Mugshots, comments banned for good from BPD’s Facebook page

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton selectmen on Tuesday ordered the Bridgton Police Department to stop posting mug shots of arrested persons on their Facebook page and to prevent the public from commenting on the arrests, ending a practice some felt was demeaning and too open to abuse. The department can still list arrests, the board said, but only through providing a link on their Facebook page to the town’s website, which is static and not interactive.

The 3–2 vote, which ends months of controversy, came on a motion by Bob McHatton that was seconded by Bernie King and supported by Doug Taft, but opposed by Paul Hoyt and Woody Woodward. It came despite a last-minute appeal by Police Chief Kevin Schofield, who Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said has “done a level best effort” to eliminate the possibility that derogatory, embarrassing or private comments could be made under photos of persons arrested.

Schofield said he’s seen no derogatory comments since mid-November, when the changeover was made in the way the information was presented, so that comments were no longer offered directly under a person’s photo and arrest information. Schofield also said the page has had more administrative oversight by himself and Officer Joshua Muise, who began it in 2011. Anyone found violating the stated rules against posting negative comments has been banned, he said.

Schofield said police receive the most criticism when the public perceives them as withholding information, and the Facebook page has helped greatly in building good community relations by providing information “in as transparent and timely a manner” as possible. He said the page’s open-door policy to comments from the public was one of the reasons he decided to take the chief’s job. It routinely elicits thank you’s from a grateful public, he said. The page had around 3,200 fans in early November, when McHatton first raised public concerns about the mug shots and comments. It now has 3,767 fans.

Schofield said arrest information was public information, and “The public has the right to know.” However, he asked the board to vote on the matter, saying, “I don’t want this issue to linger on and become a distraction.”

McHatton asked Schofield how many other police departments with Facebook pages provide an arrest log with photos. Schofield said he knew of three others. McHatton asked him why the department felt it needed to post a weekly arrest log when The Bridgton News already does so.

Schofield said Facebook’s value as a social media tool lies in how many more people it can reach; when the department posted a link on its page of a story The News ran on the mug shot controversy, that link generated over 2,100 “likes.” Also, he said, “Some people don’t want to read the paper” to get the information; they want to go directly to the source.

Woodward questioned the need for the photos to accompany the arrest information. Schofield said the photos provide just one more assurance that the identity of the person will not be in doubt, especially if that person has a commonly used name. “I do concur with the chief that the paper does not print all” of the information related to police complaints and arrests, Woodward said.

Schofield said the controversy generated much debate on the page when it first arose, but had died down after the reformatting until just last week, when one resident, Samantha Irish, posted: “I really hate that the PD does this. Innocent until proven guilty! Does anyone follow up and see if all the people who are accused are convicted? Of course not, they just remember they were accused. We are supposed to be better than this.” Irish’s post prompted others to point out that arrests were public records. As resident, Gordon Cross, put it, “Don’t want your pic on here, smarten up!!” Another resident, Kristin Smith, said that since arrests are printed in the newspaper, “I don’t see why anyone is going crazy over it being on Facebook.”

Selectmen have repeatedly said that it is the comments option that is the sticking point. As a government agency, the town opens itself up to liability concerns by allowing potentially defaming comments to be made on a social media site they are responsible for. The town is now in the seventh draft of a comprehensive Digital Media Policy that provides guidelines for all department heads and town government employees who use Facebook or other social media such as Twitter to communicate with the public.

“It is the future of communications,” said Hoyt, the board chairman, who said he was “amazed” by the huge number of followers of the BPD’s Facebook page. He was quick to acknowledge, however, that “I haven’t gone on Facebook once yet.”

 

 

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