A Facebook profile containing a photograph of young men posing with guns has been cited as a factor in a police shooting that killed an 18-year-old robbery suspect last December.
The shooting death of Peyton Strickland during the course of a police raid has been big news in North Carolina but has not been widely reported. Strickland was a suspect in the assault and robbery of a University of North Carolina at Wilmington student whose two Sony PlayStaton 3 machines were stolen.
During the police raid on Strickland's house, a deputy mistook the sound of a battering ram for gunfire and shot through the door, killing the unarmed Strickland.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported this week that the Facebook photos of another suspect posing with two buddies while brandishing a friend's gun collection led the police to expect to encounter heavily armed resistance during the raid. The police were fortified with weapons in anticipation of coming up against AR-15 firearms they had seen in the photograph.
This is one of those cases where no amount of "what should have been" can replace what actually happened. Two of Strickland's friends pleaded guilty to the robbery, but even if Strickland was guilty of assault and robbery, his death was a tragedy. The deputy was cleared of charges, but his law enforcement career is over.
I give the News & Observer credit for trying to put the information about the Facebook photo into a cultural context. Since the testimony about the role of the photo came up during the grand-jury proceedings, it became an official part of the story. Reporter Mandy Locke addressed the cultural clashes between youth and adult authorities using social networks:
"Facebook.com and MySpace.com are virtual billboards for young people to proclaim who they are. But for many, these social-networking sites are places where they try on disguises, mimicking tough or provocative identities often counter to their honor-roll reality. For the police and school officials turning to these sites to monitor students and investigate crimes, navigating the space between pretending and endangering can be deadly."
I don't have any answers regarding this situation; only more questions. But with the "Miss New Jersey blackmail case" receiving abundant press coverage over the past week, I think it's only fair to consider the Strickland case when we think about the blurry line between private and public expression in the world of social networking, and the evolving real-world implications of having an online persona.