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Florida Cops Must Balance Public Information, Investigations

The recent case of a manhunt for a double murder suspect highlighted the fine line between asking the public for information and the need to keep an investigation under wraps until an arrest is made.

by Travis Gibson, The St. Augustine Record / August 15, 2019
Shutterstock/Khakimullin Aleksandr

(TNS) — The world of social media has dramatically altered how St. Johns County carries out investigations.

With a few taps on a keyboard and click of the mouse, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office can instantly push unfiltered information to the public through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. When the Sheriff's Office needs to find a potentially dangerous criminal who was on the run, a plot that played out on Tuesday, that direct connection can be valuable, Sheriff's Office spokesman Chuck Mulligan said Wednesday.

"Social media for law enforcement is a very powerful tool," Mulligan said. "But at the same time it's not going to be like the "Cops" TV show where you are following our investigation as it happens. People believe that we should release everything we know at the time we know it, and that is just impossible to do that."

That social media dynamic played out this week as the Sheriff's Office, the U.S. Marshals and Pennsylvania State Police worked to track down Jack Elijah Turner.

Turner, 21, was named as a person of interest in connection with a double murder in Pennsylvania and on the run, authorities said.

At 9:38 p.m. on Tuesday, the Sheriff's Office shared a post with its nearly 55,000 Facebook followers that Turner was seen three times in the St. Augustine area on Tuesday and considered armed and dangerous. The post was eventually shared over 2,000 times.

Immediately, Mulligan said the post resulted in questions to the Sheriff's Office.

"We had several direct questions from people saying 'I want to know if I am safe, can you tell me where he is right now?' Well, those people were from Pennsylvania and they were around the same age and from the same town," Mulligan said. "This could be a friend who is trying to get information for him."

Turner was eventually caught at a West Virginia bus stop.

Because of scenarios like this, Mulligan said the Sheriff's Office is careful how much information it shares with the public.

"It is different for every case. It boils down to the nature of the public safety considerations," Mulligan said. "It puts us at odds because we know that sometimes suspects have technology on their hips that allow them to see what is being said, so we have to keep a lot of that information very close to our vest to ensure that we don't hinder the investigation. We craft a post with understanding that suspect might be reading it."

Mulligan said one of the other dangers in sharing information publicly is that the comment section can turn into a rumor mill.

"The general public should have a voice in government, but at the same time there is a lot of misinformation that gets injected into it," he said. "When we see comments that speculate it's not our job to go on there and embarrass somebody. Plus, if we correct it, people will say what is the truth, and we can't share that with them."

A similar scenario played out last week in downtown St. Augustine when the St. Augustine Police Department and other agencies were searching for a shooting suspect. The manhunt played out in real time on the Police Department's Twitter feed.


The following tweet asked residents to avoid the area and remain inside. But not all the information was immediately made public during and after the search, including where the suspect was eventually caught.

"If it's in the public interest and safety we release that out. Other than that, we don't release any information," SAPD spokesman Ofc. Dee Brown said.

In some cases, the Sheriff's Office chooses to release no information to the public until after an arrest has been made, even in a potential murder fugitive case.

Authorities arrested Lindsi Mae Carmella Mayabb, 37, of Oklahoma City and George Stewart Watson, 37, of Edmond, Okla., in connection to the murder of Sawyer English last month.

Mulligan said the public wasn't immediately alerted the suspects were in town because they weren't believed to be an imminent violent threat to the community and a post could have alerted the suspects that law enforcement was inching closer.

"In the case of Turner this week, there was at least one armed robbery associated with it, so that's a different set of circumstances," Mulligan said.

The Sheriff's Office will continue to share information directly with the public and through the media, Mulligan said.

"If it's a public safety issue, we know we are going to share information. The question is how much, what does public need to know to keep themselves safe?" Mulligan said. "What we do know is that in today's modern world we must communicate with the public."

©2019 The St. Augustine Record, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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