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Maine police, fire, drug enforcement agencies increasing use of Facebook

Kate Collins | BDN
Kate Collins | BDN
Sgt. Paul Edwards of the Bangor Police Department looks over law enforcement Facebook pages on Monday, August 22, 2011. Edwards said using Facebook has helped the department solve numerous crimes in recent months, including a bank robbery and many shoplifting cases.
By Nok-Noi Ricker, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Surveillance images of thieves stealing scrap metal were posted on the Ellsworth Police Department’s Facebook page on Friday, and by Monday the perpetrators were arrested and in custody, Police Chief John DeLeo said.

“That got solved because of the Facebook page,” he said this week, explaining that no other medium allows for such an immediate transfer of information to a large group of people.

The Ellsworth Police Department is one of many in Maine — both large and small — that have jumped on the Facebook bandwagon.

“We get a lot of day-to-day information out there [to the public] and we’ve been able to solve quite a few crimes by posting pictures or videos on the page,” DeLeo said.

News media outlets, including the Bangor Daily News, also use the various police Facebook pages to get information.

While many police departments around the state have Facebook pages, how they are used differs drastically.

Some law enforcement agencies use the social networking site to inform residents about what is going on in their communities, such as upcoming events or hot topics, while others publish information about current crimes in hopes members of the public will be able to help identify the people involved.

“It’s awesome,” Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards, who updates the department’s Facebook page, said Friday. “It’s one of the most useful tools we’ve had for public relations and media relations.”

Bangor’s top Facebook post on Wednesday was a request for information about a stabbing Monday night. Since the department created the page in late 2009, it has also posted images of shoplifters at the Bangor Mall, thefts at convenience stores and press releases about arrests as well as information about parking bans during downtown concerts, emerging scams and other important information.

Bangor police followed in the footsteps of other law enforcement agencies in Maine, including Auburn and Old Town police departments and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, which created Facebook accounts in early 2009.

The Auburn Police Department made headlines in April 2009 when it cracked a hotel spa vandalism case by posting still photographs taken from a surveillance video on its 3-week-old Facebook page. As a result, three teenage boys were identified and charged in connection with the crime.

Because of the public’s help, people who used to get away with crimes are now getting charged, Edwards said.

The Portland Police Department has a Facebook page mainly because “that is how a lot of society is sharing information,” acting Police Chief Mike Sauschuck said Monday.

The state’s largest city also uses Facebook because “we’re actively seeking tips in reference to crimes,” he said. “We find in most cases that it’s a team effort. It’s something you need to work hand-in-hand with the community.”

Interacting with the public through the social networking site adds hundreds of eyes, which is important when it comes to unsolved crimes, Sauschuck said.

“Anytime you can interact with the public it’s a win-win,” the acting chief said. “I think it’s an immediate win.”

For Edwards, the best thing about the online site is that with just a few keystrokes he can reach a ton of people, he said.

“When you can hit 5,200 people at one time, it’s [pretty amazing],” the sergeant said. “It’s so easy. It takes me two seconds … and then you all know.”

The Brewer Police Department created a Facebook page about five months ago as a way to get information out immediately to the public, Capt. Jason Moffitt said Wednesday.

The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s Facebook site has information posted on fugitives, drug tips, recent drug busts and a link for posting anonymous tips about drug activities.

Darrell Crandall, an MDEA division commander, said Wednesday that the number of drug activity tips has increased considerably with the creation of its Facebook page, which has an anonymous tip line.

“We primarily use it to send notices of emerging issues to the public and we use it to post articles that highlight the good work our folks are doing,” Crandall said. “We also have a large number of links to the law enforcement agencies who are also on Facebook.”

If a sister agency posts an item about a fugitive or some other interesting item, the MDEA will repost it on its page, he said.

“I would describe it as worth the very little effort it takes to keep it up,” Crandall said. “There is very little involved for the amount of information we’re able to provide to the public and to have the access to the public for interaction.”

Facebook is not just for police agencies, said Jim Ellis, the fire chief for both Eddington and Holden. He posts images of fires his crews battle as well as road closures due to accidents, but, more important, he uses the Web page to contact firefighters.

“I can reach all of them more quickly on Facebook than by phone,” Ellis said. “It’s immediate. If I post something on Facebook, a lot of our members see it instantaneously” on their smartphones.

The two small fire departments go to more than 700 calls annually, and “it’s a good tool to help educate the community members about what their fire department is doing,” Ellis said. “The taxpayers have a right to know” how their money is being spent.

DeLeo said he didn’t think creating a Facebook page for Ellsworth was that important but decided to do so about a year and a half ago after being pestered by Detective Dotty Small, who now helps him to keep the page updated. He quickly changed his mind.

“Begrudgingly at the time I set one up for the PD, and it’s turned out great,” DeLeo said.

BDN reporter Dawn Gagnon contributed to this story.

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