PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When Chief Deputy Sheriff Darrell Crandall began patrolling southern Aroostook County almost three decades ago, radio communication between officers in remote areas and his base was spotty, at best.
“We had a radio system, but it was not highly effective, especially around Haynesville and Macwahoc,” he said. “I actually had a network of people in those areas who I could knock on their doors day or night and use their phones if I needed to communicate with the sheriff’s office.”
Now, in the 21st century, Crandall, former head of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, is embracing cutting edge technology that is increasingly keeping law enforcement connected to the public they serve and protect.
Around the state, municipal and county law enforcement departments are developing and maintaining active social media sites and offering new apps for Android and iPhone smartphones.
“I like the idea of sharing information with the public,” Presque Isle Police Chief Matthew Irwin said. “My impression has been there had not been a whole lot of public interaction between the police and the public.”
To increase the two-way flow of information, Irwin’s department last month unveiled an app which smartphone users may download and keep track of a number of departmental activities and alerts.
“I figured the phone app would give people an opportunity to participate in what we have going on,” Irwin said. “They could track where some of the calls for service, people who are wanted by the department and an assortment of other items.”
The Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department plans on introducing a similar app at the start of the year.
“It’s pretty hard to go anywhere these days and not see someone without a smartphone in their hand, or on their pocket or clipped onto their belt, Crandall said. “I am hoping people who see or hear something and who may not otherwise contact us will do so if they can do it with just a push of a button.”
The app is the same one used by the MDEA, Crandall said.
“When I was there, [the app] was a very big source of information for the MDEA,” he said “I am hopeful it will be even more so with the sheriff’s office, [and] it will generate a fair amount of information.”
Like departments around the state, Presque Isle police and the Aroostook County deputy sheriffs are also making use of Facebook to share information.
“The Facebook thing is more indicative of what [communications technology] is likely to become,” Irwin said. “You can get a conversation going, and people are glad to have these conversations.”
At the Ellsworth Police Department, Chief John Deleo is a also a fan of social media.
“We have a Facebook page, and it’s working out great,” he said. “It’s keeping us in contact with a lot of residents, and we have fans from all over the state and even people who used to live in the area and moved out of state.”
Among the more useful applications of Facebook, Deleo said, has been identifying and apprehending suspects in shoplifting and theft cases.
“We have a couple of large retail merchants in our area, and that has generated shoplifting complaints,” he said. “They have photo and video surveillance, and we get a photo or a video from them and can post that on our [Facebook] page and ask people if they know who those individuals are.”
More often than not, Deleo said, someone calls or electronically contacts his department with useful information leading to an arrest.
“I did get dragged into the whole Facebook thing kicking and screaming,” he said with a laugh. “But I am absolutely glad we have done it.”
Departments also use the site to post information on everything from upcoming winter storms to locations and times for community service events and celebrations.
“There are a lot of departments using [social media],” Executive Director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association Robert Schwartz, said. “It’s a great way to get out information and receive information.”
Schwartz, a retired South Portland police chief, feels social media does have a place in law enforcement, if it is used prudently.
“It is something departments are using, and I think it can be of value,” he said. “Policies need to be written, and [employees] need to be careful in how they use it [because] police are no different than anyone else, and some things can end up on Facebook that should not be there.”
But overall Schwartz believes Maine’s departments are keeping pace with useful applications of the technology.
“It’s being used to find missing persons and people of interest in crimes,” he said. “From what I am told, it’s working well.”
Up in Presque Isle, Chief Irwin is not only happy with the response his new app is getting but also in how it is funded.
According to Irwin, the initial $1,190 setup fee and $890 to operate it annual is funded directly from recovered items and cash taken in drug busts.
“I really like the idea we are taking the drug dealers’ money and using it against them,” he said.
The Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department will fund its app the same way, Crandall said, adding the social media sites have proven most useful in connecting with younger residents.
“There are a lot of folks with good intentions who may have seen something and want to bring it to our attention,” he said. “But they may be less likely to do it if they have to call or come in and talk to us.”
However, thanks to Facebook and the new apps, residents — especially the younger ones — are coming forward with useful information, he said.
And as far as getting information to the public, according to Irwin, the ability to post on social media sites enables him to present it in the manner he chooses.
“We are able to put our own message out without it being watered down,” he said. “That is a very valuable tool.”
It’s a tool that is only going to continue to evolve beyond anything law enforcement officers had dreamt of even a decade ago.
“I remember when computers first came around and thought there was no need for them,” Schwartz said. “I told people, ‘why use a computer when you can get the paper you need from a file cabinet?’”
To download the Presque Isle Police Department phone app, go to https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.kita.PresqueIslePoliceDepartment
An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Sheriff Darrell Crandall. It is Chief Deputy Sheriff Darrell Crandall.