Morgantown, W.Va., Police Using Social Media Photos to Nab Rioters

The city's police chief said his department captured screenshots of images loaded on Instagram, Twitter and anonymous social media app Yik Yak and plans to use them to develop suspects.

by Molly Born, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS) / October 21, 2014

Hours after West Virginia University’s big win over Baylor on Saturday, some fans posed with toppled light poles and burning couches and posted the photos online.

Now, it could be a case of selfie-incrimination.

Morgantown police Chief Ed Preston said his department captured screenshots of images loaded on Instagram, Twitter and anonymous social media app Yik Yak and plans to use them to develop suspects. Not only were football fans using social media to coordinate post-game revelry, he said, but they were “trying to get selfies with broken pole light poles, like they were proud of being destructive.”

“Those people that were engaged in criminal activity, we will be going forward to charge them,” the chief said in an interview Monday.

Morgantown police have already arrested five people in connection with what they described as “riots” that caused tens of thousands in damage and drew several law enforcement agencies, some using pepper spray and tear gas to control rowdy crowds.

Campus police arrested a person from Delaware, who was not a student, for battery caused by throwing objects, a school spokesman said.

In terms of numbers, Saturday’s antics were JV compared to Oct. 22, 2003, when the team upset No. 3 Virginia Tech, 28-7. After that win, fans tried to rip down the goal posts at Mountaineer Field, prompting a 40-minute battle with police, who used pepper spray and brute force. Investigators recorded more than 150 fires, and fans chucked bottles, cans and other debris at officers.

Fire investigators logged 39 fires Saturday, mostly in the city’s Sunnyside neighborhood and in Downtown, adjacent to the main campus. While predictable at times -- couches, trash and Dumpsters were set ablaze -- Morgantown’s fire marshal Ken Tennant also noted a disturbing quality to Saturday’s riots that he’d witnessed once before, after WVU’s 2012 win against Texas.

“Unfortunately, what I see now is more violence toward first-responders,” he said.

Two firefighters and a state fire marshal were hit with full beer cans, and a fire engine was struck by a brick or piece of concrete, Mr. Tennant said. Chief Preston said while no serious injuries were reported, some officers, deputies and fire personnel suffered cuts and bruises after being hit with rocks and bottles.

After the Texas win, fans tried to overturn cars and pelted police in riot-gear with bottles and rocks. Police charged five people with malicious burning and 10 more with other crimes.

Chief Preston said Monday that his department is still gathering arrest data from the state police, sheriff’s department and other agencies that assisted on Saturday. Mr. Tennant said a Dumpster fire could rise to a third-degree arson, a felony, that could mean jail time if convicted.

“This criminal behavior has totally marred any success the team has had,” Chief Preston said.

Frank Scafella, executive director of Sunnyside Up, a group trying to revitalize the hilly student neighborhood, said a $70 million plan to build upscale student housing there will “make a huge difference” in the kind of raucous behavior that took place there Saturday. He likened the development there to the 1995 creation of FallFest, WVU’s annual concert to kickoff the school year. The event became an alternative to the unruly Grant Avenue block party that police struggled to control and eventually helped to dissolve it.

Set to open in January, the plan will include a grocery store, restaurant, outdoor landscaped space, and, according to Mr. Scafella, doors too narrow to haul a couch outside.

In a letter released late Monday, WVU president Gordon Gee said he condemned the “unacceptable and destructive behavior” Saturday.

“We all are extremely disappointed, frustrated and angry that a minority of students, and others who joined in, diverted the attention from the team’s achievement to inexcusable and lawless actions,” the letter said. “This is not how Mountaineers behave. And we will not condone such behavior by allowing individuals to remain on our campus who demean the reputation and achievements of our faculty, staff, students, alumni and community.”

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