ELLSWORTH, Maine — When Route 1 was closed by an accident recently, some area residents heard about it on Facebook.
When police were searching for a woman who had taken a purse from a shopping cart, some saw a picture of the suspected thief on Facebook.
When scammers began sending e-mail messages to residents claiming to be from a local bank and seeking personal identifying information, alerts about the scam again were found on Facebook.
The social networking site has become a way for the Ellsworth Police Department to communicate with the people it serves and to get information back from them. The department set up its own Facebook page in January and has used the page to warn and inform residents and to seek their aid in solving local crimes.
According to Detective Dottie Small, who is the face behind the EPD Facebook page, the department started using the page last winter, and a lot of what police did initially was warning motorists about weather and road conditions. This summer, they have provided updates on the road construction project on Route 1A.
The department also has used its page as a crime-fighting tool, posting photographs and videos of suspects in shoplifting or theft incidents in the area. In all but one instance, Small said, the postings on Facebook helped police to identify and apprehend a suspect.
“It really is limitless,” said Small, who, with Chief John DeLeo, is the voice of EPD on Facebook. “Anything you want, you can do it here. And you can reach a greater number of people.”
The department’s page has become a popular spot and now has 1,441 fans, people who have officially signed onto the site. Within the past seven days, the page had 259 interactions — people who have checked in or left a comment.
Small said she had been using Facebook herself for a long time and knew that other law enforcement agencies around the state and the country were having success with it. She suggested to DeLeo that they give it a try.
DeLeo admits that he was at first skeptical. He said he had some difficulties in trying to “friend” family members on his own Facebook page and was unsure the site could be effective.
“I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” he said.
But once it was set up and running, he said, the site has proved to be a benefit for the department.
“We’ve solved a half a dozen or so crimes, most of them thefts,” he said.
One of the benefits, he said, is that Facebook expands the reach of the department.
“There’s a bunch of people all over the country,” he said.
That helps, particularly in cases that extend beyond the borders of Hancock County, such as in the search for a runaway boy from Massachusetts who used to live in the Ellsworth area. People read the post on the EPD page, and some re-posted it on their own.
“It becomes a multiplier,” he said. “As more people re-post something, more people are aware of it. All of a sudden you’ve got a hundred more people looking for a runaway kid.”
That’s the benefit of using this type of social network, Small said. It provides police with more eyes on the street, similar to a neighborhood watch. Facebook, however, is quicker.
“It’s immediate,” she said. “It’s instant.”
Although Facebook uses modern technology, Small said, the page does not replace old-fashioned police work.
“We don’t just take the information from Facebook,” she said. “We still have to investigate. We still have to do our job. This is just another tool.”