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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Oh, and by the way, I bet if the powers that be did do this, they'd find a whole slew of those Wanted criminals right there on Facebook too.

August 18 2010 at 7:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

All they have to do is disable the tagging feature. I think this is a good idea, especially in towns like mine. Maybe if some of these thugs had their pictures posted they'd be less likely to show their faces out in public so frequently. I think they need to tweak the idea so that Mom's with too many tickets won't be arrested right along with the pedophile or thug who is a serious threat to society.

August 18 2010 at 7:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Sounds like "america's Most Wanted" on steriods...GO FOR IT!!!

August 18 2010 at 4:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Becky's comment

Police are way overstepping their charter from the People when they engage in digital slander and liable. The cornerstone of our justice system is the presumption of innocense until proven guilty by a jury of our peers. Between the Media and Police, this is disappearing from our social landscape. The acused (me and you) have the right to a fair trial but that is nearly impossible when "evidence" is plastered all over the Media until the pool of jurers is prdejudiced and clouded with opinion. We (all of us) need to contain and control the Police to their job of investigating crime and forwarding their findings to the prosecuters for review and possible trial in a Court of Law, not a television set or a computer monitor

August 18 2010 at 4:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Will they include the cops that beat people like in Denver?

August 18 2010 at 2:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What it's encouraging is lawsuits. It's just math: in a certain number of criminal cases, the State won't prevail (for a multitude of reasons, including innocence). "Not Guilty" would invite a defamation of charcter lawsuit and a good chance that the plaintiff might win.

August 18 2010 at 2:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

why would anyone believe what a police officer says?? Not only do they have permission to lie from their supperiors, they are ENCOURAGED to do so..........

August 18 2010 at 2:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Ah yes, even the police are getting into the guilty before before being found guilty. What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty. This officers justification of the fact that the used to sent stuff to the papers for reporters to "mine for juicie stories" was just as wrong. Do we forget the poor guy who was accused of the bombing at the Olympic in Atlanta not so many years ago. The media, FBI and police turned this guys life into hell for almost two years before they discovered he was completely innocent. He lost his job couldn't get another, his family suffered. America hated him. All these people that caused his pain went unpunished because of laws passed to protect them just from this sort of thing on their part. What happened to the protection for this poor guy? Now we are going to do it to thousands of people. God help us it is time to get out of this country and leave it to these people and let them continue but end up punishing each other because the rest of us will be gone. It's the only thing an individual can do short of starting a revolution.

August 18 2010 at 1:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I think it's the smartest idea I've heard all year.

August 18 2010 at 1:34 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The story is a bit confusing. There is mention of the site helping to bring in wanted criminals, then there is mention of the site listing suspected criminals. There is a huge difference between criminals and SUSPECTS. Criminals are not suspected of anything, they are already convicted of something and ran from the law. Therefor publicizing their name/photo is appropriate. But to publicize a suspect's name/photo is, at least in theory, a violation of privacy based on the "innocent until proven guilty" idea of our law. If they are posting information on SUSPECTS and not criminals then it's just plain wrong. And for anyone reading that blog/face book page,(if they are posting on suspects and not criminals) you are essentially volunteering to be the next person posted on there as being a suspect through your support of such a violation of personal rights. Remember, what is done to others can be done to you.

August 18 2010 at 1:24 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply