(TNS) -- The El Paso Police Department's public affairs staff have blocked some social media users from the department’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Chief Performance Officer Nancy Bartlett said the Police Department's public affairs staff, which includes Sgt. Enrique Carrillo, Sgt. Robert Gomez and Darrell Petry, are in charge of monitoring the department’s social media sites.
“Who does that at a given time depends upon the shift and available staff,” Bartlett said in an email response to an El Paso Times' request for comment.
Carrillo said the department's public affairs staff would not comment on blocking users. Officials also would not say how many users had been blocked.
University of Southern California social media expert and Professor Robert Hernandez said, "By blocking someone you are closing the conversation, and that's something I wouldn't think a police department would want to do. It says we are a closed-door department instead of open and inclusive."
The city’s social media policy states that “all city-sponsored social media resources must be viewable by anyone, whether or not they choose to open an account with the social media provider. No hiding or restricting content.”
Juli Lozano, the city’s public information officer, said in an email that the city policy about “not hiding or restricting content” specifically addresses “those individuals that do not have a twitter or facebook account. Our policy is intended to address private member only pages — for example — if anyone were to search for City of El Paso facebook page or any city department page they would be able to click & view the facebook page and all of the organization’s content without having to have an active facebook account. That is why it references ‘no hiding or restricting content’ to ensure that at all times our information is available.”
Blocked users who are not logged into their accounts also should be able to view information.
At least two people said they ended up being blocked after asking about the policy for blocking users on the police Twitter account.
Robert Diaz, 27, of Northeast El Paso, has been blocked by the Police Department’s Twitter account as of July 15.
“I had seen that a few of my friends were blocked, which I didn’t think was right,” Diaz said. “I decided to, as a concerned citizen, ask their Twitter (managers) what criteria they use to block someone. I wasn’t critical of them, I didn’t insult them.”
A short time later, Diaz noticed he was blocked. He remained blocked as of Thursday.
“In terms of a public page, one that people use for public information, one that can be used in emergencies, we all get Twitter updates on our phone, I don’t think it’s right for a public entity to block you for asking a question and it doesn’t help their cause,” Diaz said in an email.
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas Director Kelley Shannon said that as an open government advocate, she doesn't view blocking social media followers as a wise decision.
"It's certainly not a good way to do business," Shannon said. "The whole point of having social media is to have an open exchange."
Shannon also said it goes against the spirit of the law and open government.
"We are supposed to be about openness — we the people. There should not be actions that shut down certain parts of the public," she said.
Local blogger Jaime Abeytia said he also was blocked after sending a tweet to the Police Department asking about its policy on blocking followers.
“I didn’t think I did anything that warranted that,” Abeytia said. He added that he had tried to ask again from his personal Twitter account and was blocked from that account as well.
Reports of the department blocking some of its social media users began to surface following controversial comments made July 8 by Police Chief Greg Allen in which he called Black Lives Matter a “radical hate group.”
Hernandez said, "I would assume that with the Police Department you would not want to block the community you are engaging with. I would have advised them to engage in a conversation with the community."
Freelance journalist Debbie Nathan said she also was blocked from the Twitter account after posting information regarding Allen on the Police Department’s Twitter page.
Nathan said she tried to contact city officials and was told the city does not allow “negative” comments.
Hernandez said any institution can form its own policies to block users for harassment, for example, but for a police department or government entity to do so seems counterintuitive.
"This seems to hurt rather than help," Hernandez said. "Regardless of anyone's point of view, especially as a civic employee to protect and serve, they still serve those that criticize them."
According to the city's social media policy purpose statement, “The utilization of social media outlets provides entities with a unique opportunity to use new and cutting-edge networking technology to reach out to respective target audiences in promoting and sharing relevant information. The City of El Paso will utilize social media for the purpose of promoting and sharing information about City of El Paso municipal services, programs, initiatives and events.”
The policy, effective as of February 2010, does not identify when posts or followers may be blocked.
It does, however, specify under the section that defines “discussion forums” when posts will be reviewed prior to being posted.
Discussion forums must be clearly outlined on the webpage and include how the discussion forum, comment wall, or question and answer section will be handled and conducted, according to the policy.
“This includes advising that comments that are submitted by members of the public will be posted once reviewed for inappropriate, lewd or offensive content,” the policy states.
Some of the users who were blocked said they were not participating in a discussion forum.
A 2012 version of the social media policy states in its philosophy that social media provide a valuable means of assisting the city and its personnel in communicating with the public about community education, community information and other related organizational and community objectives and services.
The updated version also does not specify when followers of social media accounts may be blocked.
However, the policy states that employees, board members and volunteers are prohibited from posting offensive, demeaning or disruptive messages.
“This includes, but is not limited to messages that are inconsistent with the city’s policy concerning equal employment opportunity and its policy prohibiting sexual and other unlawful harassment. Under no circumstances may the city’s systems or equipment be used to transmit foul, indecent, scandalous or improper information, via social media or otherwise.”
It also states that offensive or sexual comments are expressly prohibited by city employees, board members and volunteers.
Hernandez said he is not surprised that the city does not have a policy on when blocking users should be allowed.
"I haven't seen too many (agencies) thoughtful enough to talk about policies for blocking," Hernandez said. "This is new for everyone involved, but I would say blocking people is not the approach one should take if you want to have a conversation."
©2016 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.