On Friday night, it took the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office about 90 minutes to alert the public about a deputy-involved shooting at Tanger Outlets 2 in Bluffton.
That’s 90 minutes from when Sgt. Raymond Heroux initiated the traffic stop that led to the shooting of Akeem Jenkins to when Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Bob Bromage felt he had enough information about the incident to send the alert.
In that time, Heroux called for backup, backup arrived, Heroux was dragged by the car, Jenkins was shot, deputies and EMS responded to the scene, a perimeter was set up, Jenkins was airlifted to Savannah, Heroux was taken to the hospital on Hilton Head, stores were closed, witnesses were rounded up, Sheriff P.J. Tanner arrived and agents from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division came.
A lot happened in those 90 minutes. So, all things considered, it wasn’t that long to wait for an answer to the pressing question on everyone’s minds, “What in the world just happened at Tanger?”
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In fact, 90 minutes would have been impressive if this were 10 years ago, back when the flow of information was limited by time and space.
But, as we all know, that’s just no longer the case.
In the 90 minutes it took for all heck to break loose at the outlet mall and for the public to be told the nature of that heck, Facebook, that dark village of unsubstantiated clatter, attempted to fill in this information gap with a patchwork of hearsay, a lot of it coming from a single community group, Bluffton/Hilton Head Ask and Answer.
Despite the moderator’s effort to keep information factual and to delete anything that was unconfirmed, rumors persisted in the group and then beyond.
In the time it took for information to come from the Sheriff’s Office, the public had told itself on Facebook that a shooter was on the loose, that a deputy had been killed, that a female deputy had been shot, that the shooting occurred in the Nike Factory Outlet and that the young man who was shot had died on the way to the hospital.
In some cases, the information was posted flippantly and in a clear attempt to be “the one in the know.”
At worst, these postings had the potential to wrongly lead and unnecessarily panic those living in the area and those with loved ones working or shopping at the outlets.
At best, they caused confusion.
And that’s why those 90 minutes matter.
We live in two worlds now, each with its own time zone.
In the real world, clocks tick and tock in unison. In the virtual world, though, the numbers on the clocks have been replaced with the word “NOW.”
This is a lesson the Sheriff’s Office already learned the hard way when it came under fire for the re-entry process after the Hurricane Matthew evacuation. Social media is now the starting point when it comes to disseminating public safety information.
And meted-out, all-ducks-in-a-row-first releases no longer cut it.
It seems counter intuitive, I know. And I talked to Bromage, who is the public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, about this very thing Monday.
In the real world, the opposite of factual is nonfactual, of course. And the Sheriff’s Office, like journalists, deals in facts.
They and we seek confirmation. They and we have to be sure. There is a lot at stake when they and we are not.
But that’s in the real world.
In the virtual world, the world of social media, it works a little bit differently.
The demand is for immediacy, but not immediate facts necessarily. The public doesn’t need to know everything right away. They just need to know the basics. They need an authoritative anchor for good information. They need a sign that says “Here is where you’ll find the facts once they become available.”
Sometimes that anchor is the media. Sometimes, and especially in an incident like Friday night’s, it’s an agency like the Sheriff’s Office.
A quick post Friday night from the Sheriff’s Office on its Facebook page, one that acknowledged the heavy deputy presence at Tanger and promised more information would’ve alerted the “Facebook public” that this is where you’ll find the facts, this is where you’ll be connected, this is what you should be sharing. That something is going on indeed, and you’ll know more soon.
Bromage agreed and said it’s something they’ll do in the future.
This is good news for the real world public and for the Facebook public.
While it won’t altogether stop reckless people from spreading bad information, it’ll give the community a direct and live line to the right information.
It will allow the community to deal in facts.