Pasco sheriff cuts off social media comments, victim of his own success

Usually helpful, often snarky and sometimes controversial, posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram helped rocket the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office to social media stardom.

Now, the office has fallen victim to its own success.

Too many people are reporting crimes on the agency’s social media pages rather than calling 911 or submitting a tip through the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office website, the office said. On Monday, fearing it might be missing life-or-death information, the office cut off all social media comments.

“Social media was not designed for that purpose,” Sheriff Chris Nocco said in a lengthy Facebook post Monday afternoon.

“To be clear, this was not a decision we take lightly,” Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said in a Facebook message cutting off public comment on the office’s social media pages.

It was an abrupt end to a social media engagement campaign that stretches back a decade and won fans across the world. It included irreverent posts through a Sad Criminal of the Day series; posts that extended the fame the Sheriff’s Office enjoyed as star of A&E’s Live PD television show; and even a copyright for its now-viral hashtag, #9pmroutine — a nightly reminder to lock up cars and houses.

Nocco said the change was driven by renewed efforts from his three-member public information team to post more notices about missing persons and runaways.

The added volume had drawn an overwhelming response from commenters reporting crimes and leaving timely tips in social media message threads. The team simply couldn’t stay on top of it all.

“To be clear, this was not a decision we take lightly,” Nocco said in the Facebook message.

“However, with the continued growth in our county and the need to continue to provide resources to serve our growing population, there was not a possibility to hire the people that would be required to monitor our social media platforms on a consistent, 24/7 basis for 365 days a year,” he said.

Today, we began a new phase in our approach to social media by disabling comments. We announced this change two weeks…

Posted by Pasco Sheriff’s Office on Monday, January 24, 2022

Those accustomed to communicating with the agency through Facebook criticized the decision before they were cut off.

“If people weren’t comfortable using the other formats to leave tips before, they won’t be comfortable with it now. It will just leave you with less tips,” one user wrote.

“It’s almost like you want to discourage people from providing information,” wrote another.

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The sheriff’s message was one of eight posts on the agency’s Facebook page Monday, reflecting his intention to keep using social media to inform the public. Social media has been a part of the office’s identity since it registered a Facebook page in August 2010.

Related: Calling the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office for help leads to humiliation, woman says

Serving a county with about 40 percent the population of Hillsborough and 60 percent of Pinellas, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office far outpaced the number of people following the sheriff’s offices in those counties.

Pasco boasts about 300,000 Facebook followers compared to 128,000 for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and 76,000 for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. The same trend is true on Twitter, where the Pasco office has about 131,200 followers, Hillsborough 55,400 and Pinellas 28,500.

The sheriff’s offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas say they don’t have the difficulty staying on top of social media posts that Pasco describes.

As long as law enforcement agencies maintain social media accounts, people will occasionally report a crime there, the offices said, whether in public posts or private messages. So far, they say they have avoided chronic problems by posting reminders to report tips and crimes elsewhere.

“Still, all social media platforms and user experiences are different, and the fact that we have not experienced the issue does not reflect on Pasco’s decision,” said Deputy Amanda Sinni with the Pinellas sheriff’s public information office.

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

Sinni is one of 12 staff members who have access to the sheriff’s six social media accounts — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and Nextdoor. In Hillsborough, the sheriff’s four-person public affairs office manages nine social media accounts — LinkedIn, TikTok, YouTube, and English and Spanish language pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office is seeking to hire a full-time social media specialist focused on managing these accounts, spokeswoman Crystal Clark said.

“There is an increasingly growing demand and expectation from the public to have easily accessible information and frequent updates from their local law enforcement agencies in the event of an emergency, and having a staff of people to provide that information is critical,” Clark said.

Most of the back and forth on social media “neither helps nor hinders” the department’s mission, Clark said, but it has proved invaluable in helping solicit information from the public on active cases and warrants.

That’s true in Pasco County, too. But Sheriff Nocco said the benefit is countered by a darker phenomenon: The “unfortunate growth in negative and hurtful comments, especially directed to runaways” could dissuade people from seeking the agency’s help.

“Imagine, just for a moment, if that was your loved one that had gone missing and you are desperate to find them but, instead of seeing help, you see commentary asking about their upbringing, their looks or the type of picture that was provided to law enforcement,” Nocco said.

Facebook doesn’t allow users to disable its commenting feature entirely. But last March, the social media giant introduced a change that stops just short of that: Users can limit comments to those it tags in its posts. If no one is tagged, no one can leave a comment.

Before this change, deleting comments from a government agency’s social media page was considered a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech, according to the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 2019, following lawsuits from the ACLU and the Knight First Amendment Institute, a federal appeals court declared the comments section of a government agency’s Facebook page a “public forum,” making attempts to block commenters or delete some comments while allowing others a violation of First Amendment rights.

“You can’t be kicked out of a public official’s town hall event or press conference for asking a tough question,” said Eric Lindstrom, an attorney who represented the ACLU in many of the Florida cases that led to the landmark ruling.

“As our democracy increasingly moves online, it is crucial that our First Amendment principals are equally applied to digital forums so that the internet does not become a haven for public officials to avoid free speech,” Lindstrom said.

By blocking all comments, though, these legal concerns are largely avoided, the ACLU has acknowledged — so long as no past comments are deleted after the fact.

Related: Pasco Sheriff’s Office copyrights its nationally-known ‘9 p.m. routine’

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office joins other agencies in taking advantage of Facebook’s new tool. They include the Alachua County government and the Wilmington Police Department in North Carolina.

At least for now, social media will remain a one-way communication tool for the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said. The agency will also provide breaking news updates to the public through a new, blog-style website — news.pascosheriff.com.

In an emergency, the public should always call 911 as soon as possible, Hunter said. Other information can be shared confidentially with the Sheriff’s Office through these channels:

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