Hashtag stigma: Addiction experts warn against trend of using humor in reporting drug arrests

Published 6:36 am Saturday, January 11, 2020

Law enforcement agencies have been posting incident reports about drug arrests on social media for some time now. Most of them do it to keep communities informed about the addiction epidemic.

But some addiction treatment specialists and researchers say there are a growing number of posts that go too far. They say some posts are making light of a serious situation with catchy hashtags and editorialization, and the language used perpetuates public stigma about the disease of addiction. Some are desperate to get the word out to the public that this is no laughing matter and the kinds of words used to report on drugs can cause others not to seek help.

A recent area arrest and the subsequent publicity the arrest received provide one example of the trend.

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The incident

Last Saturday, Garrard Police Officer Steven DeBord answered a call which would later be the subject of a post on the Garrard County Police Department’s Facebook page. Like many officers, DeBord has dealt with addiction issues in the community often. Although he’s only been with Garrard for three months, he was a Danville officer for four years.

“He originally called about a stolen laptop, but when I got to the residence, things changed. He met me at the door, and I could tell he was intoxicated,” DeBord said. The man said he wanted to go to jail, and asked if assault on a police officer would get him there.

“I told him he didn’t want to do that … asked him what’s going on, let’s go inside and talk about it. He invited me in … then kind of pushed me, and I said I’m not taking you to jail for an assault on an officer for a little push.”

DeBord then continued trying to talk to the man to find out “what’s going on, and why he wanted to be jailed.” That’s when the man said his girlfriend was in the Lincoln County Detention Center for five months, and he wanted to be with her.

DeBord told the man to sleep it off, that he would return to the residence the following day to check on him. “He reached under his couch, and pulled out what he uses with — a spoon and syringe. I told him I’m not here to take you to jail, now I’m here to talk to you about your issues. That’s when he produced a large amount of suspected meth …”

The drugs the man showed the officer ultimately led to his arrest.

The officer said he spoke to the man about going to treatment, and that he told DeBord he’d been there “hundreds of times. He said ‘they’re in more of a rush to get me out of there than to treat me.’ In his head, I think he thought five months was enough to get him over the addiction.”

DeBord said at one point, the man told him, “‘You’re possibly saving my life, thank you.’”

“But he’s already out of jail,” DeBord said. “I’ll probably go out there and check on him to make sure he’s OK.”


The online post

On Monday, the Garrard County Police Department’s Facebook page posted a news release about the incident.

When the report was posted, it was given the title of “True Love,” with a header halfway through, which reads “But wait, it gets better,” about the man showing the officer his drug stash.

The man’s mugshot accompanied it, which is common practice for agencies that post arrest news online. Hashtags on the post included “#LoveWins, #IsThisMTVCribs, #LemmeShowYouAround, #LoveANDmethAreInTheAir, #WhereCupidAt,” and “#CheckOutMyStash,” among others.

As of Friday afternoon, the hashtags had been removed from the post.

Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson said he drafted the Facebook post himself. Wilson said he writes social media posts in an effort to humanize police officers to the public.

“It’s important, given the climate — you see a lot of animosity towards law enforcement, so anything we can do to make the department a little more relatable” helps, he said.

Wilson said the hashtags are created by a “younger moderator” on the page, and that Garrard is mimicking what he’s seen other departments do.

Wilson said it was not the intention of the post to make light of a serious situation.

“Police departments are 100% tax-funded and the public has the right to know,” he said.

Wilson said he disagreed that his title and header editorialized on the situation. He said “bringing publicity to what the officers are doing is helpful. It’s not intended to poke fun.” He also spoke about the overtime Garrard officers incur due to going out of their way in helping others in addiction crisis, such as driving them to treatment.

Out of the 572 comments on the post, almost all are from people making jokes. The post has been shared 1,300 times. Only a handful of comments question the wording of the post.


A larger trend

Garrard is definitely not alone. Other area agencies have made similar posts. Some law enforcement officials interviewed for this story said many of the agencies using catchy hashtags on their social media posts now may have copied the practice from the Louisville Metro Police Department.

The Louisville law enforcement agency made one such post on its Facebook page on Friday.

“On Christmas Eve Eve, our Major Case Unit 1 in our Criminal Interdiction Division was creepin’ and peepin’ on a known drug trafficker. What do alleged drug dealers do on X-mas Eve Eve? Well, they go bowling, of course,” the post reads.

The post goes on to detail how detectives observed a “large currency transaction” and speculated someone involved in the alleged transaction may have “lost a bet not picking up a 7/10 split.”

The post includes dozens of hashtags, including “#YouKnowTheTagsAreComingInHot,” “#BowlingPunTime,” “#BowlingWitMyHomies,” “#WhenWeSeizedTheMoneyYouCouldHearAPinDrop” and “#SomeAlleysAreDangerousYouCouldEndUpInTheGutter.”

Sgt. Lamont Washington is the Louisville Metro Police Department’s media and public relations commander.

“You can have a great product, but if you put it out when nobody’s looking at your site, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a great product,” Washington said.

When Washington moved into the position in 2016, LMPD had less than 5,000 Facebook followers. Now it has 130,000.

“We went to a more comedic approach, and it drove our followers up even more.”

Washington said having those followers is a valuable law enforcement asset.

“For instance, if you look at our ‘wanted’ flyers, we’re averaging less than 24 hours” before they find the suspect, he said. “And the hashtags on drug seizes, we have people who look at our page now that don’t know anything about policing, and we are able to educate them,” like responding to some comments with KRS information, for example.

However, Washington said even with “all the fun we have on social media,” the department never posts mugshots, unless they have an active warrant for someone and want the public’s help. He said even if someone commits a crime, there’s always a root cause.

“It’s not fair for me to bastardize you for something you did when you were at the lowest of lows,” he said. “Addiction wears me out, because there’s so many people who will quickly get on social media and blast someone who’s an addict — until it hits their family.”

Washington said this is something he’s passionate about, because in this day and age, people are looking for the next viral video or who can get the most likes or comments.

“They lose the focus or don’t understand that the focus of their post is somebody’s family member,” he said. “You can’t lose that.”

He said there are agencies throughout the U.S. “that may refer to someone as a ‘crackhead’ or say ‘we got this doper off the street.’ We may skirt the line in our hashtags, but none of them will identify anyone or poke fun of addiction. We don’t believe in flippant comments like that.”


‘Addicted to love’

Wilson said the Garrard County post on Monday originally went up without any hashtags, but then, “someone commented asking where they were.”

After the Garrard Facebook post went up, the weekly Garrard Central Record newspaper printed a story about the incident on Thursday, with the headline, “Might As Well Face It, He’s Addicted to Love.”

Central Record Managing Editor and Publisher Ted Cox declined to comment.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, said, “This is one reason I did a ‘covering substance abuse and recovery workshop’ in November for journalists.”

Cross works to help rural news media “define the public agenda” in communities, as well as report on broader issues with local impact.

“We didn’t get many journalists at this workshop,” he said.

Cross said reporters are largely uncomfortable with doing enterprise reporting on the subject.

“They often default to the law enforcement narrative,” he said. “When the law enforcement narrative turns into mocking people with the disease, that is an inappropriate narrative to adopt.”


‘We just don’t do it’ 

Not all law enforcement agencies are biting on this trend. Although local agencies did not want to comment on any specific agencies’ posts, they did say satirical additions to news releases are not permitted.

Social media posts are used to inform the community of newsworthy events and the activities of police, said Glenn Doan, assistant chief of police for Danville.

“They should contain a basic overview of the incident and all related information that should be deemed pertinent,” Doan said. “In most cases, they should not contain personal opinion or satire.”

“I don’t think it’s our place to do that,” said Derek Robbins, Boyle County sheriff. Like most  others who commented on the trend, he said Louisville Metro seemed to have started the trend on a regional level.

In July, the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office made an impressive meth bust. The hashtags included “#HugeMethsquitos, #BreakingBad, #HideYaDope, #YouMadBro, #gameon, #YouOweMoneyNowBruh,” and “#NightShiftLitTho,” among others.

Robbins said he feels trying to be funny on a professional post can put the agency in a negative light.

“You have to maintain a sense of professionalism,” he said. “You don’t dehumanize them. We don’t have a policy on that — we just don’t do it.”

Jessica Buck, a local public defender, said the practice “does dehumanize people.”

“It takes someone at their very worst, and not only does it share something that’s at the lowest time in their life, it mocks them.”

Buck is directing attorney for the Department of Public Advocacy’s Danville office. She said she’s not speaking on behalf of the department — ”my comments are my own thoughts and views.”

She said like many others, she has no issue with police departments and newspapers keeping the community informed on arrests and the work officers are doing; that’s part of their job, she said.

But many posts, Buck thinks, also cross the line of people being presumed innocent until proven guilty.

“And I don’t see how making light of it is helpful to the community or the PD. People are going to read that, and when they interact with the PD or the officers who are on the street … it creates a divide between the community that they’re serving.”


‘Us vs. Them’ 

Tanith Wilson and Roger Fox said they know this feeling well. Tanith Wilson is the vice president and Fox is director of community outreach with the Shepherd’s House, which runs an intensive outpatient treatment center in Danville.

The trend is “sad and heartbreaking,” Tanith Wilson said.

Fox said his past addiction struggles were generational — he grew up seeing his dad in and out of jail for the same reason. So posts and headlines that seem to make fun of those dealing with drug problems further the feeling that “it’s us against the world.”

He said it perpetuates the “them” perception. “To me, ‘them’ is the worst four-letter word you can use,” he said.

Fox and Tanith Wilson — although both clean for years — still consider themselves addicts and are proud to do so. Leading by association and example is the way to get through to people on a human level, they say.

“Things like this reinforce the idea that’s already out there in the community. To jokingly make people like me seem less-than, to keep us in our place … we go out every day and work with employers to get them to realize this is a disease, and that these are normal people,” Fox said.

Tanith Wilson said she has been sober for 13 years, with an 11-year-old daughter. There are still classmates’ parents of her daughter’s who won’t let them come to her house because of her past. She said language making light of drug addiction only furthers the divide.

“Stuff like that is what makes this that way. It’s so stigmatized,” she said, and it can create a pack-like mentality online, with “heinous comments like ‘lock them up forever,’ or ‘just let them die.’ I’m very comfortable sharing my past, especially due to what I’m doing now, but it still makes me feel less than human when I read those comments. It’s a terrible, awful feeling.”

Asked about posts like this being done in order to gain likes and shares, Fox said, “We get high on heroin and meth; others get high on likes and follows.”


Stigma is real 

Kathy Miles, coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Police, said the language of reporting on drug use is “a big deal.”

“This makes me even more thankful for Derek (Robbins) and Tony (Gray, Danville Police chief) when I hear things like this,” Miles said.

She said people who struggle with addiction shouldn’t have their “whole persona encapsulated in their addiction like this, or made light of. And that’s what it does.”

Miles has led sensitivity training events for law enforcement agencies in the past, and pairing officers up with those in treatment was one of the most powerful things she’s ever experienced.

Miles said using the wrong language when reporting on drugs can “teach a lack of understanding.”

“Nobody wants to be addicted. They’re not in love with being addicted … Because of the kind of world we live in today, with prescription drugs, media issues, pressures and anxieties, people make bad choices around substances,” she said.

Miles said she has never spoken to an addict who says they always wanted to be addicted.

As far as using humor when reporting on addiction, Miles said, “It’s dangerous to give that message out. Law enforcement and the media have incredible power to help people get treatment.”

She pointed out that a big piece of the “mega-grant” Boyle is involved with, directed by UK, is about stigma and how to combat it. The HEALing Communities Study (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) is a four-year agreement and the largest grant UK has ever received at $87 million. It includes 14 commonwealth partners, including local ASAP boards, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and local and district health departments. Kentucky is one of four states receiving part of the grant.

Don Helme is in charge of the health communication campaign part of the grant, which will partly focus on social and other media impacts on addiction.

“To stigmatize something like this, it has a chilling effect on people seeking help. They become ashamed, fearful and angry. This sort of stigma in these hashtags — it’s heartbreaking,” Helme said.

Agencies and media outlets need to realize this type of stigma is very harmful for people who need help; it not only perpetuates it, but elevates it, as seen in the comments on various posts, he said.

In the case of the man in Garrard, Helme said most would realize that the man was making a cry for help. And as far as the pack-like mentality of online followers, creating memes out of others’ addiction issues, Helme said it’s painful to watch.

“It’s all fun and games until it hits their brother or daughter. It really does break my heart.”