News Column

Social Media Help Battle Mayhem

Oct. 12, 2012

The Associated Press

Police got at least a dozen solid tips from a Facebook photo album it created in hopes of identifying people involved in last weekend's fires and rioting, and Police Chief Ed Preston said his detectives were working Thursday to confirm identities.

It's the first time they've used social media to make arrests and interview witnesses, and Preston said it probably won't be the last.

"It's actually had a larger, faster effect than what we anticipated," he said, generating not only comments online but also private messages and phone calls from people dismayed by the destruction that followed West Virginia University's 48-45 win over Texas last weekend.

Police are archiving YouTube videos and Facebook and Twitter photos, primarily using images students share. They're also posting images taken by surveillance teams, news media and the general public.

Thanks to cellphones, "the anonymity they may have experienced in a crowd before is not as great," Preston said.

Although authorities are reluctant to label it such, public shaming is a key part of the strategy that city and WVU officials devised during a meeting after last week's mayhem.

More than 40 fires were set, and students threw rocks, beer bottles and other objects at police in riot gear, who dispersed them with pepper spray and chemical gas.

That brings the number of deliberately set fires to 181 this year, Fire Marshall Ken Tennant said.

Morgantown and WVU have tried for years to crack down on fire starters, expelling students for bad behavior and invoking state arson laws rather than charging offenders with misdemeanors.

It hasn't worked.

Dean of Students Corey Farris said he believes the culture at WVU can change. More students and non-students have been condemning such behavior, and that peer pressure is critical, he said.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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