Police Wary of Using Social Media in Missing-Persons Cases

Organizations have reported intentionally withholding information indicating a missing person has run away as the term can be “very misleading” and cause the public to be less vigilant.

by Jason Addy, The York Dispatch, Pa. / March 31, 2017

(TNS) -- The search for a missing Hanover, Pa.-area teen who left home last week is raising questions about the effectiveness and value of people attempting to use social media to help police in missing-persons investigations.

Madison Krumrine, 16, was located by authorities Tuesday in southern Maryland, less than a week after disappearing from her West Manheim Township home on the night of March 23.

In a post on the West Manheim Township Police’s Facebook page Wednesday, Chief Tim Hippensteel said Madison had left a note saying she left voluntarily and was running away from home.

Madison’s disappearance prompted a large-scale search Sunday afternoon, with hundreds of volunteers joining a community-organized search party to comb the area around her home, and many online are now questioning why police didn’t release more information from their investigation.

Though West Manheim Township Police did not disclose Madison’s note until after she was found, the department said in its initial release on Saturday that she was “believed to have voluntarily left her residence.”

Hippensteel wrote Wednesday that his department intentionally withheld information regarding the “handwritten note at her house clearly indicating she left voluntarily.”

As of Thursday evening, Hippensteel's post on the West Manheim Township Police Department's Facebook page had been shared more than 1,600 times and garnered 360 comments since Wednesday afternoon.

Many of those commenting on Facebook expressed relief that Madison was found and is safe, but some questioned why no one from her family or the police department spoke about the note during the five days Madison was missing.

Hippensteel and Keith Krumrine, Madison's father, did not return calls asking for comment for this story.

Robert Lowery, vice president of the Missing Children Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said his organization also intentionally withholds information indicating a missing person has run away as the term can be “very misleading” and cause the public to be less vigilant.

Misinformation: Newberry Township Police Chief John Snyder said his department treats every missing-persons report as though it could be “extremely dangerous,” even if it is someone who is known as a “repetitive runaway.”

“The first time you don’t treat one of those (cases) seriously, it can result in a tragedy,” Snyder said.

Though police treat every missing-persons case seriously, officers are often intentionally misled by friends of those who have run away from home, Snyder said. Investigations that are already constrained by limited resources and little information to follow can be compromised by this misinformation, Snyder said.

In his post, Hippensteel sounded off on “irresponsible” posts on the “Missing Madison Krumrine” Facebook page that interfered with the investigation and said the false posts continued even after he requested the page stop “posting information that was not vetted by police to assure accuracy and maintain the integrity of the investigation.”

“Unfortunately, the need for this post is a direct result of false and misleading information that was posted, absent police authorization, particularly on the Facebook page ‘Missing Madison Krumrine,’” Hippensteel wrote. “The irresponsible posting by those managing this page caused consternation and numerous baseless tips that wasted countless hours of investigators’ time.”

It is almost impossible for law enforcement to keep up with the speed of information, Snyder said, especially in missing-persons cases.

When individuals are running away, they often travel from location to location, and they could be long gone by the time police can verify all of the information they are receiving, he said.

Social media is a tool for investigators to use when looking for leads, Snyder said, but it requires time-intensive traditional police work — interviewing witnesses and collecting information from the scene — to verify those tips.

“Social media can be a double-edged sword,” he said.

Social media platforms can provide investigators with a wealth of information, but deciding what information to share and when is “a very difficult thing to manage," Snyder said.

Competing interests: Southwestern Regional Police Chief Greg Bean said local police departments are facing a new challenge in communicating with the residents of the communities they serve as social media provides a platform for instant access to information, correct or not.

Police and residents have “competing interests” in terms of disseminating information, Bean said. Residents want information immediately, but police must investigate and verify information before releasing it to the public, Bean said.

“Residents really have a need to know as quickly as possible what’s happening with any incident — I’m no different in my neighborhood,” Bean said. “One of the problems is that policing sometimes has difficulties in coming up with answers quickly, which causes frustration in the community. The last thing we want to do is share any incorrect information.”

Control over information: In that period between an incident occurring and police releasing information, many people will turn to social media to find out the latest news — news that hasn’t been verified by police.

“Social media is really an unregulated area” where authorities can lose control over information, said Lowery, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children representative.

Once police lose that control, it is very difficult for them to reclaim their message, he said. A trusting relationship with community members is key for police departments to maintain control of information in these cases, Lowery said.

Police must constantly reaffirm the facts, Lowery said, even though it further stretches limited resources and “the public doesn’t always want to hear the facts.”

When parents hear about a missing person, it is human nature for them to wonder whether their own children are safe, he said.

That heightened sense of interest and attention from the public can create an environment where messages “can easily become distorted in their facts,” Lowery said, with social media providing a platform for unverified information to be spread instantaneously.

Bean said he learned that social media can play a key role in communications between police and residents at a presentation several years ago by a public information officer in the Boston Police Department.

According to Bean, the officer said the department was releasing information every 15 minutes in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in order to “quell misinformation.”

“The lesson I learned there is that the public has an insatiable appetite for information,” Bean said. “If we can’t provide it, then misinformation will be rampant.”

©2017 The York Dispatch (York, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.