Selectmen lean to ban BPD Facebook page comments

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Fans who want to comment on arrests posted by Bridgton Police on their Facebook page had better get their comments in while they still can.

That’s because a majority of the Bridgton Board of Selectmen want to ban all comments on arrests, at a minimum. They feel so strongly about it that, on Tuesday, they came very close to voting to ban fans from commenting on anything posted on the page, in effect making it a “read-only” Facebook page.

“I’ve talked to quite a few people about this, and we just do not like the comments. We do not need it,” said Selectman Bernie King, a former Bridgton police officer. Later, he added, “I don’t think it’s necessary.”

King’s motion to make the entire page “read-only” was seconded by Selectman Bob McHatton, who initiated the debate several months ago when he brought up the issue of negative or derogatory comments being made under the mugshots of persons arrested for criminal offenses. Just as the board was about to vote, however, McHatton withdrew his second, saying he didn’t realize King’s motion would apply to all comments made by the public on information posted on the page.

McHatton’s intention, he said, was to limit the ban to comments made on arrests, and not on other posts, such as safety messages, reports on various grants and projects, video or photos of crime suspects sought by police or other items of interest such as design options for decals on new police department cruisers, which generated over 100 responses and over 1,000 views.

The motion and discussion arose as Police Chief Kevin Schofield approached the microphone, poised to discuss a three-page memo he’d prepared outlining the importance and usefulness of social media to police departments. The board was reminded that it still hadn’t heard from a staff committee charged with drafting a Social Media Policy for the town. The report will be submitted to the board at its Dec. 11 meeting.

“With due respect, why even have (a staff committee report on the issue) if it’s a predetermined outcome?” asked Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz. Selectman Chairman Paul Hoyt agreed.

“I think we’re jumping the gun here,” said Hoyt, who admitted he knew little about how Facebook works or how it could be used as a communications tool by a police department or any other town department. Both Hoyt and Selectman Woody Woodward said the board should wait to see the draft policy before taking any action.

“I was impressed that there would be 3,300 people who followed this,” said Hoyt, referring to the number of people who’ve become “fans” of the BPD’s Facebook page by clicking on a “like” button. He said he’s seen some comments on the page related to arrests that are “questionable” as to whether they should be allowed or not.

“I haven’t seen anything that was that egregious that (the page) had to be shut down immediately,” said Hoyt. Some comments appear to reflect views of people who “are just being involved” with the activities of the police department, he added.

Woodward agreed. “I think there are many places where the comments would be very useful” to the department,” he said. In his three-page memo, Schofield emphasized the usefulness of comments as a way “to both report and interact with the public in which we serve in the most transparent manner possible.”

Social media sites like Facebook “allows the police department the ability to tell our story to the public and not necessarily rely on third party news media to do this for us,” Schofield wrote in his memo. They can also serve as a real crime-fighting tool, he said, pointing out that as a result of videos posted on the page of crime suspects, “two theft cases were solved in one day last week alone.”

Schofield was not given the opportunity Tuesday to discuss the memo, however, since Hoyt had earlier announced that comments from the audience would not be allowed once a motion had been made and seconded. There was also no discussion of any kind concerning the propriety of posting booking photos along with arrest information (see Viewpoints, page D1).

After McHatton withdrew his seconding motion, King’s motion died, and the board agreed to wait on taking any action until they’ve reviewed the draft Social Media Policy at their Dec. 11 meeting.

Berkowitz did not offer any details of what might be in the report. The public, however, has taken an active interest in the debate. Schofield’s memo stated that when an article first appeared in The Bridgton News on the controversy, “over 2,000 people reviewed that post,” giving the BPD’s Facebook page “some ancillary benefits that need to be taken into consideration.” Schofield said he believes that posting arrests, rather than having a negative impact, allows residents and the public, including tourists, to see “their police department is progressively and proactively doing their job” and that “presents a positive image for any community.”

A reader of The News, however, who has had involvement with the BPD Facebook page, e-mailed the newspaper to point out that police mugshots posted on the Internet are being increasingly picked up by some popular commercial “mugshot” websites, such as mugshot.com, that repost the pictures for entertainment purposes. Even if the charges are later dismissed, the websites will not remove the pictures unless they are paid to do so. And even then, there is no guarantee that the digital images will not turn up later on another mugshot site, since many of the mugshot websites are connected.

Police booking photos are available to anyone in the public through the Open Records Act, and it is currently legal to post the photos on the Internet without the person’s permission, since the photos are a public document.

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