Shamebook: Should Cops Use Facebook to Publicize the Accused?

In February 2010, New Jersey's Evesham Township Police Department joined Facebook. Like most new members of the social network, it posted its contact and personal information, linked out to some of its favorite sites, and began writing updates about daily events in its community.

But while the average Facebooker rhapsodizes about the mundane stuff of daily life, the Evesham P.D.'s page was a bit more exciting: Its updates told readers about accused thieves and shoplifters, child pornographers and arsonists. What's more, the site's collection of photos made it clear which Eveshamites had been charged with operating on the wrong side of the law.

Lt. Walt Miller, the police department's public information officer, notes that the page has already helped the department with some of its investigations. On Tuesday, minutes after posting a security camera photo of an attempted fraudster, "I received a phone call and an email, both of which helped our investigation."

Miller says that, in addition to helping with open cases, Facebook is also improving the relationship between the police and the community. As he sees it, the department's presence on the social networking site is the next natural step in community interaction: "People used to congregate in community centers, where the police could stop by and make contact," he says. "Today, they congregate on Facebook. We have to go where they are."

Encouraging Online Vigilantes. . .or Worse?

But some critics question whether the Evesham Police Department's Facebook page represents a sort of digital pillory, in which accused offenders are exposed to humiliation. Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, notes that the site, and others like it, are "ripe for abuse." "The most wanted list has gone from the post office wall to the television to the Internet, where it's in your digital face 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Another concern is that, by placing pictures of accused scofflaws on the Internet, Evesham's police might be endangering their safety. "While you want to be able to track down people wanted by the law, the potential exists for an online vigilante society," Chester notes.

An article in Britain's Telegraph newspaper raises concerns about a specific form of online harassment made possible by the department's Facebook choices: Linking and tagging photos on the police department's site to innocent people's Facebook profiles, a scenario that could easily lead to false accusations and even Kafkaesque nightmares of unwarranted prosecution. To protect against this problem, the Evesham Police Department recently decided to disable comments on its webpage.

"Comments began to get unmanageable, " Miller says. "Many of them were inappropriate, and policing them took a lot of time." Besides that, the comments were detracting from the original intention of the site: "We didn't start the Facebook site to chastise people, but to get help in investigations," he says. "We decided that we needed to get back to our original purpose."

Just Another Medium

Asked about the privacy issue, Miller says that the police department has used the Internet to publicize press releases for years. Before that, "newsworthy crime stories" were sent to the local papers, where reporters mined them for juicy articles and the police blotter section. He doesn't see a difference between the Facebook page and other methods of crime reportage.

Most of all, he says, it's a way to reach out to the citizens of Evesham: "For us, Facebook is a way to improve our transparency to the community and strengthen community relations. . . . I hope the site grows and that more people become interested."
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