SAPD's New Text Alert System: Transparency Or An Unchecked Narrative?

The San Antonio Police Department's effort to spread more information to residents about potential dangers and other concerns may turn out to be a double sword for the department. The program notifies residents who opt in by texting "SAPD" to 39987 about crime trends, leading some criminal justice experts to praise the department for being more transparent and communicating with the public. But, as the Center for Research Director Dr. Howard Henderson told Texas Public Radio, news outlets play an important role in fact checking releases and holding police departments accountable for misinformation.

“I think that we understand the role that media plays, and it’s a very important role, and I think that by not using the media to disseminate information, you miss the benefit of having media fact-check what’s coming out to the general public, so I think there’s a natural risk,” Henderson said.

Without third-party insight to check facts, the text messaging alert system gives police an early advantage in establishing narratives unchallenged, points out Jarret Lovell, professor of Criminal Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

“If they’re sending out a counter narrative to a story that’s already in the news or they’re sending out brand new information about something that potentially has multiple angles, then that’s a problem because you don’t have the neutral party to interrogate authority,” Lovell said.

The San Antonio Police Department insists the new alert system is not meant to undercut news outlets but to provide information that normally is not included in news stories.

“We understand the important role that journalists play not only in getting information out to the public but also in accountability and this isn’t a tool that is intended to circumvent or replace journalism,” SAPD spokesperson Mariah Medina said.

The concern by criminologists of the police giving accurate, unbiased information is a legitimate concern, especially in the era of phone footage versus police testimony.

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