Preston: Avoid social media hysteria, let officers do their jobs

MORGANTOWN — Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston cautioned members of city council on Tuesday that “letting social media control the agenda is very dangerous to everybody — law enforcement, victims and suspects.”

Preston’s comments were in regard to a Facebook post that claimed a man was the victim of a hate crime due to his sexual orientation in the Chestnut Street/University Avenue parking garage early Sunday morning.

City Manager Paul Brake said that while, “We’re not typically in the practice of responding to Facebook,” several members of council brought the post to his attention prompting Preston’s remarks at Tuesday’s council meeting. The post claims the responding officer failed to properly support the alleged victim.

Preston said that after reviewing the garage surveillance footage and following through with proper investigative procedure, three arrest warrants have been issued, including one for the man alleged to be the victim in the social media post.

He said alcohol was a factor in the incident.

“In this particular case, what they found was the initial reported victim on social media turned out to be the aggressor and the instigator in this case,” Preston said.

He went on to say that despite the social media post claiming the man received significant injuries, the individual did not want EMS called on the evening in question.

Preston explained that the footage shows the alleged victim walking to another person’s vehicle and confronting them. A short time later, the two exchange shoves and go to the ground.

“This is what’s referred to in our profession as mutual combat or disorderly conduct,” Preston said, explaining that a third person joined in an apparent attempt to break up the melee. Warrants have been issued for all three.

Preston said names and surveillance footage would not be released by the department at this time.

“Please allow the police to investigate the reports that come to them. We’ve been flooded with phone calls at the police station because of this social media post demanding that we arrest people and asking why did we do the wrong thing and why isn’t the officer suspended for not doing his job,” Preston said.

“The officer did do his job … We do not have the luxury of rushing to judgment. We have to make our judgments based on fact.”

Preston said that per state code, an officer cannot typically make an arrest for a crime that did not occur in their presence and that the proper investigative procedures were followed. He said that if additional information comes to light additional charges could be filed in the future.

“It is an active criminal investigation. However we do have three warrants that have been issued this evening,” Preston said.

Councilor Barry Wendell said he was among the members of council who brought the issue forward after he was contacted by a number of friends online regarding the issue, which drew hundreds of comments. He said he cautioned posters against rushing to judgment in an attempt to demonize the police.

“We’ll see what happens with this developing story, but apparently things were not as portrayed, as Chief Preston said tonight,” Wendell noted. “I have learned from this not to get involved in these cases.”

The Facebook post was made by someone claiming to be the alleged victim’s brother.

In other news from council, Mayor Bill Kawecki said the riverboat Pennsylvania native Michael Hughes planned to bring to Morgantown’s riverfront is not going to happen.

“After better than a two-year go at it, the person, Michael Hughes, who had brought the boat to us that was so encouraging is finally giving up and putting the boat up for sale,” Kawecki said. “Unless we can find another mechanism, it will not be an attraction at our riverfront.”

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