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Bystander uses Facebook Live to show Little Rock shooting scene; live streams new trend

Graphic videos on social media can help or hurt, some say

A gruesome, 6½-minute Facebook Live video shot on a Little Rock street corner earlier this month illustrated the latest convergence of technology and crime that has some law enforcement officials concerned and social media users at odds.

In the video, recorded moments after a March 6 shooting, mortally wounded Deontre Rhodes lay facedown on the concrete next to a pool of blood that had spread from his body. The 19-year-old remained motionless on the sidewalk -- his right arm awkwardly crooked, his orange-soled sneakers curled inward, his hand holding a cellphone.

In the background, emergency sirens blared and shocked bystanders gathered.

One of the bystanders used his cellphone to live-stream the scene to his Facebook page. Within hours, the video had drawn hundreds of thousands of views. More than a week later, the number was up to more than 2.2 million, and the video had been shared by more than 41,000 people.

It also drew more than 21,000 online comments, many from people offering prayers for the family of the teenager, who died in a local hospital two days after the shooting.

But the video, and the growing trend of live-streaming crime scenes over the Internet, has also drawn contentious debate between people who say it is inappropriate to shoot graphic live video at a crime scene and others who say that is exactly what people need to see.

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Live-streamed video could compromise witness statements and have a detrimental impact on an investigation, said Little Rock Police Department spokesman officer Steve Moore.

But, he said, it's another example of new technology that requires police to adjust.

"It's always a challenge in law enforcement to keep up with technology," Moore said. "It seems like we're kind of always a little bit behind."

No arrests have been made in Rhodes' death and the investigation is still ongoing.

Graphic Facebook Live videos have captured national and international headlines since the company began providing its user-driven video service to all users in April 2016.

Since then, Facebook Live has been used to live-stream shootings, beatings and the aftermath of a fatal officer-involved shooting in Minnesota.

The video service allows those with accounts to record video live with their cell phone.

A number of graphic, high-profile Facebook Live videos have forced the public to grapple with the idea that regular people now have the power to broadcast live, sometimes reaching a mass audience online, said John Wihbey, an assistant professor at Northeastern University.

"I think it sent some shock waves across society," said Wihbey, who studies the intersection of social media and news media, emphasizing on viral news.

Last July, the girlfriend of Philando Castile began recording live after a police officer shot him during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Castile's death sparked protests against the killing of black men by police officers.

Four people were arrested earlier this year after a live video broadcast on Facebook showed the beating of a teenager in Chicago with mental health challenges, according to media reports.

Rodney Dickerson, the bystander who shot the video after Rhodes' shooting, said he's received death threats for his Facebook Live video. He said he began recording to have proof of the aftermath of the shooting, and to review in case he forgot any details.

"I was just trying to help [the victim]," he said, mentioning that he rushed to the teenager to check his vital signs after the shooting and called 911.

Objections to the video have mostly centered on its graphic nature. "It's so disrespectful to have this video up of him laying like that," one person commented on Facebook.

Others argued it needed to remain up.

"A part of me want[s] him to take it down, but reality is we need to see this, we need to know what's going on, we need to get so upset that we fight back," another wrote.

Pastor Terrance Long of The Mercy Church in southwest Little Rock said the video was shared too soon and urged people to use discretion while using social media.

"[A live video] can help and it can hurt. And today, we saw how it can be a hurt," Long said the day of the shooting.

But while a graphic live video is tough to watch, Wihbey said, it can bring attention societal issues and has the ability to cut across social circles.

"We may as a society need to see that more often," Wihbey said.

Moore said the videos can taint witness testimony, and can prevent authorities from being the first to notify family members of a death or injury. A live video can also make public initial statements witnesses give to police -- information that is sometimes unvetted, Moore said.

"When it's live like that, there's no taking that back," he said.

But Moore said a Facebook Live video can also help investigators, whether it means confirming witness statements or providing critical information that can solve a case.

Laurent Sacharoff, an associate law professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said there's a range of positive and negative impacts that can come from posting videos of a crime scene.

Recording the scene can provide evidence that can be used to prosecute a culprit, he said, and can also be used to clear a defendant of any wrongdoing.

Wihbey said it's almost impossible to moderate live video content in real time, but the decision Facebook must make is whether to remove a graphic video after it's been posted.

Facebook, for the most part, has kept graphic content up if it meets a certain public interest standard or highlights an issue that needs to be exposed, he said.

"I actually think that's a pretty good thing," Wihbey said.

Wihbey doesn't expect graphic live videos to go away in the foreseeable future, unless Facebook decides to change its standards or its terms of service.

A Section on 03/20/2017

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