By Julie Crothers
Threats posted on social media sites are nothing new, but a law that takes effect Monday will make posting such threats a crime punishable by jail time.
The law extends the charge of intimidation to include using social media sites to post threats.
Part of the change in state law is simply an attempt to play catch-up with technology, said Mike McAlexander, Allen County’s chief deputy prosecutor.
“We’re attempting to keep up with the moving target that is social media and working on defining those things as they come up,” McAlexander said. “ … It’s a struggle.”
In the past, he said, text messages and comments posted on the Internet were used more as corroboration than as evidence of a crime.
But now, prosecutors will be able to use the posts in proving that the threats are happening, he said.
“The legislature is trying to give us more tools to be able to prosecute these crimes,” he said. “The intimidation or threat is just as great whether it’s been said face to face or coming in from an email, Facebook post or text message.”
Indiana lawmakers’ decision to expand the intimidation statute to include social media was in part triggered by the experience of state Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield.
Crider, a retired Indiana conservation officer from Hancock County, serves as security manager at Hancock Regional Hospital, located east of Indianapolis.
While Crider was working security, a patient at the hospital went online and posted threats to Facebook.
“He posted threats that he was going to come down to the hospital and, as he described it, was going to ‘shoot up the place,’ ” Crider said.
Police were notified and began watching the man’s Facebook page, he said.
It was later discovered he was off his prescribed medication, but the situation caused quite a stir among hospital employees, Crider said.
“I had doctors and nurses who, the night before, walked to their cars in the dark and the next night were asking for a police escort,” he said. “The thing I realized was somebody doesn’t actually have to carry through with the threat to have that real chilling affect.”
Crider’s local prosecutor determined that there was no case to be made against the man because the threats were made against the hospital and not an individual.
Crider then approached legislators with a proposal to close the gap in the law and tighten language to make sure social media were addressed specifically.
“I think it’s definitely a big step in the right direction,” Crider said about the bill.
Reporting and investigating social media threats have been problems since sites like Facebook and Twitter were created, said Ron Galaviz, Indiana State Police spokesman.
“As long as there’s been a way to communicate electronically, there’s been emails, text messages and now posts on Facebook with these kinds of threats,” Galaviz said.
Part of the challenge, he said, is that some people, including children, might not realize that what they are posting is criminal.
“Once this goes into effect and people realize it’s a crime, it’s possible the reporting of it will increase,” he said.
Galaviz said state police investigate all calls about social media threats – and that won’t change.
“We’ll do the same thing, file the report and send it off to the prosecutor’s office, but now there’s more fight in the law,” he said. “It could be just two people blowing off steam … but especially in this day and age, these threats have to be given their due credibility to avoid looking over something that might come back later and make us wish we would have looked into it more diligently.”
Most local officers are used to dealing with social media threats regularly, said Allen County Sheriff’s Department Spokesman Jeremy Tinkel.
“We take reports of threats and problems from Facebook and sites like that on a daily basis,” Tinkel said. “ … It varies, we may have a couple calls a day or we might not have anything.”
Tinkel said most of the threats are between family members or friends, and range from middle school students up to adults. Tinkel said he attributes most of the threats to something he calls keyboard courage.
“People think of it as a fantasy world, like it doesn’t mean anything. If you’re sitting in the safety of the four walls of your house, you suffer no immediate repercussions because the person you’re threatening isn’t sitting in front of you,” he said.
But once information about that threat spreads, it leads to an investigation that in the past has been a headache for officers and prosecutors, he said.
When the sheriff’s department receives a report about a threat, usually by way of a phone call from the individual being threatened, an officer will respond and fill out a report, Tinkel said.
Most people who are contacted about their threat quickly say they didn’t mean anything by it or were just venting, but each case is investigated, he added.
“It’s usually just people bantering back and forth, making threats to each other on Facebook,” he said. “But if someone does feel threatened and calls us, we are going to investigate that because the potential is there.”