The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

October 12, 2012

Social media tips help battle fires and rioting in Morgantown

MORGANTOWN — Morgantown police got a least a dozen solid tips from a Facebook photo album it created in hopes of identifying people involved in last weekend’s fires and rioting, and Chief Ed Preston said his detectives were working Thursday to confirm identities.

It’s the first time the department has used social media to make arrests and interview witnesses, but Preston said it probably won’t be the last.

“It’s actually had a larger, faster effect than what we anticipated,” he said, generating not only comments online but also private messages and phone calls from people dismayed by the danger and destruction that followed WVU’s 48-45 win over Texas last weekend.

Police are archiving YouTube videos and Facebook and Twitter photos, primarily using images students themselves share. They’re also posting images taken by surveillance teams, news media and the general public.

Thanks to cellphones, “the anonymity they may have experienced in a crowd before is not as great,” Preston said.

Although reluctant to label it such, public shaming is a key part of the strategy that city and WVU officials came up with this week during a private meeting that followed last week’s mayhem.

More than 40 were deliberately set, and students threw rocks, beer bottles and other objects at police in riot gear, who dispersed them with pepper spray and a chemical gas.

That brings the number of deliberately set fires to 181 so far this year, said Fire Marshall Ken Tennant. Street fires account for 101 of those, while another 80 were set in large commercial trash bins.

That’s the fourth-highest number of fires in the 15 years the department has been logging them. The record is 274 in 2003, Tennant said, followed by 245 fires in 1998.

Only three more, and the city will surpass the 184 fires that were set in 1999.

Both Morgantown and WVU have tried for years to crack down on fire-starters, expelling students for bad behavior and invoking state arson laws rather than charging offenders with misdemeanors.

But it hasn’t worked.

Dean of Students Corey Farris says rioting is not limited to WVU; similar scenes have played out in Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. They also unfold after World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup and NBA championships, he said.

Still, he believes the culture at WVU can change. More students and non-students have been condemning such behavior, and that peer pressure is critical.

“We want to be able to go up and down the street and honk horns and high-five and pour out of our houses and celebrate,” Farris said. “But when you’re smacking your hands on cars as people are driving down the street or knocking over light posts or lighting fires in Dumpsters, that crosses the line.”

Preston and Farris say both police and WVU administrators will be using new tactics this weekend when the Mountaineers play at Texas Tech, and next weekend, when they’re at home against Kansas State in what promises to be the biggest game of the season.

Preston won’t divulge specifics for fear of escalating tensions.

“I want to defuse this. I don’t want these things to be repeated,” he said.

Preston worries his officers may eventually have to respond with force and said it’s fortunate the latest rioting resulted in no deaths, life-threatening injuries or catastrophic damage.

“We are very careful and cautious in how we respond,” he said. “But we do have plans in place that, should it escalate or get more violent, we have the ability to respond.”

Farris, meanwhile, said WVU administrators and student leaders will join police and fire officials in going door to door in problem neighborhoods to warn people about the consequences of bad behavior.

They’ll also be deploying to those neighborhoods long before games are over to monitor any potential problems.

“Will there be surveillance? Yes,” Farris said. “Will we be watching those house parties before they get 200-300 people and get out of control? Yes.”

And while the university is limited in what it can say about students under federal privacy laws, Farris said it’s with city officials to increase publicity about those convicted in the court system.

“It’s a full-court press,” Farris said. “We’re all angry and upset.”

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