PORTLAND, Maine — The latest crime-busting tool for Maine law enforcement agencies isn’t a new type of weapon. It’s the social-networking Internet sites Facebook and MySpace.
Police in Auburn had a Facebook page up for less than three weeks before it helped solve a vandalism case and led to three arrests this week. After putting surveillance video images on Facebook showing three teenagers trashing a hotel spa, police received several tips from people who recognized the trio.
The department has another video on the page showing a man stealing a snowboard from Lost Valley, a local ski area.
Facebook is simply another tool for the department, said Deputy Chief Jason Moen.
“This latest arrest is proof positive of that,” he said. “It’s just another way for us to use emerging technology. And as Facebook grows in popularity, there will be many more people we’ll be able to impact.”
Police have long trolled Web sites such as MySpace, Facebook and YouTube in search of photos or other incriminating evidence that people put on their individual pages. Officers also have been known to create fake profiles to catch sexual predators.
Now a growing number of police agencies across the country are creating pages of their own. Many simply use them to post public announcements, officer profiles, job listings and the like.
Others are using the pages to solve crimes. If the Internet can be used to find former classmates or individuals with similar interests, authorities reason it also can be used to find criminals.
In Maine, a handful of departments have created pages on social-networking sites: Buxton and Gardiner police use Facebook, and Houlton and Limestone authorities are on MySpace.
Even Greenville, with a year-round population of about 1,700, has a Facebook page. For now, the page is helpful in sharing information about weather and snowmobile trail conditions, said Police Chief Scott MacMaster.
Crime is not a big problem in Greenville, but MacMaster said he could envision using the page to put out alerts about tool thefts or break-ins at seasonal camps.
In Florida, the Boca Raton Police Department is going all out by using Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, a microblogging, text-messaging site. The Facebook and MySpace pages feature videos of crimes ranging from bank robberies to pickpockets.
Mark Economou, the department’s public information manager, said the pages allow police to get the word out on crimes that newspapers and TV stations might consider too minor to be newsworthy. The images are up on the sites for prolonged periods, whereas they might run on TV news just once for a few seconds.
A video of a recent sandwich shop robbery has been viewed hundreds of times on the sites, Economou said.
“That’s 500 more sets of eyes that saw that video than would see a 20-second news hit we’d get on the nightly news,” he said.
The use of social-networking sites to fight crime is not a phenomenon exclusive to the United States. Interpol made the technology the topic of a presentation at its annual international conference on fugitives, held in November in South Africa.
The trend is not expected to fade.
More police departments are likely to jump on the Facebook and MySpace bandwagons in the next few years, said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.
“If it’s working, you’ll see others doing it,” Schwartz said.