The Kingston Police Department’s Facebook page started with a simple goal — to allow Chief Egidio Tinti to spend less time on the phone with reporters and more time tending to the day-to-day matters of running a busy, understaffed small city police department.
“It really started out of necessity,” said Tinti. “I found myself having to send out press releases to multiple news organizations and I thought, there has to be a better way to let the public know what’s going on.”
Eighteen months later, the page has taken on a life of its own that not even Tinti, a dedicated technophile, could have predicted. The page has evolved into what could be thought of as a 21st century version of the public stocks, where alleged miscreants are exposed to community outrage in the form of comments from citizens cheering their arrest or ridiculing their criminal ineptitude. Nearly as often, the comments threads below arrest reports provide a forum for friends and family — and sometimes the accused themselves — to proclaim innocence or testify to good character.
In the past few weeks a young alleged graffiti artist wrote on page to correct the spelling of her “tag,” while a man accused of stealing a cell phone from a local nightspot posted a message claiming that he had merely taken the phone for safekeeping and intended to find the owner and return it.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” said Lt. Cliff Tremper, one of the KPD supervisors charged with administering the Facebook page. “I wouldn’t be doing that if I were facing charges, but I guess some people feel obligated.”
The freewheeling tone of the comments extends to criticism of the department itself. Posters frequently take the department to task on a wide variety of issues, from making marijuana busts to failing to address conditions on a particular corner. Tinti said he decided early on the allow the page to serve as a sounding board for community input, good and bad, on how the department does its job. Administrators will still filter out personal attacks, vulgarity and generalized cop-bashing. But Tinti said that he’s more interested in addressing negative feedback than suppressing it. According to Tinti, on at least three occasions, he’s responded to negative comments by directing lieutenants to reach out to the poster to discuss, and hopefully address, their complaint.
“We want to know why this person is saying this about us,” said Tinti. “Is there something we could be doing better? Is it just a misunderstanding about how we do our job? We want feedback whether it’s positive or not.”
The cops who administer the Facebook page concede that the negative, sometimes uninformed, comments can be grating, they have thus far refrained from engaging in online arguments. Detective Sgt. Brian Robertson recalls particular aggravation with one poster who took him to task for his supposed misspelling of “marijuana” (Robertson. like a lot of people in law enforcement, uses the 1930s-vintage and entirely legitimate “marihuana.”)