Westmoreland County Coroner begins to post notices on Twitter, Facebook

From the December 10, 2011, Tribune-Review

By Paul Peirce
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, December 10, 2011

Aficionados of the Westmoreland County Coroner's Office don't approach Lady Gaga's 16.7 million followers or even pop star Justin Bieber's 15.2 million devotees, but Coroner Ken Bacha's office issues instant notification of public rulings via Twitter and Facebook.

In mid-October, the Westmoreland row office became the first in the state to offer official public releases via popular social media. Other coroners are watching the foray with interest.

Such information had been available through email on the county's e-Alert system. Bacha said the office was looking for a way to more quickly disseminate public information.

"It was pretty much changed for convenience ... to get the information out there more quickly," Chief Deputy Coroner Paul Cycak said.

"Previously, if there was a case we were called to, let's say that occurred Friday night, the previous system was set up only to provide information during normal county business hours -- that's 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. So, the media had to wait until Monday morning to get the information,"he said.

"This way, we at least have a system in place to provide the media with that public information during other hours," Cycak said.

Deputy Coroner Josh Zappone handles the office's Twitter feeds and Facebook page. In its first 59 days, Zappone said, the office's Twitter feed had increased from "just a couple" to 47 followers.

"It's been going pretty good so far, I think. The number of followers keeps incrementally increasing," Zappone said.

Zappone said the social media feeds are a way to provide information to reporters, who may be out in the field and in need of the information.

"We wanted to do it in a manner as quickly and efficiently as possible. Also, it is public information, so we decided to make it available to members of the general public who want it ... there's some police officers, people from other agencies and members of the public who follow the office on Twitter or the Facebook page," Zappone said.

Most of the information involves the cause and manner of death, the time of death and the agencies investigating. The information is still being released via email.

All feeds and postings must first be approved by Bacha or Cycak before release. Some information is withheld at the request of investigators.

For example, Bacha's office has not released some details on the deaths of a couple found bludgeoned inside a Washington Township on Aug. 28. No arrests have been made.

The office has ruled it a double homicide, but other information has not been released at the request of District Attorney John Peck and Washington Township police.

Other coroner's offices and Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams' office are not so ready to jump aboard the social-media bandwagon.

To obtain public information on the cause and manner of deaths in Allegheny and Fayette counties, reporters must telephone Williams' office in Pittsburgh and Fayette Coroner Phillip E. Reilly's office in Uniontown with specific names. In Indiana County, reporters obtain information from Coroner Michael Baker via detailed emails. Washington County Coroner Tim Warco sends faxes.

"To tell you the truth, I really never thought about it, to release that information," Williams said.

He noted his office issues about 2,000 death certificates a year, and providing information via social-network methods "would be difficult and potentially controversial."

"Sooner or later, I can see some fallout from a family member," Williams said. "But I'll probably talk with Kenny (Bacha) about it."

Baker said he will also keep an eye on how social media releases work.

"It's certainly an interesting idea. We get it out there as quickly as we can and releasing (via e-mail and fax) makes it so much easier than calling all the media outlets and reporters individually. I have a long-standing policy of being responsible for anything released from this office and, personally, I would be concerned about maintaining security of some social network sites," Baker said.

Washington Deputy Coroner Jean L'Altrelli said that office tries to keep up with technological advances.

"Because of the number of reporters that want information and the ways available to access information, we are exploring issuing public reports via email rather than faxes," she said.

Fayette Deputy Coroner Jesse Langer said that office has no plans to change its policies.

Paul Peirce can be reached at ppeirce@tribweb.com or 724-850-2860.

Read more: Coroner begins to post notices on Twitter, Facebook - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/westmoreland/print_7...

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