Social media changing law enforcement landscape

2013-05-26T00:00:00Z 2013-05-26T23:56:06Z Social media changing law enforcement landscapeSusan Brown susan.brown@nwi.com, (219) 662-5325 nwitimes.com

CROWN POINT | Nearly three months after a student posted on Facebook the alleged threats a Lake Station teacher wrote on classroom chalkboard, prosecutors mull criminal charges against the man.

The posting set off a maelstrom of media attention leading the veteran Edison High School business educator to retire.

The message to a sixth-period class read, in part: "A. You are idiots!!! B. The guns are loaded!!! C. Care to try me???"

Veteran teacher Jeff Kincaid is reported to have been angered at the time by students' conduct toward a substitute teacher during his absence.

Kincaid was placed on administrative leave March 1. Police took their findings to the office of Lake County Prosecuting Attorney Bernard Carter for review later that month.

Police are reported to have been considering a charge of intimidation, which can be filed as a felony if the offense takes place on school property. Telephone calls from The Times to Lake Station police officials were not returned.

Kincaid's attorney, Andrew Yoder, of Merrillville, declined to comment, as did Carter's office.

However, law enforcement professionals not directly connected to the pending case discussed how social media is changing their world.

"It brings out issues we never had to deal with in the past," Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel said of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and other Internet platforms.

Gensel said his office has had to deal with whether posts on social media sites constitute threats. He said threats can lead to charges of harassment or intimidation.

Gensel said the determination can be "tricky," depending on the threat's specificity or directness.

"You can't harass a hospital, but you can harass an employee," Gensel noted as an example.

Harassment is a lesser charge, confined to a B-level misdemeanor, he said. However, intimidation can rise from an A-level misdemeanor to a D-level felony. The higher the letter, the more serious the offense.

And then there's free speech, Gensel said. Law enforcement has to be sensitive to people being able to air their grievances in a free society.

The question becomes at what point would a reasonable person interpret a comment as a threat, Gensel said.

David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said the Indiana Legislature recently expanded the intimidation statute to incorporate social media into the framework.

Powell said what triggered the effort was the experience of state Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield.

"The intimidation statute was expanded under his bill to give law enforcement the tools to deal with these issues," Powell said.

The new law, which will take effect July 1, creates the crime of intimidation for using Internet social media sites to post threats.

It makes the crime a D felony if the threat is lodged against an employee of a school, hospital or church.

The crime rises to a C felony if the target is a prosecutor, deputy prosecutor, judge or bailiff, or if the threat is designed to interfere with the occupancy of a public building, that is, a bomb threat.

Crider, a retired Indiana conservation officer in Hancock County, serves as security manager at Hancock Regional Hospital.

"We had an individual who posted a threat to come there and shoot up the place," Crider said. "As you might imagine, it caused quite an uproar."

Crider said he took his concerns to his local prosecutor who determined that, under current statute he had no case, as the threats were against the hospital as opposed to an individual or specific doctor or other employee.

Crider said he asked whether this was, in fact, a gap in the law, which led to his bill.

"I'm pretty pleased with the final outcome of the bill," Crider said.

In Kincaid's case, he did not post the alleged threats to social media -- a student did. Yet those close to the case say the attention created notoriety throughout the community. Previously, it likely would have been handled administratively -- and more quietly -- by the school system, they said.

Joel Schumm, clinical professor of law at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, said the influence of social media can't be discounted.

The county prosecutor is an elected official, and police officers work for elected officials, he said.

"Modern technology and social media make it much easier for the public to quickly and strongly apply pressure," Schumm said. "Facebook and Twitter have largely rendered obsolete the old avenues of expressing dissatisfaction through handwritten letters, picketing, or letter to the editor."

The impact can be either beneficial or harmful, he said.

"Public pressure sometimes works to the benefit of someone charged with a crime," Schumm said. "In other cases, police and prosecutors may be pressured by a strong public reaction to pursue a matter that would normally be resolved short of criminal charges."

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