Is this public service or public shaming? | KUOW News and Information

Is this public service or public shaming?

Apr 20, 2018

In the photo above — posted by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office on Facebook and Twitter this week – a man sits on the ground after being Tased by police. He wears nothing but black underwear briefs and a rosary around his neck. His small dog looks up at the camera.

The language accompanying the photo on social media is light:

If you mix heroin and methamphetamine, you might just end up:
- wandering onto a farm with your dog
- hitting yourself with sticker bushes
- being tased by deputies
- getting arrested in nothing but your underwear

The Facebook post goes into more detail: The man had been yelling at cars as he walked along Military Road, east of Puyallup. He took off his pants, made a crown of twigs and flogged himself with prickly brambles.

Police were summoned. The person who dialed 911 held the man at gunpoint as the man begged him to shoot, to “end his life.”

Several of us here at KUOW wondered if the tweet wasn’t too flippant. Here was a man being shamed for what appeared to be a drug addiction. It seemed like an old school public service announcement, hearkening back to “This is your brain on drugs” commercials of the late 1980s.

I called Detective Ed Troyer of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office. Troyer, the longtime media spokesman for the department, who said he had written the Facebook post. He bristled when I suggested that the language might have been unfair to the man. 

“Are we shaming him? Absolutely not,” Troyer said. “We have people killed down here because of people acting out on meth and heroin. It’s a reality of what’s happening.”

The man is not mentally ill, Troyer said. In jail, Troyer said the man told officers that he’d taken a “bad batch of something” and that he was sorry for his behavior.

Most of the commenters on Facebook and Twitter found the story funny, and added quips themselves. Or they wondered about the dog, named Sophie. (She is currently at the Humane Society as her owner sits in jail.)

A small number of commenters were offended.

“I don’t think it’s right to shame for any reason,” wrote Alli K. Doyle on Facebook. Doyle said she had been a mental health specialist in the Army. “It’s bullying, unproductive.”

I sent the Facebook post to professionals who work with drug addicts. Caleb Banta-Green, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, specializes in drug abuse: “They appear to be trying to be funny,” he said.

But reading the post made him nauseous, Banta-Green said.

“It’s the idea that we can humiliate certain classes of people, because we see them as less than human, and we do that with people who use drugs,” he said. “It makes the person different, 'other' and weird.”

Banta-Green didn’t want this article to be solely negative, he said in an email.

“Perhaps you could share some cool work that Tacoma Fire is doing distributing Naloxone via a grant from my organization?” he said.

Mary Kay High, a public defender in Tacoma, looked at the post while we spoke by phone.

“This is really sad,” High said. “I just wish that everyone would be treated with respect and dignity. A person’s distress – it’s no place for it to be ridiculed.”

She continued: “I know the officers do a really hard job. But it relays a message to our community that is probably not the message they intend or want to relay. A community's mores or community perceptions are built around these kinds of posts.”

Shilo Murphy, of the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, a needle exchange in Seattle’s University District, speculated about the drugs the man used. 

“We have been finding more meth laced with bath salts, so it is possible that he was using multiple drugs without knowing,” Murphy said. “I’ve been saying for a long time that we are having increased use of meth without any county or city plan for how to support people who use meth.”

The needle exchange has a meth pipe program that has been successful, he said, and needle users are switching to smoking because of that access.

He said his organization is seeing far more meth users than opiate users, even though government agencies are focusing on opiates.

Back to that Facebook post, though, and Troyer’s thoughts. It shows what police have to deal with, he said, at a time when there are more mental-health related calls than burglaries. The post also highlights the responding officer’s de-escalation skills, Troyer said.

Troyer said the post is in keeping with the tone of his department’s Facebook page, which he noted is the third most popular Facebook page in Pierce County.

“We keep it a little bit lighter, we use different things on top to grab attention,” Troyer said. “I’ll admit we do do that, or you wouldn’t be calling me."

Pierce County Sheriff's office has since deleted the original tweet and removed the flippant language from the Facebook post. Screenshots of the original post and tweet are below.

The original tweet from Pierce County Sheriff from April 17, 2018. The included link sends people to their Facebook post with more details of the incident. The tweet has since been deleted.
Credit Twitter

The original language at the top of the Facebook post from April 17. According to Facebook logs, it was edited the afternoon of April 18 to remove the top language. The rest of the post is still public.
Credit Facebook