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As its social media grows, Pasco Sheriff's Office posts photo of man crying after his arrest

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office posted this photo of Marquis Porter, 21, to Facebook and Twitter as part of its social media strategy to increase engagement with the community. Critics question at what cost. (Facebook)
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office posted this photo of Marquis Porter, 21, to Facebook and Twitter as part of its social media strategy to increase engagement with the community. Critics question at what cost. (Facebook)
Published Nov. 19, 2016

Marquis Porter was arrested on Friday morning on charges that he fled from Pasco County deputies during a traffic stop, intentionally ran a deputy off the road, and was holding 9.5 grams of meth, the office said.

Six hours later Porter, 21, became the star of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office Facebook and Twitter pages. A photo showed two deputies gripping chunks of his dreadlocks as he sat in the grass with his hand behind his back, weeping.

The Sheriff's Office says it's trying to make such posts the norm — all part of a budding social media strategy that has amplified their online presence, especially in the last month.

"This criminal is not different than any criminal we post about every single day," said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Melanie Snow, who helps run the social media accounts. "He was a threat to the community before. It's important the community know he is in custody and no longer a threat to them."

Their reach online is one of the biggest in Tampa Bay, with nearly 77,000 followers on Facebook and another 19,000 on Twitter. Pasco Sheriff's impressions have climbed since the office has expanded the amount and kinds of posts it puts online in its efforts to better connect with the community, Snow said.

But critics wonder: At what cost? Charged but not convicted, should Porter be the object of ridicule?

"SAD CRIMINAL OF THE DAY," the posts about Porter began on Facebook and Twitter. Both pointed out his tears.

The post on Facebook prompted jeers, jokes and jabs from commenters who said they wouldn't feel sorry for someone facing charges that he put deputies' lives in danger. By Saturday afternoon it had been shared more than 700 times and had more than 250 comments.

"I understand posting pics of criminals to raise awareness about dangerous people, but this is just about humiliating and dehumanizing someone," wrote a Hudson High School graduate. "I don't care who you are, you don't deserve to be broadcast to the world at your lowest point for social media bigots to make fun of you."

A man wearing an American flag bandana in his profile picture responded: "YES HE DOES."

The arguments back and forth stayed mostly the same throughout the thread: Was it funny and informative? Or did it cross a line of professionalism that society expects law enforcement to toe?

Snow helps run the social media accounts along side other public information officers and a social media coordinator. Often, the photos and posts the office will put up after an arrest are more straightforward. On the same day Porter's post went up, the Sheriff's Office posted a photo of a disheveled blonde woman who was charged with assaulting a child protective investigator who was inquiring about her children. The narrative read like a police report.

Facebook

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office put this post on social media the same day it put up the one about Porter.

Facebook

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office put this post on social media the same day it put up the one about Porter.

"At this point there's no specific general order about how we put humor in place," Snow said. "We definitely add a little fun to our social media and to our Twitter feed."

When law enforcement toys with humor online, it can be "kind of a hit or miss," said Ben Gorban, who participated in a national project on social media while working for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Gorban, now a policy analyst for the Police Foundation, said while some agencies keep posts to the facts, others try to get more creative. He said there is no right or wrong way, but some grasp humor better than others.

"Without the policies in place and the right understanding of the organization and what the organization's standing in the community is," he said, "things can come across the wrong way."

From a legal standpoint, Clearwater-based criminal defense attorney Steve Romine said the post about Porter could actually affect the case. No matter how damning the evidence may seem, Romine said, Porter is innocent until proven guilty. If the charges were dropped, Porter could build a civil case of libel, Romine said.

The Sheriff's Office said it aims to engage with the community and humanize the office through its social media, a tool that often helps the agency solve crimes and find suspects.

Sad Criminal of the Day: Ran Dep. off road, initiated pursuit in car, fled on foot, tracked by K9 Shep, found with 9.5g of meth...he cried. pic.twitter.com/xUewS6QBqT

Romine and three other criminal defense attorneys who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times said Friday's post doesn't accomplish that and could marginalize people who might identify with Porter as an African American, or as someone struggling with addiction.

"Part of your community is people who distrust police, who have drug problems or know people who have been in jail or done drugs," Romine said.

John DeCarlo, a former Connecticut police chief and current professor of criminal justice, said that when he retired in 2011, his agency treated social media posts in much the same way as press releases to the media.

"Just because social media is organic doesn't mean it should be any less structured, vetted and professional," he said. "I wouldn't have posted a picture like that. That would still be in the case file."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.