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Cell phones, texting vex law enforcement at crime scenes

Bystanders head toward the scene of an accident in Seminole in which four teenagers were killed. The news spread via texts.

EAMONN KNEESHAW | Special to the Times

Bystanders head toward the scene of an accident in Seminole in which four teenagers were killed. The news spread via texts.

Rick Koda knew his job was changing during a routine call for help two or three years ago.

Koda, a district chief for Seminole Fire Rescue, had responded to a stabbing. As he and other paramedics worked on the victim, a crowd started to form.

But they weren't just watching.

"They were all standing there taking pictures," Koda said.

• • •

It's a normal reaction — people see a fire and pull over to watch.

People see a car accident and slow down to rubberneck.

But what happens when those same people, now equipped with cell phone cameras and text messaging, decide to snap photos? Or release the identity of the victim before a family is notified?

Those are some of the new challenges that emergency and law enforcement personnel say they are encountering more often these days as technology evolves.

"Sometimes it can hamper our investigation," said Lt. Joel Granata of St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue. "A lot of times we find the crowd growing substantially before we're even finished with the scene."

That's exactly what happened on the night of April 10, as emergency crews responded to a crash that left four teens dead on a quiet Seminole neighborhood street. News about the crash made its way to hundreds of anxious high school students before officials had even notified all the victims' parents.

"It was lightning fast," Koda said. "These teens were likely taking their whole address book and broadcasting it to everyone."

By 2 a.m., hundreds of teens — notified through a vast network of cell phone calls and text messages — were at the scene.

The crowd got so large that officials decided to open up Seminole High School to clear the scene.

Crowd control wasn't the only problem.

Early in the investigation, Koda, who was in command that night, knew he had two critical calls to make: one to a chaplain and another to City Manager Frank Edmunds.

But something blocked Koda and other firefighters from getting through to anyone.

"With the massive amount of texting and phone calls that the kids were doing, our phones were kind of locked up," he said.

Koda wound up asking the dispatch center to try to reach people for him.

He eventually got the chaplain, but Edmunds didn't hear the news about the crash from Koda until the next morning. "He found out by text message before he did by official channels," Koda said.

• • •

The Seminole example may be the clearest of what can happen when rapid technology and police work collide, but Tampa Bay area officials say smaller examples happen each day.

"We've had to change a lot of ways we do things ... to protect the integrity of the investigation," said Debbie Carter, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

There has always been an element of public curiosity when authorities work a scene, Carter and others said, but technology has raised the stakes in some circumstances, such as a bad accident or crime scene.

The trend is likely to continue. According to the Nielsen Co., about 60 percent of those with advanced mobile services such as text messaging intend to use them more in the next two years.

For law enforcement, that means rumors can now spread both by word of mouth and virtually, and the chances of misinformation getting out has increased.

Sometimes, the information is accurate but can be released prematurely. "That can pose a real problem," Carter said. "If there's a death involved, we're trying to protect the victims' families."

Carter said Hillsborough deputies now more often cover license tag numbers of cars involved in incidents to prevent people from tracking the owner before investigators do.

Granata, the public information officer in St. Petersburg, said his department has learned that the best solution is to get the gawkers contained in one area then be up front with them while protecting the investigation.

"The best thing to do is take control," he said. "We kind of keep them informed as we go. That seems to help stop the rumors."

• • •

Not all the technological changes are unwelcome.

Sometimes the people who might snap a photo of a gory accident scene are the same ones who will capture a crime in progress on a cell phone video and report it to police.

"We rely heavily on information coming from the public," Carter said.

Last year, Carter said, detectives got help solving a string of residential burglaries when they discovered photos of the suspect on MySpace. He was wearing the stolen jewelry.

Other times, Granata said, people who show up to gawk can prove valuable if they do know a victim and can help authorities reach relatives.

"Technology can help, and technology can hurt," he said. "It's a little bit harder, but we do the best we can."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Cell phones, texting vex law enforcement at crime scenes 04/20/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:11pm]

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