It’s one thing when people look out for their neighbors.
It’s something entirely different when people post serious allegations online without knowing the facts.
One recent example took place last week in Big Lake.
A woman posted a photo of a man’s truck and license plate, and accused him of being “a creeper.” She stated he had been driving through the neighborhood taking photos of houses, and accused him of rolling down his window to “clearly” take a photo of her son and another neighborhood boy at the bus stop. She warned people to “watch out.”
The man’s version of the story was quite different.
He stated he was on his way to pick up his son at his new house when he turned a block too soon and became lost.
He said he pulled over to call his son to get directions.
Later, when the man stopped at a gas station, he said someone called him a pervert, and he didn’t know why. He didn’t find out about the Facebook post until later, when police ran the license plate in the photo and contacted him.
There have been similar situations when people have been going about their business and someone has felt uncomfortable so they posted allegations on social media.
In the Big Lake case, if the woman who created the post had time to take photos and post them on social media, she surely had time to call law enforcement to report her concerns. She chose not to do that.
Police did not become aware of the situation until another person, who had seen the post, contacted police for follow-up information.
When police found out about the post, they went to the man’s residence and cleared up the matter in five minutes.
Big Lake Police Chief Joel Scharf said he was upset by the post because the woman who posted it said she had contacted the police, but hadn’t, and also because people are making serious allegations online that can be seen by many people.
Scharf made reference to the value of citizen input to help police solve crimes, but noted this is effective when residents are partnering with law enforcement, “not with the local gossip network.”
Scharf encouraged people to contact law enforcement when they see something that looks suspicious, and let police determine if there is something that is out of place, or there is something incorrect about what is going on.
That seems like pretty good advice.
If people report things to law enforcement, the police will have a chance to investigate and take appropriate action.
If people post wild allegations without reporting them to law enforcement, it won’t solve the problem, but it may needlessly cause concerns among other residents.
In addition, due to the way information especially bad information travels on social media, they might be carelessly damaging the reputations of innocent people without even giving them the opportunity to explain what they are doing.
It might make some people feel like a big deal or give them some warped sense of satisfaction to go online and post their fears about people they don’t know. One wonders, however, if they would be so proud of themselves if it was one of their friends or family members who was treated this way.
It is a good feeling to live in an area where people care about their neighbors and look out for one another, but concern must be tempered with a sense of responsibility.
A couple things stood out for me as I read reports and responses to this situation.
One was the incredible power of social media. Apparently, people from other states and even other countries saw the original post.
Another was a reminder that even in the face of a horrible situation, there is room for compassion and hope.
There was an outpouring of support on the Big Lake Police Department’s Facebook page.
The chief shared the original post to illustrate the danger of irresponsible use of social media, and he posted a photo of himself with the victim, who is apparently well known in the community as a volunteer and a friendly neighbor who has a smile and a wave for everyone he sees.
Some people called for retribution against the woman who created the original post. Perhaps that response is understandable, especially for those who know the victim.
A better response, however, is illustrated by this comment that was posted on the thread on the police department’s page: “I think one of the best things we can do to honor Roger is to extend kindness to others in our communities. A smile, hello, or even a small offer to help or give something to lift someone’s spirits. It’s incredibly easy.”
That sounds like good advice for all of us.