A prominent Vermont expert in digital marketing and social media is recommending cities and towns take a close look at social media use by their employees, following an unusual series of job changes at the Burlington Police Department involving bogus online accounts.
"Municipalities need to be thinking about this--they really do," advised Elaine Young, a professor at Champlain College in Burlington.
An investigation is now underway into problematic online behavior in the Burlington Police Department, according to an announcement from the office of Mayor Miro Weinberger.
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The department had three chiefs within 24 hours, following a rapidly-unraveling situation that started Monday.
Brandon del Pozo, Burlington's former police chief, resigned his job after the community learned he repeatedly lied to a Seven Days reporter about briefly using a phony Twitter identity in July to needle a frequent critic.
Later Monday, his interim replacement's job appointment was revoked—after Deputy Chief Jan Wright revealed she, too, had used the fake name "Lori Spicer" online to discuss and defend her department.
Young said she considers it acceptable--and even good practice, in many cases--for police to monitor social media to learn about community concerns. She cited examples such as looking into threats against schools, calls for help involving self-harm, or complaints about crime activity in specific neighborhoods. Departments' use of social media to generate tips following a robbery or other crimes would be another constructive example of police work online, Young suggested.
However, with trust between community members and police paramount, Young suggested clear rules need to be set on when and how cops should interact with others.
"The line we're crossing is when they use those accounts to attack their critics," Young observed. "And I'm hoping that's what will be looked at carefully."
Several public servants have told necn and NBC 10 Boston in the past few days that it can be absolutely maddening to be beaten up on social media for the way they do their jobs. But they said they have to simply rise above it, resisting the urge to blast their critics on social media--and definitely not by resorting to anonymous accounts.
"You have to be an example for others, and you have be a role model, and you have to think about what your kids--the people watching you that want to be just like you--how do you want them to react?" said Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, who frequently urges civility in online and in-person interactions.
Sarah George, the elected state's attorney for Chittenden County, said Tuesday she occasionally has been frustrated with the tone of some critics' online complaints about her decisions.
"It's a balance," George said of how she weighs whether to engage with those critics online. "Every single time I'm on my Twitter page, I balance who to respond to in what way, and who not to respond to. Or who to stop responding to after some point."
George told necn and NBC 10 Boston one way she has found to turn negative interactions into positive or neutral ones is by offering to take discussions from the online world to the real world.
"If they're using a real account or a real name, and I know the person is a constituent, I always make an offer to meet with the person and discuss the stuff that's concerning to them," George said. "When I've done that, the individuals don't tend to [troll] as much, and I think they recognize it's harder to do if you've been given that olive branch and you just didn't take it."
In a Monday night announcement, Weinberger promised to bring in an outside investigator to look into the Burlington Police Department's social media use and said he plans to set firm rules on anonymous posts by leadership.
The city attorney and human resources director will closely look at posts Wright made anonymously, and determine if additional steps need to be taken, the mayor's office said.
As for Burlington's third chief this week, Weinberger's office said Dep. Chief Jon Murad, who is now acting as interim chief, assured city hall he has never made a post under a fake name.