Guilty as charged on Facebook: A look at the Keizer Police Department’s use of social media

This is not an actual Keizer Police Department notification. (Graphic by LOGAN TURBES of the Keizertimes)

Keizer resident Monica Batsell was driving her two children to school on the morning of Nov. 10, 2021 when she smashed into the back of a parked City of Keizer service truck. 

Keizer police arrived, investigated and arrested Batsell for driving under the influence of intoxicants, reckless endangerment and reckless endangerment of a highway worker. 

Two days later, the Keizer Police Department described the incident on Facebook in a post that included Batsell’s name, age, hometown, photos of the crash and the arrest charges. The post said that investigators believed “alcohol was a contributing factor to this crash” and that Batsell’s two children, who were minors, were in the car.

Facebook’s verdict was immediate. Over 160 comments racked up on the post and it was shared 66 times. Many of the comments insulted Batsell as a mother, with some pointing out that she was a local business owner. 

“A disgusting woman/mom. No reason for her to have those children. They should be taken away from her. She has no respect for them nor herself! Should be in jail,” one comment said. 

Others wrote, “8 a.m. under the influence and driving with kids. Get some help before you kill someone,” and “Her children need to be taken away!”

Facebook comments under the Keizer Police Department’s post about Batsell (screenshot of Keizer Police Department Facebook page).

Batsell’s case highlights the aggressive use of social media by the Keizer Police Department. Hundreds of likes, comments and shares accrue on these posts as the public weighs in on incidents days after they occur. The department is unapologetic about their use of Facebook and says they don’t monitor comments — nor do they plan to.  

“Who am I to regulate somebody’s free speech? It truly is free speech. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, don’t go to that website,” said Lt. Trevor Wenning, the Keizer Police Departments public information officer. 

It’s been almost two months since the incident and Batsell doesn’t defend her decision to drive that day. In an interview with the Keizertimes, Batsell said that she had been drinking late the night before and had woken up hungover — with alcohol still in her bloodstream. 

She was blindsided, however, when she saw the police department’s post.

“I saw a lot of complete strangers sharing it on their own social media. It was like rapid fire,” Batsell said. “I was getting hate mail from total strangers telling me that I needed my children taken away and that I’m a horrible mother. People even went so far as to dive and look into my criminal history and bring up stuff that is over 11 years old.”

Batsell said that she fell into a depression after the incident and changed her Facebook profile to her maiden name in hopes it would make it more difficult for people to send hate messages. She said people even began commenting on her business’s Facebook page. 

“I’m trying to be accountable for something horrible that happened but then having it like completely blown up and exacerbated by the public and the shaming and the hate mail. I don’t think I left my house for a week after that,” Batsell said. “Keizer is a very, very small town and I’ve lived here for a really long time and I was just mortified to even go in public. 

“I just thought, how is it fair that somebody’s worst moment, everyone’s allowed to have this entire conversation about it. Like this completely public stream where anyone can say anything.”       

Law enforcement use of social media

Social media gives police departments the power to share information directly with the public. In some cases, like emergencies, the ability to share up-to-date information with the public can increase the safety of the community.

It also gives police departments, which often have thousands of followers, the power to share information on cases that they are directly involved in. They often post the information before it appears on media outlets, allowing them to shape the narrative of what occurred.

The Keizer Police Department posts multiple times per week on its Facebook page, with close to 12,000 followers. Most often, these posts promote community events — such as Coffee with a Cop – or provide important community information, such as road closures or alerting the community to scam calls. 

Scattered between the lighthearted photos, however, are photos of crime scenes, suspects and mugshots. These posts often include a combination of an arrestee’s name, hometown, age, arrest charges and, in the past, booking photo. The alleged crimes posted range from felonies, such as attempted murder, to misdemeanours, like DUIIs. The postings usually occur when the person is already in custody and prior to a resolution in court. 

“We’re just putting the information out there that’s public information. That’s all it is and we’re just using that media platform to do so, or flash alerts to send out press releases,” said Wenning. “We’re not looking to create controversy or issues between our citizens.”

Public shaming 

The Salem Police Department’s Facebook page includes links to press releases but rarely, if ever, do the Facebook posts include the name of the arrested person. Since the beginning of 2020, they haven’t posted a single booking photo either. 

On their posts that include links to press releases, the Salem Police Department often includes a disclaimer that refers users to a link that outlines the city of Salem’s social media policy.

The city’s policy says that it monitors comments and reserves the right “to remove posted comments that are inconsistent with the Comment Policy.”

Since the start of 2020, the Keizer Police Department has posted a total of 17 arrest incidents on Facebook where they identified the arrestee’s name. In 13 of those posts, a booking photo, often referred to as a mugshot, was also included on the post. Wenning said the department does not monitor the comments on these posts. 

In June of 2020, after a 19-year-old was arrested for drunk driving and eluding Keizer police, the department posted a booking photo of the teen along with his name, age and hometown. 

Similar to Batsell, the insults began to pile up on the post. 

“Get these people in jails and prisons and keep them there!” one person commented.

“Keep him in jail! He has proved to be a public menace, and eluding the police makes him look even worse!” another Facebook user said. 

Some of the comments under Keizer police’s Facebook post regarding the arrest of the 19-year-old (screenshot of Keizer Police Department Facebook page).

As over 150 comments racked up, and the post was shared 231 times, the teen took to the comments to defend himself against the attacks. 

“Definitely a lesson learned. I definitely made the mistake of not calling for a ride, but I let the anger of the situation take control and led me to leave (and) drive impaired,” the teen said in a response to one comment. 

“This isn’t luck, this is God giving me a second chance to possibly make a change and not repeat the same mistake nor allow someone close to me to make the same grave mistake,” he wrote in another. 

Jason Thompson, a criminal defense lawyer in Salem, said that he believes posting this information directly to Facebook, and including booking photos, is a way of public shaming.

“A lot of clients I’ll have will complain, ‘Hey, they just ran a story and smeared me in the paper and said that I was arrested for, you know, X, Y, or Z.’ And I’m like, well, that’s true. You were arrested for X,” said Thompson. “That doesn’t mean you’re guilty, but there’s nothing, there’s nothing false in the story. Now, when the police end up using the mugshots, it’s like a public shaming thing.”

“What’s the point of a police department becoming a newspaper? I mean what’s that all about?” Thompson added.

As of Jan. 1, police departments are no longer allowed to release booking photos except in certain circumstances where it could help a case. 

Janelle Bynum, a Clackamas state representative and chief sponsor of the bill that prohibits booking photos, said that she felt the release of these photos often led to doxing — a term for online harassment through the release of personal information.

“We concluded that, as an Oregon value, that wasn’t where the state wanted to be in terms of putting people who had only been accused of a crime, one of their worst days, and putting their pictures out in perpetuity,” Bynum said in an interview. “Which could also have an impact on people’s personal safety and could have an impact on their job prospects.”

Even without booking photos, the online harassment that Bynum describes still exists. In Batsell’s case, where a booking photo wasn’t provided, it only took a short amount of time for commenters to identify that she was a local business owner and post about her arrest history.

A Sept. 22, 2021 Facebook post from the Keizer Police Department said that a 20-year-old male had been arrested the day before for driving under the influence of intoxicants, among other charges, after crashing into a power pole and rolling his car into a yard. The post included the man’s name but not his booking photo.

Over 160 comments piled up below the post as commenters debated if the man was sober or not. One commenter posted a video in the comment section of the man being arrested, subsequently revealing the man’s face.

Controlling the narrative

Wenning and Keizer Police Chief John Teague say the information in these posts is already public and is often the same information sent to media outlets.

“We arrest people and make other police actions all the time. If they’re newsworthy, then we’ll post them to the media and they end up getting posted to Facebook too, incidentally,” Teague said. 

Wenning said that while all press releases are posted on Facebook, not every Facebook post is made into a press release. No press release was ever sent to the Keizertimes regarding Batsell’s incident. 

When press releases are sent to media outlets, they are sent at the same time the information is posted on social media.

“Why not be in front of it, write your own narrative? Because if you allow somebody else to write the narrative for you, you know as well as I do, it’s so much more difficult,” said Wenning. “You write the narrative for the police department based on your opinion, your training experience and your companies way of doing business.”  

By posting the information first, Wenning said it’s much easier to get out in front of statements that might be made later on.

“It would be a lot easier to post these things up front and say look at what this unit did. Look what we’re doing at Keizer Station, we’re protecting you. Versus waiting until somebody is victimized, who might be that special person, whether that be a legislator or somebody that’s vocal or high profile in the community. You know darn well they’re not gonna keep their mouth shut,” said Wenning. 

Batsell said that the department’s post about her lacked context and left out details that created a false narrative. According to Batsell, she crashed into the parked car after swerving to avoid an animal, which was not included in the post. 

Batsell also added that the post made it seem like she was drinking at 8 a.m. before driving her kids to school, which she said wasn’t the case.

“To me there’s a clear difference between a conscious decision like that and you know, making that mistake the next day after I’d been drinking the night before,” said Batsell.

Thompson, the Salem lawyer, said that misinformation on social media can even make its way into the courtroom at times.

“Sometimes it actually infects the investigation. It infects the integrity of the statements that are being made and sometimes it might even hurt the state’s case,” Thompson said. 

“If you have people out there saying things that are just inherently not true and other people start making things up and thinking that, ‘Oh, this case is about this.’ But that was not what the case ever was about,” said Thompson. “Then it starts detracting from the credibility of maybe what the original allegations really were all about.”

Thompson said that he’s never understood why police departments “put fuel on the fire” by posting on social media, and in the case of booking photos, legislators didn’t either. 

Wenning said that while the department has had conversations, they plan on continuing to post the arrest incidents and to not regulate the comment section. Wenning added that much like the booking photos, the department would “absolutely” change their ways if legislators mandated it.

“I would say that the public should know when the police have taken an action against someone. However, we know that it’s merely an accusation and if it’s a very serious accusation, the law provides for that,” Bynum said. “But if it is a minor accusation, that can have far greater implications than what they’re accused of long term.”

News tip? Contact reporter Joey Cappelletti at [email protected] or 616-610-3093.