Posted ‘mugs’ fuel BPD’s Facebook page popularity

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

"Face" time can be good in some cases, and embarrassing in others.

Take the Bridgton Police Department Facebook page. Frequent readers often comment about photos posted of arrestees.

Arrestees, however, often take offense to those comments.

Bridgton Police Chief Kevin Schofield said public comments made under the booking photographs on the department’s Facebook page run “about 50-50” both for and against the practice, which dates back to when the page was first begun by Office Joshua Muise on April 22, 2010. The News surveyed the comments and found Schofield’s statement to be generally true. However, what is not accurate is the promise by the page administrator that “Derogatory comments about (suspects) are automatically deleted.”

A review of comments made about the mug shots of arrested persons dating back to November 2010 includes such derogatory statements as “Just look at his picture he looks like a moron!! Maybe prison is what he needs!!”, “Looks like the grabbed this guy out of bed,” “She looks awful,” “I’m sure his momma is so proud,” and “What a loser. Good job guys!”

This, despite a promise by the page’s administrator to permanently ban any “fans” of the page that make “inappropriate comments with vulgar language or that are insulting towards anyone.” However, there does appear to be a concerted effort to “police” the comments, as evidenced when the administrator posted this warning following yet another colorful debate over a person’s arrest: “Unfortunately, this is the third time we have had to post this note. We have also had to delete numerous negative comments and permanently ban” their authors.

Even Schofield acknowledges that the posting of mug shots is the likely reason why the Bridgton Police Department Facebook page is so popular, with nearly 3,200 “likes” as of last week. Compare that to the Town of Bridgton’s Facebook page, which has only 17 “likes.” Schofield added, however, that “I’d like to think it’s because of the total package” the page provides, with regular news about the department’s grants and trainings and especially its ability to interact with the public on a timely basis. When pharmacy video cameras capture a robbery suspect, a still shot can be posted within hours, with a request for the public to help in identification.

“We’re trying to be interactive with the community, and arrests in general are a big part of it,” Schofield said. “My goal is to show that the officers are doing their job.”

Still, the debate over whether the department should be posting booking photos of arrests before they have been convicted of a crime crops up regularly on the page. In one exchange, a person writes that while the practice might be legal, it is nonetheless “a gross misuse of power, and an absolute civil rights violation.” Responding to another fan that said, “Don’t break the LAW and your picture won’t go on the BPD wall!!! It’s really simple,” the offended person said it was statements such as that which “is one cause why a good portion of our First Amendment and civil rights have been stripped away over the past several years.”

Schofield said it’s important not to censure comments too heavily, lest residents feel their voice is being silenced. But obvious defamatory or libelous comments are not allowed, he said, and he and Muise, who both act as administrators of the page, are striving to be more sensitive about the process. Just recently, he said, a woman called to complain that her name was mentioned in connection to the arrest of another person, and he decided to remove her name, even though no defamation had occurred.

“I personally am an extreme advocate of freedom of speech,” Schofield said. “Facebook and other social media are a quick-moving and fast-evolving process, and there’s a learning curve. But Facebook is a very powerful way for the department to communicate what we’re doing, and I believe the page is viable, valuable and I would argue essential, in the evolving technology of 2012.”

Police Chief takes heat over Facebook photos

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton Selectman Bob McHatton raised questions over the practice by the Bridgton Police Department of posting mug shots and allowing comments of persons arrested on criminal charges by the department.

“Is that something we really want to continue with?” he asked at the board’s Sept. 25 meeting, during the selectmen’s comment period.

Police Chief Kevin Schofield had a one-word answer: “Yes.”

Schofield said the booking photographs are public information, and send a strong message that the department is doing its job. “I don’t like the terse comments either,” he said, but as page administrators, both he and Officer Joshua Muise, who began the page in April 2010, monitor the comments regularly and remove any language that is rude, terse, derogatory or inappropriate. He did acknowledge that some offensive comments sometimes get missed because that person has a day off.

Schofield said the page administrators also ban any visitors who make the offensive comments. “I try to operate with as much transparency as we can,” he said, which in general requires a free-flowing exchange of opinions and information in the comments section. Such a policy makes the page more effective in its primary goal, he said, of communicating with the public in order to “show we’re doing our job” and get feedback from residents.

McHatton said, however, that it can be “very degrading” for some persons to be pictured just after an arrest, and then to allow the public to comment on that person’s situation.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said he and Schofield “have had conversations” about the practice, and that the town is currently nearing completion of a draft policy encompassing all forms of electronic communication, not just cell phones and pagers as in the past. He said central to the policy is the town’s obligation to adhere to the Maine Freedom of Information law.

Selectman Bernie King saw nothing improper about the posting of mug shots and/or comments underneath them. “The TV stations post photos and comments all the time” of people who’ve been arrested, he said.

But Selectman Woody Woodward said that if the department posts arrest photos they perhaps ought to follow up on the arrests with a later posting on whether the arrest led to a conviction. “If the case gets dropped, that ought to be in there, too.”

Selectmen agreed to await the draft of the electronics communication policy before discussing the issue further. But in a later telephone conversation, Schofield elaborated on why he believes Facebook and other online social media on the Internet like Twitter is such a powerful tool for a police department.

“I believe it is a viable, valuable and I would argue essential in the evolving technology of 2012,” he said. By reading peoples’ comments, he said, “I can get a pulse” on what the community is thinking on any given day about any given issue. Schofield said that he received around 150 comments from the roughly 3,200 “fans” of the Facebook page when the public was asked to comment on which make and model of vehicle to buy as the new police cruisers.

He acknowledged that he was not aware of any other department in the state with a Facebook page that provides such individualized information about each arrest made. Westbrook’s Police Department provides a weekly synopsis of arrests called the “Weekend Update” that requires visitors to click on a link to see the photo of the person arrested.

“I would suspect that if we didn’t post photos we wouldn’t have the following we do,” Schofield said. But all he knows is that for himself, personally, it was seeing the degree of transparency and openness contained within the department’s Facebook page that helped him decide to apply for and accept the position as police chief in Bridgton three years ago.

“It reaffirmed that this was a community I could fit into,” he said. What he saw was evidence of a “tight, cohesive department with a good working relationship with the community,” able to work on both big cases and small — and one that was getting the job done by making arrests.

 

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