Jody Cunningham was a cowboy. By all accounts a gentleman, he was an Army veteran who served his country with honor. Having made his living training horses and working on cattle ranches across the country, Jody was a Purina ambassador and had just recently settled on a ranch a few miles south of Stephenville.
And when I picked up his trail last Sunday just after sundown, I knew none of this.
I expect most of us will never know what prompts the hastened and deliberate meeting of man with his ultimate destiny. For investigators it is, in effect, a motive without a crime. From the outside, we feel compelled to introduce reason to an act that might seem otherwise unreasonable. To speculate as to what might lead a man to such an act makes you human. But to make assumptions about the man just makes you a presumptuous jerk.
The recent appearance of social media groups and websites allowing us to follow these news stories in real time has enormous informational and public service potential. The creators of these sites presumably attempt to disseminate accurate and timely information to their members, a lofty endeavor too frequently hijacked by a handful of trolls and halfwits that have watched one too many reruns of Walker Texas Ranger. For alarmists and those prone to adolescent gossip, the forum has descended into an irresistible spectacle of infectious ignorance.
Sunday’s search for Mr. Cunningham became just such a spectacle. Despite the efforts of responsible administrators, Facebook threads quickly became rife with speculation and misinformation spewed by those reduced to elevating their own dismal lives by capitalizing on another man’s adversity. Well, here’s a newsflash for you: Your life still sucks.
Though I’ve served in various capacities in the fire service for over 25 years, I wasn’t called into Sunday’s incident as a member of a fire department. I was asked to come in as an additional resource simply for my proximity to and unique familiarity with the terrain. I checked in with Incident Command at Erath County Volunteer Fire Rescue’s (ECVFR) command trailer, was given a radio, and quickly assigned to investigators tracking Mr. Cunningham. I joined assets from the Texas Department of Public Safety (TXDPS), the Erath County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO), and ECVFR. We found Mr. Cunningham shortly thereafter.
And remarkably, not once did we have to consult Chuck Norris or Facebook.
It has been my good fortune to work with a number of outstanding volunteers and paid emergency services organizations over the years, and that’s as well as I’ve ever seen it done. Law enforcement and rescue personnel cannot divine information, they must gather information and then procure and utilize resources accordingly. And in an incident like we responded to last Sunday, they must balance the necessities of search and rescue operations with maintaining the integrity of an investigation. It is a daunting challenge, no matter how many episodes of CSI you may have seen.
Though it may appear rather benign on the surface, the posting of false or misleading information, speculation or hearsay during the course of any emergency response is at best irresponsible, and at worst dangerous. It may potentially divert resources and superfluously erodes confidence in very capable agencies. It trivializes the commitment and training of our volunteers and it is unfair to victims and their families.
Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to sit down with ECSO Chief Deputy Jason Upshaw, Lt. Randy Fowler, and ECVFR coordinator Chris Brooks for an informal discussion on the effects of social media on law enforcement and fire-rescue operations. As a group, they are somewhat less hostile about the topic than I am and even outlined some of the positive effects social media can have on their jobs.
“For us it is a double-edged sword,” as Upshaw put it, acknowledging both his frustration with social media and the integral role it played in the prompt resolution of a kidnapping last May.
Upshaw was quick to confirm that administrators of these sites have been responsive to requests by the sheriff’s department to remove inappropriate and inaccurate information, but the task of monitoring these sites when members have the ability to post in real-time often presents a challenge.
“Be more mindful of telling the truth,” responded Lt. Fowler when asked what might improve their complicated relationship with social media, adding that hearsay and conjecture are often stated as fact. Pointing out that it can be a great "investigative tool," both investigators acknowledged that social media must be utilized with caution as reporting of inaccurate information may cost valuable time and resources.
When asked to speak directly to online comments concerning public safety specific to last Sunday’s search operations, Upshaw noted, “We notified every resident and searched every structure within our search area. We felt very confident that no residents were in danger.”
Upshaw further elaborated that in the event that there had been a threat to citizens, the county’s Code Red emergency notification system would have been immediately activated.
Although Sunday’s incident was largely an investigative effort, Brooks pointed out that social media presents a very different set of challenges for fire-rescue operations. While misinformation and misguided criticism online seldom result in more than just frustration for firefighters and EMS workers, it may be terribly invasive and result in needless suffering for patients, victims and their families. The real-time informational capabilities of social media may help to divert traffic from an accident scene, but as often draws smart phone wielding drivers eager to post the latest tragedy on social media. Not only is this dangerous to emergency workers, but as Upshaw put it: “People don’t understand how hard it is to do a death notification. What do you think it’s like when they saw it two hours ago on Facebook?”
When we gathered at the sheriff’s office on Tuesday, I told these men that I believed Sunday’s incident was as well executed as any I have ever seen. And I meant it. But there is a predictable phenomenon that takes place among men like these. As our half hour meeting crossed the hour mark, I sat in silence and listened as the conversation shifted to what they thought they did well, and what they could do better next time. It was an honest self-assessment, not as a result of criticism – but because they are consummate professionals.
After leaving our meeting, I realized that I had failed to ask the only question I had written down in advance.
“What would you like readers to take away from this column?”
I would never be so presumptuous as to speak for all law enforcement or firefighters, but today I think I can speak for these. I expect it would be something like this:
Jody Cunningham was a cowboy and a gentleman. He served his country with honor. And he will be missed.
Jon Koonsman is a rancher and 6th generation Erath County resident. He is married with two sons and one daughter and resides on his family's ranch near Duffau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.