BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Hours after a Dec. 2 gun battle that killed a woman and wounded five men, Bethlehem police posted a brief statement on their online blog that confirmed a death in the South Side shootout but gave few other details.
That evening, police officials posted a video from a freelance photographer that showed a chaotic scene of police cruisers with flashing lights outside a Puerto Rican social club on East Third Street. The video included an interview with a man who said he witnessed a fight that began when a group attacked another man with a baseball bat. The witness said gunfire erupted and he ducked for cover.
Within days, the district attorney would order police officials to remove the video, saying that the witness had recanted and that the blog post could cause problems for prosecutors when they made their case against two men charged in the shootings.
In each of the blog postings, police used their Twitter and Facebook accounts to alert their followers of the crime, part of a trend among police departments to use an online presence to connect with the community. Much like the police scanners of previous generations, these online postings often give the community its first news of such crimes.
As hundreds of police departments take up social media to fight crime sprees or ask for help in ongoing investigations, Bethlehem's posting of the video underscores the fine line authorities must walk in the social media world. While Twitter and Facebook offer more tools to find witnesses and walk the virtual beat, police officials must also be conscious that their posts carry the weight of their role as an authority.
Some Pennsylvania departments are in the beginning stages of using social media. Among larger departments, Allentown, Easton, and state police do not use social media accounts. Philadelphia police say they have made more than 100 arrests thanks to social media tips.
Those who follow Bethlehem police on Twitter and like them on Facebook can read summaries from officials about crimes or requests for help in identifying suspects. The department also maintains its own blog site to release media accounts or post surveillance photos.
In posting updates about crimes or cracking jokes about cops munching on doughnuts, Bethlehem Police Chief Jason Schiffer has built a following of thousands on the department's Twitter page @BethlehemPolice and on the department's blog. The banter helps to build a rapport with residents that he hopes will pay off when bigger crimes hit and police need help.
As details about the shootings outside the Puerto Rican Beneficial Society were collected, reporters used the video from the supposed witness in their initial reports to describe the hectic scene where the 23-year-old woman died and the five men were shot. But investigators later determined the account given by Jeffrey Noe was not credible.
Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli asked that the video be removed because it could "hamper" the prosecution of two men now facing criminal charges in a gunfight he described as one of the worst he had ever seen.
Schiffer said he posted the video because it gave a sense of the chaotic scene and what unfolded that night. He said Morganelli's concerns were valid.
"We weren't posting it like it was an exact account of what happened," Schiffer said. "It gave a sense of what happened, and now that person has recanted. It's something that happens very often with eyewitnesses."
Lauri Stevens, a social media strategist based near Boston, said it is unusual for police departments to post independent unvetted material on websites. Even stories tweeted from reputable news sources, she said, are usually checked to ensure that police are cast in a favorable light.
While the video posted by Bethlehem turned out to be wrong, she pointed out that the intent was good - to engage the public and get information out in a timely manner.
"I wouldn't spank him too hard over this. I hate to see agencies overreact . . . pull the plug and not use social media at all," Stevens said. "We're all learning. If you visualize a bell curve, when it comes to police using social media, we're still climbing and we have a way to go."