Police: Social media adds to anxiety after Florida shooting

HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Police increases their presence Wednesday at Pahoa High School in response to online threats of gun violence at Pahoa High, Keaau High School and Konawaena High School.

Hawaii Island’s police chief said the decision to post extra officers on public school campuses Wednesday in Puna and Kona was made because social media “fed into the anxiety” of the community in the wake of perceived threats of possible gun violence made on the internet.

Chief Paul Ferreira noted Wednesday that police identified the juveniles thought responsible for the posts, “so having the officers at the schools was just an extra precaution, pretty much to get the community comfortable, because there was a lot of anxiety.”

“On social media, everybody was picking up on it and reading into it,” Ferreira said. “It fed into the anxiety, because people were calling in to our dispatch, to our Pahoa station and to our Kona station, trying to find out what’s going on.”

Capt. Samuel Jelsma, the Puna police commander, said two patrol officers and two community policing officers spent the school day Wednesday at Pahoa High School, while four other officers, including a reserve officer and a recruit, kept the peace at Keaau High and Intermediate schools.

“No issues today, no incidents,” Jelsma said.

Maj. Robert Wagner, Area II Operations commander in Kona, said there were six officers at Konawaena High School, including a school resource officer assigned to Konawaena Middle School, which is on the same campus. He said no unusual incidents occurred Wednesday at the Kealakekua school.

According to Wagner and Jelsma, overtime was minimal because two Puna patrol officers were kept on duty three hours beyond the overnight shift, and a single Kona patrol officer earned an hour of overtime. All were assigned to take service calls to allow for the increased police presence at schools.

In Puna, a female student reported Tuesday that a 16-year-old girl posted Jan. 29 on Instagram that she would “bring a gun” to campus. Police opened a harassment case and routed it to Family Court for possible further action.

“Parents were alarmed, so we took appropriate measures,” Jelsma said. “Other than that post that was made at the end of January, there was nothing recent about an individual making a specific threat. But as a precaution, we put officers on both campuses.”

A 17-year-old Kona boy was charged with second-degree terroristic threatening, a misdemeanor, after allegedly referring online to “shooting up local schools.”

“Knowing social media and how it spread like a cancer (Tuesday) through the entire community … tells me it was new information that just popped up on the internet,” Wagner said. “Because there was a lot of people who called the police station about that posting on the internet, mainly parents who had kids in school. They were worried about that particular post.”

Both suspects were released to the custody of their parents.

The incidents came on the heels of a high school shooting last week in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people.

“I think the Florida thing has affected parents who have their kids in school,” Wagner said. “There’s a feeling of ‘this could happen anywhere,’ so they’re definitely on edge now. I’m not sure it necessarily put law enforcement on edge, but it put the public on edge.”

Jelsma described social media as “a double-edged sword.”

“There’s a lot of information that gets put out to the public immediately,” he said. “But at the same time, there’s the potential for inaccurate information to be posted, as well, and people, at times, take anything that’s posted as factual. So I think law enforcement needs to be aware of what’s been posted.

“It can be a benefit to us, but if there’s a lot of inaccurate information being posted, we have to be ready to respond and send out the facts, so everybody can make an informed decision.”

Wagner said police get “a lot of calls” concerning posts on social media.

“When we have those calls, we just look at the facts to see how credible it is or not,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff on social media that’s just totally wrong. It’s not even correct, not remotely correct. So we have to do our homework to figure out, ‘What is this? Is this even legit?’ You have to make that determination, and from there determine what course of action we’ll be taking.”

In light of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Ferreira said police have to take even perceived threats online seriously.

“We do take it very seriously when there is a threat like that. So even though we identified the individuals involved, we made a decision to show a presence at the schools to calm everyone down,” he said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.