How social media is changing police investigations - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

How social media is changing police investigations

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ST. ALBANS, Vt. -

Lanterns illuminated the night sky over St. Albans' Taylor Park. Friends and family gathered to say goodbye to 17-year-old Logan Newell.

The Georgia teen was found dead inside his car at the St. Albans park and ride Sunday. Police arrived on the scene at 5:42 p.m. Less than five hours later the first "rest in peace" post appeared on his Facebook page.

"It's extremely difficult to compete with the speed in which postings occur and the information that gets shared," St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor said.

Taylor says his department prides itself on making timely death notifications to next of kin. But he says social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are making it harder to keep up.

"It doesn't give us any time at all to plan. We really have to act and sometimes that means we have to go forward and notify the family more quickly than we're comfortable with, but to ensure that we are making the notification and not some social media forum," Taylor said.

Taylor says the online grapevine can also compromise ongoing investigations. In the Newell case, before authorities could determine what killed him, social media was abuzz with fraudulent claims of a drug overdose.

"Anybody can post a hunch or an opinion or a rumor on a Facebook page and ironically people will accept that as fact," Taylor said.

Police could not publicly quash the rumor mill until Monday night when emissions tests proved carbon monoxide from a leaky exhaust killed the teenager.

"We need scientific evidence to back up what we say," Taylor explained.

"In some ways it can help them in their investigations and in some ways it can hinder," said Elaine Young, a digital marketing and social media professor at Champlain College in Burlington.

Young says police must make the shift from trying to control the online message to managing it.

"You can no longer lockdown and just say the media can come to us and we're going to tell you what the facts are. It's now about everybody who is experiencing it, sharing their experience at one time. You cannot control that," Young said.

And when it comes to victim's families-- her advice is to unplug.

"Shut all the stuff down and don't look at it because people will keep talking," Young said. "There will be a group of people who are aware that that's painful and then there is a group of people who just don't have that same filter."

Newell's page now serves as a memorial for friends coping with the tragic loss.

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