struggle in a city where times of abundance are long past.
UPD Out-of-Touch, Residents In-Tow
When I decided to look into the matter by comparing the function and popularity of the Utica Police Department’s page to other major cities in New York, the results were even more discouraging and the complicity in the humiliation quickly spread beyond the “best intentions” of the UPD.
Here are the respective ‘Likes’ for the police departments of the largest cities in New York, outside of New York City. Quickly, for those who are less Facebook-savvy, a ‘Like’ is an option users have to either show their support, and/or follow the updates, for different types of hobbies, places, people, or institutions that have their own pages on Facebook.
Albany PD – 5,949
Buffalo PD – 4,716
Binghamton PD – 723
New Rochelle PD – 26
Rochester PD – 315
Rome PD – 3,363
Schenectady PD – 97
Syracuse PD – 2,541
Troy PD – 13
Utica PD – 19,167
Watertown PD – 978
Yonkers PD – 7,014
Yes. That’s Utica up there with nearly 20,000 ‘Likes’. Almost 20,000 people will see the mugshots of people recently arrested by the Utica Police Department on their own Facebook pages with a description of how the arrest took place, and the charges pending against the individual.
The function of the page, compared to that of other police departments, sheds even more light. Only the UPD posts pictures of recent arrests. And the page is inundated with them. Unflattering pictures of people yet to be actually convicted of anything, and if they are later acquitted of charges, there is no retraction issued by the police to inform the public.
The community got to see how the UPD takes to accusations of its own controversial handling of traffic stops in its January battle with the Phoenix. Despite the fact that no accusation was stated by the Phoenix, and a retraction was issued to correct the mistaken use of an officer’s name, the UPD was still out for blood because of the potential damage to its reputation. It begs the question, what’s the difference here? The UPD is inviting doubt, suspicion, and personal damage to those persons plastered on their Facebook page without any follow-up to see if they were actually guilty.
There was also a stir in the community, around that same time in early 2012, when a State Trooper was arrested for breaking into a neighbor’s house while intoxicated, became involved in a physical altercation, and yet did not have his mugshot or charges posted as immediately as those of others because it was “under investigation”.
What’s with the double-standard? You can’t cast doubt on their actions, but they can do that to you and I? They protect the reputations of their brothers in law enforcement, but flippantly put ours at risk? Well-grounded questions.
Other police departments in New York State use their Facebook for community interaction, information sharing, and a general method to keep the public informed of upcoming events and the like. The UPD has turned their own into a cyber-stockade where the community can gather round and heave insults at the accused.
I can anticipate what people are going to say about this. That they “have a right” to keep an eye on crime. But, crime in New York State has dropped dramatically in the last decade. Of those cities listed above, only Yonkers, New Rochelle, and Rome are below the national crime average.
While Utica has a crime index that is above the national average, it’s still less than Troy, Schenectady, Syracuse, Rochester, Albany, and Buffalo. Keep in mind that Troy and Schenectady are similar in size to Utica. Even though the city’s crime rate is above the national average, it isn’t dramatically so, either. To keep things in context, the national crime rate has been declining for twenty years – homicides occur at the lowest rate since 1964. Unified crime, on a national level, is down to its 1969 rate.
It is reasonable to assume that these people viewing the page regularly are not interested in crime rates. Yonkers’ crime rate, again, is below the national average, and their police department’s page is second to the UPD’s by a difference exceeding 10,000 people. Cities with higher crime rates are also dramatically less invested in their local PD’s Facebook activity. Because of the profound difference in other cities, on both sides of Utica’s respective crime rate, it cannot be assumed that a more interested population yields lower crime rates.
Cost-benefit analysis beckons. Can the UPD do their job just as efficiently without the equivocation of local suspects on their Facebook page? Are our constitutional rights worth suspending in favor of crime fighting on a local level (keep in mind, many of these people are accused of nonviolent drug and DUI crimes)?
If it cannot be easily argued that the viewers of the page at-large are interested in crime rates or that the page has a significant event on reducing crime, what’s the deal with the page’s popularity?
It’s anti-intellectual indulgence. It’s the “told you so” crowd, the “if you have nothing to hide” crowd and all in between who gang up on people before actual convictions are made, as these posts go up within hours of an arrest.
To their credit, the UPD does issue a disclaimer on each post that serves as a warning that they will delete posts featuring vulgar language, personal attacks, and racial, ethnic or religious slurs. They also reserve the right to delete other comments that are simply spam, off topic, promote illegal activity or are marketing attempts.
Apparently, it did not occur to the page’s creator that homophobic insults are also perceived quite negatively these days. A very specific post, on a recent arrest puts this on full display. Gay-bashing should also be mentioned in the UPD disclaimer.
The moderator(s) of the page is/are also very inconsistent in enforcing the stated guidelines. Personal attacks routinely show up, as well as comments which elicit racial stereotypes. Comments made by persons who are critical of the purpose and intent of the UPD are promptly deleted, and often barred from further contact with the page.
Evidence (Click on thumbnails to enlarge)
Violation of Impartiality (Due Process)
The UPD holds itself as ethical and professional when their Facebook activity is void of both ethics and professionalism. Posting mugshots of people, with one-sided (obviously) descriptions of the arrest, before a conviction is reached speaks volumes of how garish the UPD’s actions can be in this city.
How it is ethical, in a legal sense, for the police to get on Facebook, write their version of events, and post the disheveled mugshot of the accused, before they stand before a jury is beyond me. How is this justice?
According to the page’s own stats, nearly 20,000 people have a vested interest in this page. That’s a third of Utica’s population. A jury consists of twelve (sometimes 6) people. Do the math.
That’s a third of the possible jury pool, on average, who have been exposed to rampant disparaging of any given individual who has not yet been convicted. This raises some serious questions about the police department’s intent as this can very easily be construed by observers as a method to increase conviction rates. And there are already economic incentives, in the form of federal grants, for police departments, across the United States, to ramp up drug and DUI arrests in order to strengthen their requests for federal grant money.
Now, before another battle erupts between the UPD and the Utica Phoenix, let it clearly be stated, with emphasis, that the purpose of this article is not to implicate the Utica Police Department in engaging in this type of duplicity, which would constitute a very serious conflict of interests. The intent is to illustrate what they, the UPD, are setting themselves up to be accused of. Any way you want to slice it, there is little of merit in the defense of the UPD’s Facebook page.
Impartiality is inseparable from justice. Any argument with that is an argument with the US Constitution, not simply my own opinion. Because this Facebook page is so popular, it is compromising to the impartiality of justices, law enforcement officials, lawyers, and jurors in the City of Utica. This would violate what we are guaranteed as part of our Fifth amendment right to due process.
It’s readily apparent that this page incites comments on racial stereotypes, homophobia, innuendo — whether it is intended or not. Whether there are attempts to control it or not. You cannot take a swap at a bee’s nest, run away, and expect to avoid accusations of responsibility in what transpires. To think of the UPD acting with impunity here is disturbing. This is what Utica’s tax dollars go towards: a public forum where critics of the methods are censored, and the very impartiality of our justice system is compromised for public amusement.
Residents can say, all they want, that it’s simply wonderful that the UPD is “doing its job” and that they have a right to know, and that the names of the arrested go into the paper anyway. This is beyond that. With 20,000 people that tuned-in to the UPD’s doings, it’s not done to keep up on “justice served”. When the UPD has five times more viewers than police department in the second-largest city in the state (Buffalo), people are going to the page for very specific reasons: to mock the accused.
While many insulting comments are deleted, many remain. Besides, deleting comments doesn’t prevent them from being posted in the first place. They still get posted. The pictures still fan the flames of intolerance. Let’s be honest with ourselves, what are whites going to think when they see the seedy mugshots of blacks? Anyone posted on that page is as good as guilty before proven otherwise. It’s a disgrace.
With Utica being so poor, and poverty’s direct correlation to crime, is it truly as simple as wagging a finger and saying, “Don’t do the crime”?
The answer is no. Who are we to judge in such a way? This is why we have a justice system, and the implications that can certainly arise from this are part of the reasons why many have lost faith in that justice system.
Outside of the concerns of constitutionally protected rights to impartiality, the social and personal impacts can be profoundly damaging. These people have family members who then get to see the community open up like a dark sky of hate to malign their relatives.
Again, the community gets to see the charges, the department’s description of the crime/arrest, the person’s address and the mugshot – there’s never a follow-up to disclose if the person was ever actually convicted. This is incredibly unfair to people who are later acquitted of charges. These people have jobs to go back to. Friends, family, and a community to face again.
Guilty or not, this is the United States. We believe as a society that we are just, even if the truth is cloudy or there are serious systemic issues to be addressed. We should commit ourselves to making sure that our constitutionally guaranteed rights are extended fairly to all. I’ve no pity for those who sexually abuse children, or rapists of any kind, but the justice system is supposed to be above personal vengeance and vendettas. Parading a person’s identity, address and charges, with a description of the crime, before the public is highly contentious, unprofessional and inappropriate. It may also exceed constitutional boundaries.
Keep in mind, this topic was brought to my attention by former residents, looking back on their home with disgrace. I’ve lived outside of Utica as well and have been aware of the UPD Facebook page in the past, and it should be obvious by this posting that I agree and hold similar sentiments.
Community and Other Dissent
There are already a number of Utica-area residents who are opposed to the way with which the UPD Facebook page is being operated. Not only do members of Occupy Utica stand opposed, but there is a counter Facebook page called Stop Utica Police Department’s anti social media that has 545 members.
The most surprising, and powerful, aspect of opposition directed at the UPD’s Facebook page comes in the form of an alleged cease and desist notice from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). This comes from the claim that the NYCLU issued a like warning to several police departments engaging in the same type of activity on their respective pages, including Utica’s. Other police departments have followed through on the request to remove mugshots and/or other compromising details of suspects while the UPD stands in defiance of the request and persists in its controversial practices. Don’t forget, if you live in Utica, you’re on the hook for the UPD’s litigation fees via your taxes.
I have contacted the NYCLU office to corroborate this claim, but have not been answered back yet. I will include this as an addendum in the future. If this turns out to be true, it can prove to be extremely damaging to the reputation of the Utica Police Department due to their possible dismissal of concern for our constitutional rights.
How to Move Forward
Criticism, though, has less value if it does not also include solutions. This clearly raises many issues for the Utica Police Department. The Utica Police Department can still run a Facebook page which satisfies an intended purpose to increase community interaction that is fully respectful of the community and the accused. Here are a few less-controversial, less-disconcerting (for the city) ways that the UPD could go about this without stirring things up:
Newspapers already publish police blotters. Let them continue doing so, and get out of the game completely. The Facebook posts are very detailed, more so than police blotters found in newspapers. Essentially, let the press do their own job.
Only post convictions. Posting the UPD’s side of the story, plus a terrible photograph, and a description of events is wildly compromising to the integrity of the UPD, the accused, the jury pool and the city. Again, especially when there’s no follow-up.
If residents are that concerned, the police can start an e-mail newsletter and send out notifications that way. Residents can send a private message the UPD Facebook page and request to be added to the newsletter list. As for residents not on Facebook, the UPD can provide an e-mail address to be printed with police blotters in the local papers. This can also be given out on the nightly TV news.
My argument isn’t that people do not have the right to know if crime is being committed in their community, it’s that there’s an onus on behalf of the police, in any community, to be ethical and fair in their outreach attempts to inform the public without sacrificing the character, and possibly the constitutional rights, of the accused.
As for the people who really seek out the misfortune of others so that they can validate their seats atop pillars of morality, I highly doubt that they’d be as appreciative of the effort by the UPD and the comments made, now about them, by people just like them if the shoe were on the other foot.
Utica is our community. These people are not strangers nor are they toys whose plight we should use for our amusement. They’re our neighbors. They’re people. They have lives. Their experiences in those lives may not be as favorable as others. We don’t all start out on the same path in life, and we don’t end there either. People move up and down the socio-economic ladder, and Utica is a hard city to cope with, in economic terms. Who is anyone in this city, or its metro area, to shame another person for not having what they have, for not achieving what they have achieved, or for doing what they say they’d never do?
This is exactly the sort of treatment that the UPD is encouraging from our neighbors with their Facebook page. The charge is on the police to do the right thing: reform the page so that it is no longer a lightning rod for contempt against the suspects or the police department itself, as suggested, or delete it entirely.
As it currently stands, the UPD’s Facebook page makes a mockery of justice and is a complete embarrassment to the City of Utica.