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McAllen chief: social media chatter added extra layer in attempted robbery case

August 7, 2018

McALLEN — Social media was already abuzz with accounts of an emergency situation at La Plaza Mall on July 28, when a local county constable’s office took to Facebook to urge residents to stay away from the popular shopping destination that draws large weekend crowds from both sides of the border.

At 12:48 p.m., more than 20 minutes after McAllen police dispatch first radioed its officers of a robbery in progress and possible shots fired near the mall’s food court, the Hidalgo County Precinct 4 office posted an alarming message on its Facebook page that read: “Active Shooter at the McAllen Plaza Mall Stay Away from the area! Several law enforcement agencies heading to the scene.”

The post has since been shared more than 2,900 times and was widely cited by media — both local and national — in their initial reporting, as well as circulated among concerned residents left wondering if they had family or friends at the mall.

By 1:58 p.m., the constable’s post was updated to tell a very different story, reading: “McAllen Police Chief advising it was a robbery attempt at a jewelry store inside the plaza mall. Several law enforcement agencies responded to the incident. All suspects taken into custody.”

McAllen police confirmed in a news release that same day that shots were not fired, saying: “Breaking glass cases may have been interpreted as shooting … We have a no shooting event.”

In a July 30 interview, Constable Atanacio “J.R.” Gaitan stood by his office’s initial post despite it not being based on information from the McAllen Police Department — the lead agency that received the 9-1-1 calls — but from “the first initial calls” his agency received from community members.

He did not specify whether any of the callers were at La Plaza Mall.

The post was published on the social media channel while deputies with the constable’s office were driving to the scene, Gaitan said.

“We didn’t know what the situation was until we got there,” Gaitan said, adding, “If we would never have gotten the calls, we would have never put (the post) out. We gotta go by what we hear.”

A week after the attempted robbery of fine jewelers Deustch & Deutsch, McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said he doesn’t blame social media users for contributing to the spread of false information.

“Social media is part of our environment today,” Rodriguez said, but noted that, “There is a different responsibility when we are in law enforcement and we communicate without verifying, when that source of information is social media.

“I think we have a responsibility that comes with our positions to make sure we don’t aggravate a situation carelessly. The product of something like that can be that people can get hurt.”

This sentiment was echoed by San Juan Police Chief Juan Gonzalez, an executive board member for the Texas Police Chiefs Association, who said in an email that social media is “the way the public accesses law enforcement information on active incidents,” but noted “the cons against using a platform to connect with the public especially in reporting a fluid incident, is that any improper tweet or post on the departments social media platform can create panic, chaos, confusion by residents and law enforcement.”

The police department received upwards of a dozen calls from concerned citizens in the wake of the first call at 12:24 p.m. of “multiple armed males” inside the mall, according to offense reports released by the McAllen Municipal Court last week that paint a picture of chaos and confusion.

One report reads: “As I was approaching La Plaza Mall … I heard over the radio … that a person was running in the parking lot of Dillard’s with an assault rifle … dispatch was also informed that there were several individuals running in the upper deck of the east multilevel parking lot.”

“More of the concerns that we heard throughout that day were distinguishing between who was who where and why as opposed to the event itself,” Rodriguez said. “The event itself was over with almost instantaneously.”

He credits the presence of off-duty McAllen police officers who quickly “turned what could have been a deadly situation into seven people in custody, (with) no property loss.”

The outcry on social media of an active shooter, a situation that has became all too common today, led multiple law enforcement agencies to descend on the mall, among them agents with Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Texas Department of Public Safety, some of whom were in civilian clothes, according to offense reports.

Rodriguez called these “mass responses” “uncontrolled” and “undirected” in an interview Monday, and said law enforcement agencies working in Hidalgo County need to work on “better communicating, better coordinating” and developing a more coordinated response to emergencies.

“We’ve got to continue to meet, we’ve got to continue to train, we’ve got to continue to do table-top exercises (simulated emergency situations), and we’ve got to continue to develop a regional response, one that has command and controlled structure in it,” he said.

“Effectively what we had was people responding to … some information coming across, ultimately sourced from social media accounts,” the chief said. “We know (social media is) part of the landscape we work in today, but when you are law enforcement there needs to be a certain level of filtering and validating before you basically load up the truck and run everybody down there without knowing.”

The chief has multiple meetings planned this week to discuss what this multi-agency response will look like in the future and what lessons can be learned from the La Plaza incident.

The sheer presence of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in Valley cities like McAllen is not unique, rather the number of personnel is unlike other areas, the chief said, noting that it is a good thing for the community.

His advice to the public about an emergency situation being shared on social media is to find and listen for official information.

“Pause and look for confirmation from reliable sources, and reliable sources can only come through you from the outlets, from the media outlets,” he said.

The police department’s investigation into the attempted robbery remains ongoing.

All seven suspects, who were arrested on aggravated robbery and failure to identify charges, “claim to be Mexicans with Mexican residency,” Rodriguez said, noting, “We don’t believe that they are here legally. We have reason to believe that some of them have been previously deported.”

The department is investigating whether the men could also face organized crime-type offenses or federal charges and whether anyone else is connected to the case.

msmith@themonitor.com

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