Michigan shootings highlight power of smartphones, shortcomings of social media

A police standoff Thursday with a suspect in seven fatal shootings in Grand Rapids, Mich., shows how smartphone apps for police scanners are giving citizens a new mobile window on crime fighting.

The Grand Rapids Press, Cory Morse/AP
Grand Rapids Police investigate the scene on Knapp Street near James Ave. in Grand Rapids, Mich.Seven people were fatally shot at two homes.

The man suspected of killing seven people, engaging police in a shootout in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a car chase had holed up in a house in Stephanie Sicard’s neighborhood.

He had hostages. He was demanding Gatorade.

Ms. Sicard, a college student, sat enthralled, listening on her iPhone to the 5-0 Radio Police Scanner application that was giving her pieces of information unavailable through mainstream media.

The tragedy Thursday in Grand Rapids shows how smartphone applications, many free or costing a few dollars, are giving citizens a mobile window on police crime fighting. It also highlights how social media such as Twitter, can be a first – and often poor – source of information.

Rodrick Shonte Dantzler, who was suspected in the murder of seven people including two children, engaged police in a gunfight in Grand Rapids before leading them on a car chase, reported the Chicago Tribune.

Mr. Dantzler crashed his car in a ditch then fled on foot. He forced his way into a house in northeast Grand Rapids, taking three hostages.
After an eight-hour standoff, Dantzler shot himself fatally and the hostages escaped.

“This is obviously a very, very difficult day for a lot of people,” Grand Rapids Police Chief Kevin Belk told the Grand Rapids Press.

As Sicard followed the events via police scanner on her mobile phone, she saw first-hand how raw, unverified information can lead to confusion.

“The [major media outlets] can’t report things that aren’t confirmed, but some people were giving out anything they heard [on scanners]” Sicard said. “There was a lot of misinformation."

A Twitter stream following the event had a number of people relaying information, attributed to police scanners, that later proved to be false.

In addition to apps for mobile phones, websites, such scanmichigan.com, are also replacing traditional police and fire radio scanners that cost anywhere from $100 to $1000. These sites give anyone with an Internet connection access to police, fire, and EMS radio communications.

But access to raw information isn't the best route to accurate news. The Twitter stream following Thursday’s events was rife with names of people who might have been hostages, including some tweets that said there were as many as ten people being held by Dantzler.

This kind of misinformation – and the instant relaying of misinformation – highlights one of the problems with citizen journalists and social networking outlets: no verification process. Journalists are taught to check with more than one source and verify the facts before publishing. But in the rush to get a tweet out, or simply to pass along another person’s tweet, the truth can be a casualty.

As Sicard learned of updates in the situation via her scanner application, she wrote about it on Facebook, telling friends when hostages had been released.
Unlike many, Sicard said that she didn’t post everything she heard on the police scanner or saw on Twitter. For example, she did not post the names of potential hostages.

“So much of it was basically gossip,” Sicard said.

Sicard, an anthropology student at Grand Valley State University, located about 13 miles from Grand Rapids, has taken journalism courses at Grand Rapids Community College.

Police scanners are legal in homes in most states – provided they are not used in criminal activities. But some states, such as Kentucky, have laws prohibiting the use of scanners in vehicles. That means listening to police communications on a mobile phone is illegal.

In November, a Louisville man who had three scanner applications on his phone was charged with, among other things, possession or use of a radio that sends or receives police messages under Kentucky Revised Statute 432.570 reported WDRB Fox 41.

Sicard, however, did not violate Michigan law. In 2006, Michigan Common Law 750.508 was changed so that citizens no longer required a permit in order to have a scanner in a motor vehicle.

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