The Pitchfork and the Mouse

Does social media help or hinder public safety?



It was a hot August afternoon when Robert Joseph Walters, 59, died on the steps of the Garberville County Courthouse. Walters, native to Alderpoint, had left the nearby hospital against medical advice. The Humboldt County Coroner's Office attributes his death to chronic alcoholism. Within hours of his passing, a photo of Walters' body was uploaded to a Facebook group called No Bums in Sohum.

In an isolated area like ours, social media can be an essential tool to connect with resources both behind and beyond the Redwood Curtain. Rural neighbors use it to collaborate on town runs. Do-gooders help spread the word about wildlife relief, lost pets and volunteer events. But our can-do attitude occasionally veers into uneasy territory. Some call it digilantism, online mob justice. In recent years, several social media groups have formed in response to real or perceived gaps in, or failures of, public services. But while these groups have demonstrated an ability to rally community members for good, their ethical boundaries and the accuracy of their information are unclear.

"I was feeling lost," said Aaron Ostrom, a McKinleyville resident of 13 years. Ostrom said he didn't know his neighbors or his community. Everyone stayed at home in front of their televisions or interacted online. "So I thought, maybe we could re-establish sense of community digitally, on the platform we use every day."

In 2013, Ostrom created the McKinleyville Community Watch group on Facebook, and began posting information about abandoned vehicles and suspicious people. The group grew slowly, neighbor by neighbor. Today it is 2,500 people strong. Just as its creator hoped, its members have begun interacting in person, holding community meetings and lobbying law enforcement and political representatives. On Oct. 26, the group will host a meeting with State Sen. Mike McGuire to discuss crime, mental illness, homelessness and other issues affecting their community.

"This is a success story for McKinleyville," said Ostrom. "We're using that voice that didn't exist before."

Crowdsourcing public safety is not new. The Neighborhood Watch program, which is sponsored by the National Sheriff's Association, has been around since 1972. There are close to 50 Neighborhood Watch Groups in Humboldt County. In 2015 the sheriff's office collaborated with local filmmaker Malcolm DeSoto to create a short video about Neighborhood Watch. In between images of white picket fences, children playing baseball and redwood trees, Undersheriff William Honsal touted the importance of utilizing concerned citizens to do what his department cannot.

"The sheriff's office has 4,000 miles they need to cover, so Neighborhood Watch is really important," he said in the video. "Our deputies are out there and they can only do so much. We really want the community to come together. It's their eyes and ears that really know and really can inform us what's going on with the community."

Ginger Campbell, a volunteer who organizes Neighborhood Watch groups through the Arcata Police Department and the sheriff's office, said the focus of sanctioned Neighborhood Watch programs is to prevent crime by bringing neighbors together and educating people on how to make their neighborhoods less attractive to criminals.

"If every single person would empty their vehicle when they left and lock its doors, the crime would drop 40 percent overnight," Campbell said. "And officers would have more time to focus on other problems."

Campbell added that the traditional model is based around individual city blocks, where people can literally watch their neighborhood.

"This is not a vigilante group," she said. "This is not a venting session about law enforcement. What we're about is preventing crime. We don't patrol the streets."

While the Neighborhood Watch program does not have a sanctioned online component, some law enforcement agencies have encouraged citizens to use the website NextDoor is a private social network neighbors can use to post alerts or discuss community issues. The Eureka Police Department uses it to post crime prevention tips and ask citizens to be on the lookout for suspects.

Suzie Owsley, an administrative technician with EPD responsible for organizing Neighborhood Watch groups, said the two work best when used in conjunction. Many older adults don't go online, but will walk their blocks and participate in other Neighborhood Watch activities, she said. EPD has had a NextDoor account for two years.

"The main thing I'm seeing is just people alerting their neighbors about what's going on. About a person walking through and checking car doors, suspicious people," Owsley said, adding that officers sometimes identify burglary suspects from photos uploaded to the site.

But as useful as citizen crime-fighters can be, they're not trained police officers. Law enforcement agencies have policies, procedure, oversight and ethical guidelines.

On Oct. 8, a NextDoor user posted a picture of herself with a black eye, saying she had been "sucker-punched" while trying to break up a fight on her front lawn. She identified a Eureka High School student by her full name as a suspect, and asked people to call the EPD with any information. "I have two words for these teens," the post reads. "My turn!"

No one on the NextDoor site questioned the veracity of the story, or the morality of publicly calling out a juvenile. EPD confirmed the incident is under investigation.

Psychotherapist Aaron Balick, author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, says the medium of social media can contribute to a lack of judgment and critical thinking when it comes to analyzing information we receive online.

"Being online comes with a culture of immediacy," he told the Journal via email. "People react and respond often with the simple goal of having their tweets, photos, or whatever responded to. Unfortunately this means that many people don't take the time to question and trust online information from some sources because they are not taking the time to think it over."

On Sept. 21 the Facebook group Operation Safe Streets polled its members, asking which Eureka neighborhood they felt the least safe in. There was a lot of overlap in the comments, with the PalCo Marsh and Broadway mentioned the most often. But pretty much every neighborhood got its share of dismay: Cooper Gulch, the Bayshore Mall, the Hikshari' Trail, Old Town, WinCo, near the jail, Wabash west of E Street.

If NextDoor is organized by geography, members in groups like Operation Safe Streets are filtered further by ideology. Like NextDoor, the close to a dozen pages and groups focused on community action and safety in Humboldt County (Eel Valley Crime Stoppers, Eureka Neighborhood Defense, Saving SoHum) have their share of mundane neighborly bulletins (lost pets, litter issues) and examples of successful organizing (found pets, neighborhood cleanups). But by far, the most talked about issues on these forums are crime and homelessness, and their disputable overlap.

On Saturday, Oct. 3, aproximately 60 people gathered in front of the Bayshore Mall for an anti-crime rally organized by Operation Safe Streets. Many wore neon Neighborhood Watch vests. (Despite Campbell's statements, there are several NW chapters that do patrol neighborhoods in safety vests.) They ranged in age from octogenarians to small children hand-in-hand with their parents. All waved signs: "No More Crime," "Tweakers GTFO," "This is Our Town." Jeannie Breslin, a Eureka resident and decade-long Neighborhood Watch volunteer who recently received a California Citizens award, said the rally demonstrated the extent to which Eureka residents feel unsafe in their homes.

"The interesting thing about whenever you've been violated is how it changes you," said Breslin, whose home has been burglarized twice. "Safe means a sense of wellbeing. I want us all to have that. You can't have any quality of life without a level of safety."

Breslin, who attended the rally wearing a shirt with the message "I Like Eureka," a hat with flowers on it and waving a sign that said "Poop or Get off the Council," stood in the pedestrian island on Broadway across from the Bayshore Mall as drivers honked their approval at her and other protesters.

On the sidewalk, a fierce debate raged between Nezzie Wade and Gene Bass. Wade is a member of the Humboldt Human Rights Coalition and a founder of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives. Bass is the owner of Pacific Coast Security and a frequent contributor to the Operation Safe Streets and Next Door pages.

Wade, accompanied by fellow advocate Debra Carey, questioned Bass and others as to why they chose the mall to stage their rally. The PalCo Marsh, also referred to as the "Devil's Playground," behind the mall, is the location of the city's largest homeless encampment. Operation Safe Streets and other online groups often refer to the "Devil's Playground" as the nexus of crime within Eureka. Wade and others charge that the rally was targeted against the region's homeless, an anti-poor rather than anti-crime rally.

Although some attendees declined to be interviewed and shielded their faces with their signs, most were open to sharing their identities and their stories. They complained of being burglarized, having their cars broken into, dog attacks, being accosted and physically harassed by homeless people while in line at a fast food drive-thru, seeing "transients" fighting on their front lawns, "tweakers," "scumbags" and "trash."

Breslin said she does not endorse the idea that all criminals are homeless or vice versa, but added her opinion that the sensitivity around the issue of homelessness is interfering with a straightforward discussion of crime.

"It feels like every time we discuss crime, it feels like the homeless issue is thrown in there," she said. "It's not the same thing. I think a lot of the crime is due to drug addiction. They're the ones who are probably more inclined to rob."

Bass did not return calls, but both Breslin and EPD Capt. Steve Watson identified him as an Operation Safe Streets administrator. The group's administrators appear responsive to criticism: A proposed rally sign that originally read "Tweakers Not Welcome" was amended to say "Meth Kills" after an online commenter called it "horrible." This did not stop others from jumping on the commenter and saying things like, "The time for being nice has passed" and "Fuck being politically correct it's fucking ruining our country."

Elsewhere on the page are photos of homeless people sleeping on the porches of local businesses, videos of people allegedly smoking meth in the forest, grainy nighttime videos of an alleged prostitute approaching a parked car (the video ends with her saying, "Oh, you're a cop?"), and multiple photos of people the administrators refer to as local troublemakers, "punks" and public nuisances, their full names and descriptions of their alleged ill-doings included. "Time to leave town," says one admin under a photo of a young man. "Local resource zapper," reads the description of another.

We asked the Eureka Police Department if it had provided any of this information to the page's administrators. Watson said EPD only provides crime information through official channels such as press releases, but surmised administrators might have crowdsourced information from Neighborhood Watch members and others. The page provides no background on adminstrators' claim that one man's mental illness was "all an act" or that another had out-of-state warrants. It (like similar pages) provides no verification that any of the information is accurate. Hypothetically, anyone wanting to publicly shame another person could post his or her picture on the page and say anything.

A frequent contributor to the Operation Safe Streets page and the McKinleyville Community Watch page is EPD Homeless Liaison Pamlyn Millsap. Having worked with the homeless population locally for 30 years, Millsap attempted to add nuance to conversations around the mentally ill. Under a video of a woman screaming, Millsap commented that the woman was on methamphetamines and that a similar client had benefited from a stint in Sempervirens, but that the passing of Proposition 47 had reduced the likelihood of such clients getting treatment. Site administrators also posted several pictures of Cyrus Cook, who attempted suicide at the Humboldt County jail on July 12 by leaping 18 feet from the second story of a dormitory. Cook's mugshot and details of his "violent tendencies and drug use" are included, as well as a picture of him urinating on a fence. Millsap comments that Cook "had a mental illness and was getting treatment until he turned 18." A Sept. 23 post from an anonymous administrator announced that Cook had been released from the hospital and was back on the streets.

"Just in time for Halloween!" the post reads. "Cyrus Cook is back from the dead after his fateful leap from the jail top tier. Yes, he is back to being Cyrus ... albeit at a much slower pace."

EPD Chief Andy Mills said his department was in the process of distributing a social media policy and that he could not comment on the specifics of Millsap's online behavior, deeming it a personnel matter.

Administrators of the Operation Safe Streets page appear to actively discourage participants from violence and often add disclaimers about the limitations of the medium, stating "none of us here claim or are trying to claim journalist status. FB is mostly venting." A great many of the posts are just that — venting about a town they feel is unsafe and unclean — and articles from elsewhere on the web. But administrators do post information about concealed carry permits, identify locations of homeless camps and rely on the discernment of their readers to sort facts from hyperbole. And, as Balick said, we often do not stop to question what we read online.

"In relation to both individuals and groups, social media acts like a psychological extension of the self," said Balick. "In this sense, it can and does encourage a mob mentality, but this can be put to good or to ill. Material that appeals to strong emotions — love or hate — are liable to 'go viral' and collect a mob behind it."

When asked why members of these groups would be willing to publicly (Facebook comments include the full name of the user) say derogatory things about strangers online, such as calling one woman a "worthless hag," and "goddamn disgusting rat trash," Balick said, "Social media reduces the complexity of interpersonal feedback, which makes it easier to say things online than it is in face-to-face conversation."

Is the "mob mentality" created by social media dangerous? Balick thinks not.

"There has been some evidence that individuals who have acted out have given indications of such intentions online," he said. "However, there is also a lot of mouth online that would never translate into physical harm. The bar is very low for online abuse, whereas the bar to cause actual harm is much higher."

But several homeless advocates have expressed concern that the behavior of these groups might translate into action. Stephen Smith, of Fortuna, contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center about the page that posted the photo of Walters' corpse in Garberville. Prior to that post, the level of vitriol on the page had been steadily growing, some say in proportion to an extreme set of circumstances. The region fills with people looking for work in the marijuana industry every fall. Many stay, and there is very little housing in the area. The river bar and public parks have become the sites of temporary camps. People sitting in front of stores looking for work or asking for change are a common sight. Community members report being harassed, cleaning up garbage and human waste. And law enforcement in the area is spread thin — Sgt. Jesse Taylor of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office said his officers respond to numerous calls related to transients.

"I do understand the concept of looking out for your community and wanting to make it better and being upset that the system hasn't been able to take care of those things," said Taylor, who agreed that there is a strong culture of self-reliance in Southern Humboldt, making potential vigilantism a source of concern. Taylor said he doesn't view the online groups as either positive or negative, but said, "It does have the potential for people to act out and let their emotions get the best of them and snap, so to speak."

The Southern Poverty Law Center told Smith that the purely online presence of the No Bums in Sohum group, along with its public settings, would make it difficult to classify as a hate group. But Debra Carey, who works with transients in Southern Humboldt, blames the targeted hatred of the page and another, Garberville Town Patrol, for an assault on a local homeless man.

Taylor confirmed that Ron Machado was pepper-sprayed and his camp was burned in February, although a suspect has not been identified. Machado's picture was frequently posted with comments ranging from the sympathetic to the derogatory. Taylor said he received numerous complaints about Machado, who collected cans and built small structures on public property. Carey had been working with him for years.

"Ron had a home, a job, a family, kids, a wife. He lost that one by one, and he's now lost his mind," she said. "We just turn our back because he has mental health issues."

Taylor said he had no information about who was responsible for Machado's assault, but if he found out it was a local citizen he "wouldn't be surprised." Those on the pages who wanted Machado to leave town got their wish: He relocated to Eureka after the assault.

The administrator of No Bums In Sohum would not give his real name, saying he had "received a lot of hate and even threats since starting this page." He is young, 25, and has fond memories of growing up in Garberville, which he described as being "a nice, warm little town."

"I was inspired to start the page by the declining state of the place we call home," he wrote. "The increase in crime, the trash everywhere, the amount of homeless, the hordes of drug addicts and mentally insane street people, discarded heroin needles on the sidewalks, piles of human and dog feces and puddles of vomit and urine in the streets, and the understaffed and underfunded law enforcement's apparent inability to do anything about it. Everywhere I'd go everyone I would talk to was on the same page about it so I figured I would make a place where everyone could put their heads together and hopefully come together and work toward finding solutions."

The administrator cited positive changes that had come about as a result of starting the page, including greater awareness of illegal dumping and the lack of mental health services.

On Aug. 11 the name of the site was changed to "Saving Sohum," with an explanation that the direction of the page was changing.

"This is not a hate page and it was never meant to be one, despite how some feel, it was meant to help with an issue," the post reads. The administrator told us the page was "putting out the wrong message" and he wanted to expand its focus to deeper-rooted issues in the area.

But many who had been following the trajectory of the No Bums in Sohum community attribute the change to a backlash that followed the posting five days earlier of that photo of Robert Joseph Walters's dead body sprawled across the courthouse steps. The post and the 50 plus comments associated with it, have since been removed, but local blogger Kym Kemp sent us a screenshot. She said the photo was a "turning point" in that particular community, illustrating both the benefits and pitfalls of social media's power. At its best, the Internet informs, unites, gives people support for their frustration. At its worst it vilifies, divides and brings our ugliest inner monologues to the surface.

"Up until that moment, people had been swept up in it," Kemp said, referring to public outrage about transients. "Before that it was a nebulous thing for 'people who aren't us.' I thought the photo told a whole story about how we treat people, disenfranchised people. But posted by the person who posted it had a whole other meaning, like, 'Look at this disgusting person.' I think that was a time when people stepped back and said 'Whoa, that's a human being.'"

Since then the vitriol has "toned way down," according to Kemp. She said the venting of frustration online serves a purpose, a much needed honesty about Humboldt's hard truths.

"When people let their ugly side out, they finally see that ugly side ... they have a chance to expose it to themselves," she said. "I think it says a lot about our community and our values. We don't treat everyone right in our community. There was a feeling where it may be OK to call someone a bum and a scumbag to their face, but once they're dead it's not OK anymore."

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