Reaction to Burlington police fake social media accounts

Published: Dec. 17, 2019 at 5:46 PM EST
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Three police chiefs in 24 hours: That's the story in Burlington after Chief Brandon del Pozo and his replacement both ran into trouble with fake social media accounts.

Just hours after announcing del Pozo's resignation, Mayor Miro Weinberger told the public he was removing Deputy Chief Jan Wright from her role as acting chief after she admitted she also went on social media using a different name.

Del Pozo created the Twitter account "Winklewatcher" last July and posted 10 times, taunting police critic Charles Winkleman.

Wright took to Facebook under the name "Lori Spicer." Many of her posts were in defense of the police department but do not include the kind of attacks we saw from del Pozo.

Our Ike Bendavid spoke with the mayor Tuesday evening about what happened. The mayor said there is no official social media policy in the city employee handbook but there is one in draft, meaning it has been worked on and is in the process.

So when did the mayor know about Deputy Chief Wright's fake account? He said the city had complaints about the account and he was shocked when Wright admitted it was hers minutes after he named her acting chief.

"The city attorney did raise the issue that concerns had been raised about this 'Lori Spicer' account. Various citizens had mentioned to us that there might be something problematic about it. And we had confirmed that it was not Chief del Pozo's account but the city attorney basically mentioned this as something we still needed to do more work on. And at that point, Chief Wright, to everybody in the room's surprise, indicated that it was her account," said Weinberger, D-Burlington. "Chief Wright also had to step down... is an indication that the problematic use of social media within the department may well be more widespread than we had reason to understand until yesterday."

These episodes raise broader questions about how public officials should use social media and how widespread these fictitious identities are in our society.

"Athletes do this all the time. They like to have their fake accounts to respond to the critics," said Peter Dutile of Burlington. "People have been doing this forever."

When it comes to fake social media accounts, people WCAX News talked with in Burlington on Tuesday didn't seem to have an issue with it except in the case of public officials, like former Burlington Police chief Brandon del Pozo who admitted using a fake Twitter account to troll a critic.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: What do you think about average people using fake social media?

Marcus Chiaretto/Burlington: I think it's a different standard. The average person doesn't have the power that Brandon del Pozo has, so I think it's incomparable.

Del Pozo resigned Sunday in the face of public criticism for his actions, which included lying about his Twitter attacks. His temporary replacement, Deputy Chief Jan Wright, was removed from her role as acting chief Monday after admitting to the mayor that she had also gone on social media using a different name, often to respond to critics of the police department.

"It really is what's the purpose of that anonymous or 'fake' account and why are you doing it," said Elaine Young, a digital marketing professor at Champlain College.


Young says fake social media accounts are easy to set up, but what they are used for is the big issue. She says in the case of law enforcement, these unofficial interactions could be beneficial.

"If the purpose is to listen to the community and it may be an investigation, it does make sense that somebody might not want to be known as a police officer if there is a real purpose beside it," Young said.

But there is a line she feels that can't be crossed as public safety officials are held to a higher standard.

"But if it's literally to go after people, try to spin or do some public relations work, then why not just do that as yourself?" Young said.

Right now, Deputy Chief Jon Murad has stepped in as acting chief. The mayor said that before appointing him to the position he made sure that Murad had never used any fake social media accounts. The mayor is now searching for a new chief.

We spoke to Gov. Phil Scott about his cabinet's social media policy. He said he requires staff to sign a code of conduct that prevents them from having parody accounts.

"We don't have anything specific but this code of conduct would overall be an umbrella of that," said Scott, R-Vermont.