Suspect held city #hostage on social media

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Friday's standoff at 3 Gateway Center raises intriguing questions about the role of social media, including this: Just because anyone with a Facebook account can attempt communication with an alleged hostage-taker, should they?

In the eyes of law enforcement, the answer is simple: of course not.

But for those accustomed to the immediate gratification of posts and tweets, the response could be: Why not?

It's been less than four years since a US Airways jet safely set down on the Hudson River, providing the world with one of the first truly newsworthy Twitter images. Since then, most social media adopters have come to accept the ease with which we can engage friends and total strangers alike.

Klein Michael Thaxton apparently updated his Facebook page shortly before the incident began around 8:15 a.m. with this and several other despairing posts: "welln pops you'll never have to worry about me again. You'll nevr need to by me anything no need to ever waste ur hard earned money on me. i'll live n jail you dnt want me around anymore thats kool bye..."

Once the nearly six-hour standoff was under way, Facebook users made aware of his page via Twitter began posting a flood of comments. Most urged Thaxton to stop and consider his actions, but a few were the equivalent of the guy who stands on the sidewalk urging a jumper to action.

These were just the public posts. Thaxton, who used hostage Charles Breitsman's computer and iPhone to post updates to his Facebook page, might have been private messaging as well. Speaking to the media at the time, Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper called the use of social media "a distraction for negotiations."

"Some were helpful, a few were ridiculous, others were downright distasteful," Chief Harper said. "When he saw there were 700 comments on Facebook, he felt that people were concerned and he was important."

The posting distracted Thaxton from harming Mr. Breitsman, but it also distracted negotiations, the chief said. Police were aware of the comments and opted to shut the page down about four or five hours into the standoff. He surrendered shortly after that.

Wells Morrison is a retired supervisory special agent and crisis negotiator with the FBI in Pittsburgh. The idea of Thaxton communicating with the outside world while holding a hostage is disturbing, he said.

"It can be very, very dangerous and can actually inflame the situation," Mr. Morrison said. "You want the hostage-taker, or the barricaded subject, whatever it might be, you want his focus to be on law enforcement.

"You don't want him to be distracted by phone calls, by text message, by Facebook message."

Prior to the advent of easy access to social media, he said, the idea was to isolate the subject by cutting telephone land-lines, installing a dedicated line straight to the negotiators, and blocking cell phone service. Relinquishing control over communications is an impediment to creating a calmer, safer environment, he said.

He said that although most of the posts to Thaxton appeared to be well-meaning -- some included phone numbers urging him to call them to talk about the situation -- they might have hurt efforts to defuse it.

"If he's getting ratcheted up by people expressing support for him or disdain for him, that doesn't do law enforcement any good ... ," Mr. Morrison said.

Chief Harper also told the media at one point that names of those sending messages had been noted, and that it was a "possibility" that if things went badly, they might be held responsible.

Mr. Morrison said he's all for social media -- "it's been helpful around the world in trying to get the word out of countries where there are horrific acts going on" -- and he realizes by now it is for many people a natural part of socializing.

"We learn a lot from every hostage/barricaded subject situation," he said. "But quite honestly, I don't see the social media aspect being an easy fix, if there is a fix."

Social media as a window to news as it unfolds has been a mixed blessing. In December 2011, a 12-year-old in Laredo, Texas, was held hostage, along with her brother and a worker at the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. Her mother reportedly was in a rage over being denied state's assistance, and killed herself and her children after seven hours.

During that time, the girl, Ramie Marie Grimmer, made several posts to her Facebook page, including "May die 2day."

Also last year, a woman in Utah and her young son were held captive at home by a man for five days. Her cell phone gone, she was finally able to persuade someone to call the police, via Facebook. In Denver, one of two suspects barricaded in a RadioShack with an employee took a picture of himself and posted it to his Facebook account, commenting he was probably going to die. Friends responded he should consider his young child and end the standoff. The situation ended when a SWAT team apprehended them.

More recently, said Chief Harper, police were able to use Facebook posts to track down a woman who had taken a newborn baby from Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC.

Not only social media is changing the way crisis negotiators must approach future events.

At one point in Friday's standoff, WPXI-TV stopped its live, online newsfeed.

"We became aware that the suspect was watching TV news coverage via computer, so we did not want to be responsible for him getting any information from us," news director Mike Goldrick said at the time.

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Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. Sadie Gurman contributed.


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