Is social media hurting downtown? Downtown merchants link drop in foot traffic to online perception | Local News

ST. ALBANS CITY — What’s happening in downtown St. Albans?

Take a look at the online chatter on Facebook, and the digital world seems to be reflecting the darker side of recent events.

“People have lost all faith in the judicial systems,” a “top fan” of the St. Albans Police Department’s Facebook page said on a post concerning a recent string of thefts. “People don’t feel safe. People are scared. People are on the brink of taking matters into their own hands.”

Spurred by a rash of property crimes throughout St. Albans, a few online community groups have expressed dismay at the current state of the city. 

Downtown business owners, however, said last Wednesday, June 5, during a merchant’s meeting that social media chatter is having real effects outside Facebook, drying up midday foot traffic as the public changes its shopping habits due to social media’s influence.

While many business owners themselves have been victims of property crimes, they contend that ceding the public space will likely only create additional problems.

“We want the focus to be where the change can happen,” Lt. Jason Wetherby of SAPD told the group. “We’re making multiple arrests daily, and we’re trying to educate people that it’s happening.”

Social media’s effects

Business owners kicked off the conversation on crime by identifying trouble spots they’ve personally seen. A few back alleys have drawn people using drugs who are looking to escape the public’s sight, and the business owners involved coordinated around trying to lock down the area to push out the drug use from happening nearby. 

But the discussion soon turned to social media. Downtown business owners have been fielding questions from customers coming in with concerns about downtown’s safety, and they noted that in recent weeks, the online conversation around downtown has taken a more sinister – sometimes threatening – tone.

Postings about retail theft, convenience store break-ins and people dealing with homelessness have all drawn negative commenters. Some took aim at both the police and court systems for being ineffectual, and another varied group of commenters was threatening to start shooting potential suspects.

Meanwhile, camera recordings of perpetrators began to propagate online, depicting a few of the more well-known repeat offenders around town trying to get into cars in driveways. Another group online started calling on St. Albans citizens to show up to St. Albans City Council to get answers from the local government on how to solve the issue.

For those online looking in, downtown St. Albans started looking pretty dangerous. The reality – according to those who have their businesses downtown – is less dramatic.

“I can park anywhere, it’s fine. I can walk up and down the street, it’s fine. St. Albans is a great place to shop and eat,” Bayberry Cottage’s owner Sharon Holcomb said. “I’ve never felt unsafe in downtown St. Albans.”

With that said, St. Albans crime is likely up compared to just a few months ago. Warmer weather almost always arrives with more criminal activity, but local police aren’t exactly sure of how prevalent recent property crime has become in comparison to previous summers.

The recent social media phenomenon, however, has largely latched onto anecdotal evidence of increases in criminality. The more egregious rumors propagated online – such as exaggerations of roving crowds of lawless actors – aren’t reported to police.

“Nobody calls about this stuff,” Wetherby said.

Wetherby said he’s also seen unconfirmed information about crime from online chatter, and he said the police department had been working to educate people about how police are working to cut down on criminality. 

Facebook’s focus on engagement, however, likely doesn’t help. The social media giant has historically relied on highlighting the most controversial topics to keep people staring at their phone screens to bring in the most ad revenue. 

As business owners recognized Wednesday, it is not a good tool for constructive community conversations.

“We need to have these conversations, just not in a silo,” Wetherby said.

Normally, a local newspaper would help fill in the information gaps, but Facebook and other social media giants largely decimated Vermont’s newspaper industry in a 20-year-timespan. Since 2000, the number of people employed by Vermont’s newspaper industry has shrunk by 80%.

Finding solutions

Wetherby also gave business owners some insight into how police are tackling the St. Albans crime problem, as many repeat offenders are known by police. The biggest issue has been finding ways to provide people with the most effective avenue out of criminality.

Most institutions involved in policing efforts are now dealing with backlogs. Court systems throughout Vermont – including Franklin County – are working through a high caseload in order to play catch up as they deal with what’s now coming in, and the Department of Corrections faces capacity challenges related to housing its complete prison population in the state. 

As a result, repeat offenders often have to wait months before such institutions have the necessary bandwidth to tackle their cases.

Complicating the issue is that many repeat offenders are also often dealing directly with substance abuse addictions. Wetherby said the SAPD utilizes its mental health clinician program to connect people with services, but it can be difficult if an individual isn’t ready and willing to move forward. 

“They either take (treatment) or they don’t,” Wetherby said. 

Either way, downtown business owners still have to deal with the problem. During Wednesday’s meeting, business owners also got a few tips from Wetherby about what they can do to make downtown safer.

“What can I do in that moment to stop someone from leaving with all my stuff?” Rail City Market owner Ashley Cleare asked.

Wetherby said business owners could attempt to stop a thief themselves, but they could be putting themselves at risk depending on the situation. 

Prevention, however, goes a long way. Wetherby said a few businesses have changed their layouts to help cashiers keep their eyes on customers. Others have instituted roving workers to make laps to deter people and push them out in order to stop the problem. 

Hopefully, making enough of a difference will have shoppers take notice. 

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