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Austin Police Want Identities of Online Critics 320

Posted by Soulskill
from the don't-call-them-skanks dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The police chief in Austin, TX is not happy that people are voicing their disapproval of him via anonymous blog posts and comments. He claims that 'such posts erode public trust in the department.' The chief wants to find out who these people are and investigate and prosecute such posters for statements he deems defamatory and libelous. Interestingly, the article notes, 'the Associated Press has reported that most of the cases fail because statements of opinion are protected under the First Amendment.' One wonders if this is a legitimate problem that warrants public money to investigate, or whether it's that the people who deserve the most public scrutiny don't like it when others take issue with their job performance."
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Austin Police Want Identities of Online Critics

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  • bad summary (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mr. Slippery (47854) <tms@infa[ ]s.net ['mou' in gap]> on Saturday September 19, 2009 @08:33AM (#29475775) Homepage

    From TFA:

    People who misrepresent themselves as officials in online comments could face civil, criminal penalties, Acevedo says.

    ...

    Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo says he and some of his officers have been harassed, lied about and had their identities falsely used

    ...

    In March, the social networking site Twitter shut down a fake account that pretended to issue official Austin police bulletins after the department and the Texas attorney general's office complained.

    ...

    State lawmakers this year passed a law that took effect Sept. 1 making it a third-degree felony to use another person's name to post messages on a social networking site without their permission and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten.

    ...

    A police commander has had his name falsely used as the author of comments about the department.

    The main issue here doesn't seem to be people posting "cops suck!", which is of course protected speech, but rather low-grade identity theft.

  • Re:bad summary (Score:5, Informative)

    by timmarhy (659436) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @08:41AM (#29475799)
    yep he is totally justified in wanting to find these people - they are breaking the law pretending to be police officers online.

    leave it to /. to not get the facts straight.

  • Re:He's A Jerk (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 19, 2009 @08:57AM (#29475869)

    He IS a jerk. His list of jerk-like actions include:

    1) Authorizing police officers to draw blood on the spot, with or without your cooperation (using a contract phlebotomist of course) if you are pulled over under suspicion of DUI.
    2) Constant and aggressive speed traps all over the city (I recently observed motorcycle police tailing people into a school zone and nabbing them if they didn't hit the brakes immediately).
    3) Increased patrolling and harassing motorcycle riders for helmet law violations during the ROT Motorcycle Rally. It should be noted that these were primarily older white middle class people. However, when Highland Mall requested police security for the Texas Relays their request was denied by the chief. The Texas Relays attract mostly black youth, which in itself is not a problem. The problem is that the entourage they attract has in the past loitered in the mall, intimidated shoppers, and in fact resulted in fights breaking out inside the mall. The chief denied the mall owner's request because black community leaders would have crucified him had he not done so.
    4) Hiring so many police officers that it becomes a strain on the city budget. This year's police academy class was almost suspended except that existing officers agreed to forego their raises. The chief is a big fan of "preventative patrolling" (but only in the form of speed traps, not in truly high-crime areas like Lamar & Rundberg). Methinks this must be tied to the budget strain. Plus, Mr. Acevedo wouldn't want to be accused of racial profiling in a primarily Mexican immigrant neighborhood.

    The country should also know that an Austin police officer recently shot a young black man in the back of the head while he was fleeing. Gee, I can't imagine what the young man must've been afraid of! As you might expect, the police officer was essentially let off the hook.

  • somewhat deserved? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dale512 (1073668) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @08:58AM (#29475875)
    ----
    He claims that 'such posts erode public trust in the department.'
    ----

    Perhaps the variety of bullshit crap they pull has eroded the public trust in the department. Many of the police in the jurisdictions around Austin end up on the poop list of most of the civil rights organizations for a reason.

    The most recent story I recall had one of the news stations showing a ton of cops rolling through red lights over a 24 hour period (think one light had 13-15 cops run the light). None were responding to a call and only a handful actually flashed their lights. In any event, when not responding to a call they are forbidden to do what they did. Acevedo basically said he wasn't going to discipline anyone over it and the public should not worry about it since cops have a rough job.

    Crap like this is what leads to the comments he doesn't like and rightfully so. If he quits acting like a tool maybe some of this will decrease.

    If you read the article, it says something about them thinking some of it is departmental employees. It sounds more like they are on a witch hunt than any real "eroding of public confidence" claim.
  • by fooslacker (961470) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @09:04AM (#29475905)
    If you RTFA (I know, I know) he isn't saying he's going after everyone who posts negative stuff. He's saying he's going after people who pretend to be police officers or officials while posting and people who post libelous material.

    All that said, the citizens of Austin should band together and get this idiot fired. This kind of ridiculous type of activity against citizens is an abuse of power if not is the legal meaning of that phrase then in the spirit of it. We shouldn't have to put up with public officials who when their feelings are hurt lash out using their offices and positions to punish critics, even the ridiculous ones. If the police chief wants to sue them in civil court with his own money and lawyers he should go right ahead. If he wants to hunt them with public resources he should be run out of town. GO DO YOUR JOB!!! and stop worrying about who is saying mean things in the school yard, sir.
  • Re:He's A Jerk (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 19, 2009 @10:07AM (#29476163)

    5. Pushed for a never ending supply of stop light cameras then basicly ignored his officers running red lights [kxan.com].

    That said on a personal level I've had very good experiences with Austin Cops. I just disagree with department policy.

  • Re:He's A Jerk (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 19, 2009 @10:09AM (#29476171)

    It got so bad that the state legislature passed a law saying that a given town could only make a certain percentage of its income by writing tickets!

    Of course that law has holes in it big enough to drive a fleet of 18-wheelers through.

    Only "ticket revenue" counts. "Court Fees" don't count. So what they do now, essentially, is that you get dragged in, you're not allowed to plead not-guilty without being there in person (not even sending a legal representative is allowed in most towns/counties, a deliberate method for fucking over out-of-towners).

    But they offer you either to "take defensive driving and pay a court fee" or "take deferred adjudication and pay a court fee." Oddly enough, the court fees are actually slightly-more-expensive than the ticket would normally be, except that you don't get reported in to your insurance as being "guilty" of a traffic infraction if you go that route.

    Oh, and Texas isn't the only state in the nation to do this. Cops everywhere (Arkansas is actually worse than Texas, as is Louisiana) target out-of-state plates.

  • by secondbase (870665) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @10:37AM (#29476303)
    As a couple of comments have said, the Chief has every right to go after anyone committing libel or pretending to be an official.

    But from the article:

    They have since researched their legal options and decided that from now on, they might launch formal investigations into such posts, Acevedo said. He said investigators might seek search warrants or subpoenas from judges to learn the identities of the authors -- he thinks some could be department employees -- and possibly sue them for libel or file charges if investigators think a crime was committed.

    "A lot of my people feel it is time to take these people on," Acevedo said. "They understand the damage to the organization, and quite frankly, when people are willfully misleading and lying, they are pretty much cowards anyway because they are doing so under the cloak of anonymity."

    Assuming the comments in the first paragraph are accurately paraphrased, the Chief certainly seems to be using the threat of legal action to quiet people who are making negative comments.

    Reading between the lines (the whole purpose of /. :-), the whole thing seems more directed at his own department: he keeps mentioning department employees, and the article has a couple of mentions of regulations about posting on social networking sites. That would explain why he wants to learn identities, then possibly file charges.

    The Austin PD must be a really happy organization!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 19, 2009 @10:42AM (#29476325)
    . . . although a moderate. I guess in Texas that qualifies as a "OMG Flaming Lib'rul."
  • Re:He's A Jerk (Score:3, Informative)

    by jmerlin (1010641) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @10:57AM (#29476409)
    "Speed trap" also refers to a place where police routinely camp and very strictly enforce a speed limit because it's very easy to "accidentally" be going over it. I'd say, "speed trollin" is more accurate. However, we have many tiny little 1000 person cities in TX on your way from say.. Austin to Dallas.. and if you go through one of them at 3:30 AM going from 70 on a highway to 40 in-town within 600 ft (note, the "speed slows" warning is roughly 600 feet from the actual 40mph sign) meaning you MUST brake quite hard to make the limit, and behind the sign through this 2 mile wide city on this one road there are at least 6 cops. I've seen it many times and been pulled over by them once, driving back home from a trip to Austin, no kidding.. in a convenient store parking lot in the middle of this deserted town I had 6.. SIX cops with their lights on behind me. I was going 44 in a 40. He only gave me a warning. Everywhere else in the country I've been it's been hard as hell to get speeding tickets but here.. they're handed out like candy.
  • Re:He's A Jerk (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 19, 2009 @11:44AM (#29476609)
    Minor bit - the crossing point for IH10 and IH35 is in San Antonio - a larger city about 100 miles south of Austin.
  • by A Commentor (459578) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @11:44AM (#29476611) Homepage
    Where did you find that quote, it definitely wasn't in the article linked to the story. Maybe you should take the time to read the story instead of basing it on the tainted summary. Right from the linked news article summary: "People who misrepresent themselves as officials in online comments could face civil, criminal penalties, Acevedo says." The problem is not the anonymous comments, but people posing as actual officers and stealing officer's identity. Here, from the first paragraph: "Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo says he and some of his officers have been harassed, lied about and had their identities falsely used in online blogs and in reader comment sections on local media Internet sites." Stealing someone's entity is definitely not on the same as posting anonymous comments. It falls under this new law: "State lawmakers this year passed a law that took effect Sept. 1 making it a third-degree felony to use another person's name to post messages on a social networking site without their permission and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten."
  • Re:He's A Jerk (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 19, 2009 @12:20PM (#29476853)

    Legalizing drugs will not allow you to eliminate 90% of the police force. My god people can't be this stupid.

  • by dcollins (135727) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @01:34PM (#29477355) Homepage

    FTA: "Acevedo said that in several cases, he thinks department employees were responsible for comments that appeared on sites such as Statesman.com. Officers and civilian workers who were responsible for the comments could face disciplinary action."

    Actually, I see more space in the article devoted to this item above. Smells pretty clear to me... what he really wants is to smoke out the whistleblowers, under the guise of "maybe, possibly they're impersonating officers".

  • Re:freedom of speech (Score:0, Informative)

    by rcolbert (1631881) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @01:52PM (#29477475)

    Agreed. Eroding public trust isn't a crime and it doesn't warrant seeking out those who make the statements that do so. Eroding public trust when the public's interests are not being met in a manner satisfactory to the populace is not only a constitutional right, it's a patriotic obligation.

    All a police department has to do is take care of its own house, and operate with principles and morals that are so far above and beyond reproach that words can do no harm.

    If in fact there are people impersonating police officers online, then that is a different story. That should be handled as a separate issue altogether. The question of law is complex however. Is there an aggressive approach to the interpretation of 'impersonation' where a more dispassionate view might find that a reasonable person would be skeptical enough to doubt and/or consider the potential for parody in the context of the statements made. There is a world of difference from posting an inflammatory opinion online and falsely backing it up by assuming an unwarranted position of authority, versus knocking on someone's door with a uniform and badge and saying you're the police. If the distinction isn't clear enough through the application of common sense, then I suggest we all avoid dressing up our children as police officers this Halloween, lest they be thrown into jail in Austin.

  • by Internal Modem (1281796) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @03:59PM (#29478221)
    Here's a photo of the billboard. Ludowici Billboard [georgiaencyclopedia.org]
  • by MoralHazard (447833) on Saturday September 19, 2009 @04:02PM (#29478235)

    Sigh. It's a very common misconception that the term "mother fucker" (two words, not one) denigrates a man who has sex with his own mother. Fuck Wikipedia, and fuck the ignorant idiots who spin whole fictions, and especially fuck the lazy dipshit readers who just assume that WP is correct, because it's easier than following up with their own research. Yeah, you heard me--Jimmy Wales can suck a fattie, while we're at it.

    In reality, the term "mother fucker" refers to a man who has sex with SOMEONE ELSE'S MOTHER, specifically with a woman in some kind of tight spot (e.g., economically) who agrees to sex with that man only out of desperation. The woman doesn't really want to sleep with this man, and she isn't a prostitute in the professional sense, but this man presents an alternative to watching her children go hungry.

    The term gained tremendous traction during WWII, originally amongst black American GIs, and was applied literally to American soldiers (black, white, or otherwise) in war-torn Europe who would trade food, money, or anything of value (cigarettes, chocolate, booze) for sex with desperately poor or starving French and German women. Many of these women were home-makers whose husbands had been conscripted away, killed, or imprisoned, leaving the women to support the couple's children alone. Many lacked trade skills, and the war damaged the local economies so badly that they had few, if any, alternatives.

    So calling a man a "mother fucker" meant that he was A) taking advantage of poor and downtrodden people with no options, and B) incapable of seducing non-desperate women. Anyone with experience growing up in desperate poverty, or who saw his own parents humiliated by circumstances beyond his control, would probably consider that kind of behavior to be a pretty low thing.

    In the last sixty or so years, the term has entered the popular slang as a term of derision ("That Richard Nixon is a real mother fucker, you know?"). More recently, it's been used as an indicator of extraordinary intensity, not necessarily in a derisive sense, but usually still carrying some implications of harshness ("I fell asleep out in my lawn chair, yesterday, and got a mother fucker of a sunburn.") or intimidating awesomeness ("That Shaft, he's one baaaad mother fucker.").

    Do your part--fight the ignorance!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @12:48AM (#29481025)

    But in these situations, it is the POLICE that are supposed to act like trained professionals.

    Absolutely dead on!

    I was recently at a dinner with some friends that go back 50 years in some cases. One has a son (Marine captain) who's been to Iraq and Afghanistan a few times. After getting out of the marines, he and his younger brother both recently went through the SF police academy. Another guy in the group did time in Vietnam in comms.

    Between the two of them, you can't get a word in edgewise that says anything negative about cops or the military. Worst of all, the first guy is also a corporate lawyer.

    I once mentioned an article about the different treatment given to John Walker Lindt, "the American taliban" and someone else swept up at the same time. The article, by his father, pointed out that the other guy off with hardly more than a reprimand and was sent back to his native Saudi Arabia. The son was jacked up to some 40 years in charges, all of which were dismissed (except for lying to the FBI). In the end, he pleaded down to just the lying part and 20 years.

    I no sooner had the man's name out of my mouth than the lawyer went on a rant about lying to the FBI (who has never, ever lied to the people of America) and asserted that Lindt should have gotten the full 40 years.

    No wonder, with that kind of support, that cops think they can get away with anything they dream up, no matter how abusive.

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