GAINES TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — If you want to define the cliché ‘a parent’s worst nightmare,’ this may be it: A mom says she scared away a man trying to steal her baby from a shopping cart in the parking lot of the Gaines Township Target store.
But it wasn’t a call to 911 that got the Kent County Sheriff’s Department involved — it was a Facebook post, and it went viral.
“We become concerned when we see reports like this one the internet just like everybody else does,” Kent County Undersheriff Michelle Young said.
Wednesday afternoon, detectives talked to the person who made the original post. She maintains the incident happened but said that at the time, she wasn’t sure how to interpret the man’s actions. She just wanted to get the word out to others, so she posted her story on social media.
The undersheriff says she should have called authorities “and let that story get vetted.”
“Because when it’s vetted, we draw in additional details and we have a better picture when we release a public safety statement,” Young continued.
Now that the mother has contacted detectives, they’ll have more information to work with.
Crimes posted to social media, real or not, represent a new problem for law enforcement. Often, the posts take on a life of their own.
“Sometimes it’s very well-meaning people who heard a story from either a neighbor, heard a story from friends and maybe misunderstood key elements of it and want to tell people,” Young said.
Or, she said, “Sometimes it’s malicious.”
In 2013, Grand Rapids police went to their own Facebook page to dispel the social media rumor that human traffickers were kidnapping women from the parking lot of the Meijer at 28th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue SE.
Police can’t simply ignore the posts, so they have to investigate — and that takes resources away from other investigations.
The posts also generate fear among the public. While some view the world as a scary place, with danger around every corner, police say the kinds of crimes described in these posts are very rare.
“You end up causing somewhat of a hysterical circumstance, where now people are overly cautious to a point where it’s not healthy for them to be overly cautious,” Young said.
Wednesday, Target provided this statement about the situation:
“At Target, our guests are at the center of everything we do and our commitment to creating a safe and secure shopping environment in our stores is unwavering. As part of this commitment to safety, we have robust procedures, policies and trainings in place to ensure that our stores are safe places to shop and work.
“We take matters like this very seriously, and we have looked into this situation in partnership with local law enforcement. At this time, we are not able to confirm this incident occurred.”