When citizen cops turn bad

In my small, neighborhood park there is a regular assortment of runners and walkers, picnic groups, dog-walkers, grandfathers pushing strollers, homeless guys and tennis players. On any given day you can hear voices speaking Russian, Chinese, English or a lovely range of other languages. And always there are children — with moms, dads, nannies or other supervisors — stumbling around makeshift mini-baseball diamonds in the meadow or tumbling noisily around the playground. It is, in short, exactly what an ideal neighborhood park should be. Its neighborhood, within a few surrounding miles, is home to the low-ish income, middle income and affluent.

And apparently at least one over-anxious mom. Recently she spotted a man she perceived to be a potential threat. The incident was reported in a San Francisco Chronicle op ed piece by former editor and now columnist/blogger Phil Bronstein, who says he used to take his own son there. (Bronstein is not among the low-ish or middle incomes.)

A worried mom took (the man’s) photo with her phone and messaged it around with a detailed description and a warning. “He does not have children and pretends he does and is there to do pull-ups,” she wrote.

The e-mail, originally intended for a small pool of officials and families, went wide in an expanding spiral onto lots of electronic doorsteps. That’s the way it works on the Web.

“Hope someone goes Woodsman on him,” one commenter wrote.

“There were people who wanted to suspend the Constitution,” investigating police Capt. Rich Correia at the Richmond station told me about some lynch-mob sentiment. “It’s interesting how people feed off the Internet, how fast it gets around and how much people can amplify it. Folks made all sorts of assumptions about (things) they didn’t know.”

In this case, the mix of digital citizen vigilance, child safety concerns and viral networking caused a train wreck with a definite victim. And it wasn’t a kid.

San Francisco blog SFist ran the headline “Potential Child Predator” with the photo the mom took. KTVU-TV broadcast the guy’s easily identifiable portrait and kept it on the screen throughout its story. “Take a look at the picture of this man,” said the reporter. “There’s obviously concern he’s some kind of predator.”

Except he isn’t.

What he is, unfortunately, is a marked man. Tried and convicted in the courts of the internet and public communications. The cops identified him, went to his house, determined there was no danger (he was “unguarded, cooperative and surprised at being the subject of a police investigation”) and that the poor guy was doing nothing but exercises in the park. The blog and the TV people took down his photo, but you have to wonder if the original mom apologized, or if he will feel very welcome in the park now.

A somewhat different go-after-the-bad-guys story was reported today by New York Times writer Dan Frosch, this one about Justin Kurtz, a hapless Kalamazoo, Michigan college student whose properly parked car was towed from its parking lot and it cost him $118 to get it back. Anyone who’s ever had a car towed can identify with the rage that then prompted Kurtz to start a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” But after 800 people signed up in sympathetic outrage, T&J filed a defamation suit seeking $75,000 in damages. I’m rooting for Justin and his friends (having been towed under less-than-happy circumstances myself), but the whole business will likely end up costing another unnecessary load of pain and anguish — and possibly, more than $118.

The question is, how far are we ready to trust cyberspace? In the case of the Mountain Lake Park non-pervert, the hysteria continued despite fast action by the cops.

People trusted the social network far more than they did the seasoned and reputationally impressive police captain. “After 30 years on the force,” he says, “it’s hard to accept that people believe Internet chatter more than they do reaching me on the phone.”

In this case, social media was not a new and improved town crier. Instead, the hysterical tendencies that understandably surround kids’ security led to what Correia called “long e-mails of inference and innuendo like the opening act of ‘The Crucible,”’ Arthur Miller’s play about witch hunts.

As a friend of mine with kids who lives near Mountain Lake Park and got copies of the e-mail from multiple people noted, “It’s often easier to share than to deliberate. Were we deputized, or just weaponized?”

In the emerging world, you can think you’re a citizen journalist, but you’re really a citizen cop. And in the Mountain Lake Park case, people also became citizen prosecutor, judge and jury.

Viral campaigns are hard to undo, but maybe we should try. What if T&J were to return their ill-gotten $118, enabling Justin to create a new Facebook page about what a fine business they are? Their tarnished reputation could then be restored to its former glory, if towing companies have glory, for a pittance.

With the non-pervert, it’s not that simple. But maybe the over-zealous mom will take the trouble to contact him and apologize. It would be a start, although I’m not holding my breath. If I see him, however, I’m apt to be extra kind and pleasant, and then people will probably talk. As long as they don’t put us on Facebook.

‘Pervert’ in the park isn’t what he seems.

3 responses

  1. i would like to add a correction to this article. i live in kalamazoo, and have been following the whole case with the towing company from the beginning, and have had my share of horrible experiences with this company. the amount that they have sued Justin Kurtz is actually $750,000 – not $75,000. BIG difference!

    • Good grief. Doesn’t sound like they have much glory to restore, or that they really might have suffered $750,000 worth. It could still get to be a long, expensive slog, and I hope it doesn’t. Thanks for the correction.

  2. Pingback: Child predators & citizen cops: part two - Fran Johns - Boomers and Beyond - True/Slant

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