Tim Whyte | Boots, Brews, Cops and Social Media Pitfalls

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By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

Sitting in Central Park last Saturday, listening to live country music performed by some of the genre’s most current artists, I experienced an eerie reminder of what happened at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. 

There, perched high on the ridge overlooking Central Park, was what appeared to be a law enforcement vehicle, lights flashing — and standing next to it was, I assumed, a sheriff’s deputy, standing watch, to keep thousands of concert goers, including my family, safe. It could have been a private security vehicle — my eyes are getting older — but either way, it was one of the “good guys.”

Periodically, running along the ridge and through the dirt trails surrounding Central Park, were more good guys, dirt-motorcycle-mounted deputies, watching for trouble. 

It was reassuring to know sheriff’s deputies and/or private security were there, covering the high ground. It provided reassurance that, on this day, any guns on that ridge were in the hands of people whose mission was to protect us, not harm us. 

There was security down below, too. We all went through metal detectors on the way into the festival, backpacks and purses were searched, and private security roamed the grounds. 

Sometime shortly before sunset, two armed private security guards approached the people sitting in front of us. I don’t know why. Our neighbors seemed normal enough. They had a brief conversation and then the security guards walked away. Whatever prompted the encounter seemed to be quickly and peacefully resolved.

That was the closest thing I saw to an “incident” that night, and there were thousands of people at the Boots & Brews concert, of all ages, most of whom had a perfectly peaceful night enjoying country music. 

But not, apparently, all of them. And try as they might, the security presence can’t be everywhere, at every moment.  That’s the case in any situation where a large crowd is gathered.

The day after the concert, rumors began swirling on social media about several incidents in which a group of several women viciously attacked female concert-goers, unprovoked. 

Participants in social media forums have a penchant for hyperbole, so in the professional media — including responsible print and online news organizations like The Signal and our website, SignalSCV.com — we have to take care to sift fact from fiction, truth from rumor and innuendo. 

But clearly, SOMETHING happened at Boots & Brews. 

As of this writing, which is the Thursday prior to Sunday publication (the Sunday news magazine has earlier print deadlines than our daily newspapers), we really only have a couple of things confirmed. There were two reports of battery, and neither victim, according to sheriff’s officials, suffered major injuries.  

The Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station initially released very little information other than telling us the reports were filed Monday, two days after the concert. 

Police reports, under California law, are not themselves public records. However, the following pieces of information, under the California Public Records Act, should be public information regarding any incident reported to police:

“The time, substance, and location of all complaints or requests for assistance received by the agency and the time and nature of the response thereto, including, to the extent the information regarding crimes alleged or committed or any other incident investigated is recorded, the time, date, and location of occurrence, [and] the time and date of the report, the name, age, and current address of the victim…”

Yes, by the way. If you are a crime victim, your identity is public information. That doesn’t mean we will publish it — we routinely exercise discretion on such things — but it is part of the public record.

In many cases, it would be easier for a law enforcement agency to just release the report to us. But, they have the option to only release the information required by law. And, additional pieces of information are required to be released if an arrest is made — including, of course, the name of the person arrested and the charges he or she is expected to face.

But, regarding Boots & Brews, for most of this week, we had none of that. For several days, the rest of last weekend’s details were left to the wilds of Facebook and Twitter.  

On Thursday, we reiterated our request for those pieces of information, which we initially had requested on Monday. On Thursday, we received a reply with a bit more detail, which we planned to publish in a news story Thursday afternoon. The upshot: Two incidents in which women reported being attacked, and one of the attackers was a woman. The second victim could not describe her attacker because she was pushed to the ground and kicked while she was down.

As far as we know, neither victim was transported by ambulance and no arrests were made.

There were much more sensational accounts being put forth this week on social media, mostly secondhand or even third-hand accounts, but so far we don’t have any official confirmation of those particular details and we have no way of knowing which details are credible and which ones are not. In fact, one of the Facebook users making the most noise about the incident is doing so under a fake name. 

And that puts us in a bit of a quandary. Some other media outlets chose to run with some of the unconfirmed information. Hey, it’s sensational. It gets eyeballs. But we strive for a higher standard than that. 

I explained this to a person who sent us an angry letter asking why we hadn’t reported all the details. Apparently we are expected to either A) be clairvoyant or B) have 100% faith in anything we see on Facebook.

She said her daughter was one of the victims. I replied to her email and invited her and her daughter to be interviewed by a reporter. Her daughter did in fact call our crime reporter, and as of Thursday, we were waiting to hear back from her because she was speaking to an attorney first before agreeing to be interviewed.

So, there’s potential progress.

Her first-person account would be an important part of a responsible news story, and so is the additional information we received Thursday from law enforcement, as well as any additional information that will be forthcoming from the Sheriff’s Department’s pending investigation. 

Contrary to what many of the Facebook trolls have been saying, we can’t simply repeat whatever we see on social medial and treat it as gospel. 

Also, as horrendous as these incidents might have been, they were isolated — and there was a prominent security and law enforcement presence at the concert. Unfortunately, it only takes a few A-holes to disrupt an otherwise peaceful event, giving the event a figurative black eye and giving victims very real ones.

I understand victims’ frustration. If something awful happened, we should be able to shine a light on that. On the flip side, it would also be irresponsible to report the story without some level of verification, or to paint the concert as an event that was totally out of control. 

I was there — it wasn’t. And I think it would be a shame if these incidents, whatever they were, prevented the annual event from returning to our community next year. Maybe there are lessons the Boots & Brews organizers, the sheriff’s station and the city can learn from this, but in my opinion, based on what I saw, canceling future events would be an over-reaction.

Does that mean these incidents didn’t happen? No, it doesn’t. In fact I tend to believe that the basic circumstances we’ve heard about were real. But that doesn’t mean the event has to go away, and it also doesn’t relieve us, as a media outlet, from our responsibility and obligation to seek the truth and report it, from credible, identifiable sources. 

We always welcome such sources to come forward, and we always ask local law enforcement to be as forthcoming as possible when it comes to releasing public information on incidents in our community.

Meanwhile, I’m thankful for the security and sheriff’s presence that did exist at Boots & Brews — especially those guys up on the ridge.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter:  @TimWhyte.  

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