New Mexico

As Las Cruces Facebook group grows, so does its social responsibility

The Las Cruces Community Watch's Facebook cover photo

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - When lifelong Las Cruces resident Reese Luckie joined the Facebook group, Las Cruces Community Watch, he had no idea how large the group would grow.

“I saw it as great potential," Luckie said. "That it could really help people and have a positive impact on the community that I grew up in.”

Luckie's desire to keep Las Cruces informed ultimately led to his decision to volunteer his time as an administrator of the group, which now boasts close to 16,000 members.

"I really didn't think it would ever get to this point," Luckie said.

To put that in perspective, census data estimates that the city of Las Cruces has a population of just more than 100,000 people.

"I think we've got a good base of people who truly care about the community," said Polo Orta, another group administrator.

Each day, there are dozens of posts in the group, ranging from news articles to traffic tips to photos of crime scenes around town.

"When you see a bunch of cops going down the street, you get scared," Luckie said. "But if you know what they're going for, you know what they're dealing with, I think it makes people feel safer."

However, as the size of the group has grown, so has the group administrators' responsibility: They must now monitor it 24/7.

For the first time Tuesday, local law enforcement and government agencies invited administrators of the group to attend a monthly meeting, usually reserved for public information officers and members of the media. Multiple agencies addressed concerns about some of the false or unverified information posted in the group.

“It’s important to have information that’s fast, but more important to have information that’s accurate when it goes out to our community," said Jo Galván, a spokeswoman for the Las Cruces Public Schools.

Galván said, on several occasions, parents in the district have rushed to pull their children out of school after coming across concerning posts in the group.

“We don’t want parents to be worrisome that schools aren’t safe," Galván said. "We have processes in place, and we’re going to exchange some of that information with the Las Cruces (Community) Watch, because they are the ears and eyes throughout the community."

Numerous public agencies, including Las Cruces Public Schools, the Las Cruces Police Department, the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office, the District Attorney's office, the FBI and Customs and Border Protection attended the meeting.

“More people are using social media, obviously word spreads faster," said Dan Trujillo, a spokesman for the Las Cruces Police Department.

He encouraged the administrators of the group to constantly monitor the posts and delete comments that could be misleading or inaccurate.

“It could compromise a (police) investigation if we have information that people are reading, and then formulating their own opinions from what they see on social media," Trujillo said.

Four group administrators attended the meeting, including its founder, Amanda Stahl. Each expressed an interest in communicating with law enforcement and monitoring the group as regularly as possible.

“It’s good that it’s brought to our attention, because we wouldn’t know that we were causing problems with that if nobody had told us," Luckie said. "We don’t want to compromise (any) investigation.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Hector Balderas praised the administrators for being so receptive to the concerns addressed, but stressed they must always take the initiative to verify information posted in the group.

"I think the most important thing is that the group communicates with local law enforcement, because these are citizens who are working hard to inform the public and also protect their communities," said James Hallinan, a spokesman for Balderas. "They want to work with law enforcement, and that’s what we saw today.”

The job certainly isn't easy: Every single administrator has a full-time job on top of their duties monitoring posts in Las Cruces Community Watch with its thousands of members. 

In the meeting, the group's founder, Amanda Stahl, likened her base of community members who contribute information to having thousands of reporters in one place.

"They're our eyes and ears," Stahl said.

"It is a great resource," said Nick Miller, a journalism professor at New Mexico State University. "But with being a great resource comes great responsibility."

Miller said the administrators of the group must be very cognizant to monitor the accuracy of the posts and comments.

"What we say, what we report, is very important for the society at large," Miller said.

The Facebook group's slogan is "You heard it here first."

In Tuesday's meeting, Stahl said she has thousands of reporters in Las Cruces Community Watch ready to post information the second they see it.

That statement concerned Miller.

"I think it’s better to be second and right than first and wrong," Miller said.

Every day, he teaches journalism students to verify information before they publish or broadcast it. He said getting the facts wrong could have an immediate and lasting negative influence on society.

"Sometimes being first brings with it danger," Miller said. "If you’re trying to just be first all the time, you can get it wrong. So you do have to take that extra breath, pause, and think, ‘Do I have it right?’"