When Scarborough police wanted to identify a man who allegedly used a camera on his shoe to look up women’s skirts, another man who allegedly assaulted a Walmart employee and a third man suspected of using credit cards stolen during a car burglary, they logged on to Facebook.

It wasn’t for socializing. Instead, they asked Facebook followers to help identify photos of the men, prompting phone tips that led them to the suspects within a day.

“There’s a good chance they would have gone unsolved without help from the public,” said crime analyst Jaime Higgins, who maintains the page. “If we have any cases we don’t immediately have something to go on, we’ll pull a still photo of a surveillance video and look for tips.”

The same week, in early August, the department used the page to find a missing 17-year-old Scarborough resident. The flurry of updates resulted in 300 new followers of the Police Department’s page in one week, bringing the total number of followers to more than 4,000.

Scarborough, like other local police departments, is increasingly relying on Facebook as a way to distribute information quickly and connect with community members who are already plugged in — and constantly logged on — to social media outlets.

Though Facebook has been around since 2004 and has 955 million users worldwide, its use by police departments has taken off in just the past two years. Traditionally, police have relied on traditional news media to publicize photos of suspects or distribute other alerts. Now, with a few keystrokes, police officers can reach out directly to residents, often in a less formal and more conversational way than through news releases sent only to news outlets.

A survey of 800 law enforcement agencies in 49 states conducted last year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Social Media showed 88 percent of agencies surveyed use social media, most often in the course of criminal investigations. The vast majority — 75 percent — use Facebook. More than half of those agencies created Facebook pages in the past two years, according to the center.

More than half of the agencies surveyed reported that social media helped solve crimes. About 40 percent of agencies used social media to solicit tips on crimes, and 47 percent used it for community outreach and engagement.

In southern Maine, police departments use Facebook pages to notify the public about accidents and road closures, report calls for service and arrests, and recruit new police officers. Many departments also frequently link to news articles about local issues, essentially creating a community space for residents to share their thoughts.

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said a few police departments in Maine actively use Facebook pages, but he thinks the practice is not widespread.

“I think it’s worked well for some departments,” he said. “It shouldn’t replace other forms of communication, but it’s something that, if it’s well controlled, the department can get some great benefit out of it.”

The Westbrook Police Department, with more than 6,200 followers, has one of the most active Facebook pages among southern Maine’s law enforcement agencies. The page was created about three years ago and has become a public relations tool for police, said Capt. Mike Nugent, one of three officers who update the page.

“We kind of tested the waters a little tentatively at first. We weren’t sure how it was going to work out for us,” he said. “It’s been really positive for us. It’s an easy way to inform a lot of people about what’s going on in their neighborhood.”

Among the most popular posts from Westbrook police are weekly round-ups of arrests and calls for service. Those posts allow residents a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes in the department, Nugent said.

“I think people really appreciate seeing what’s going on in the department,” he said. “I think it’s something of an eye-opener for people to see the weekly recap of calls for service and see how busy the department actually is.”

South Portland police Lt. Frank Clark said his department began using Facebook about three years ago, and since then has found it to be a good way to interact with the community and drive Internet traffic to the department’s website. Most recently, the department has used Facebook for job recruitment and to distribute information about road closures, sex-offender registry notifications and other incidents.

“Our experience so far has been very positive,” Clark said. “The more interaction we can have with the community, the better. The more people who join our page, the better.”

There are nearly 3,900 people who “like” the South Portland police Facebook page, and most of them are between 20 and 40 years old. Clark said those people may see Facebook updates more quickly than news reports.

“There are a lot of people out there (whose) phone will vibrate in their pocket and they’ll see our posts,” he said. “It’s another way we’ve been able to stay in the 21st century.”

Like Clark, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said Facebook helps drive online traffic to his department’s website, where department staff members regularly post news releases and notices. Some people feel more comfortable interacting with police in a more informal and, to some extent, anonymous way, he said.

“This is the heart of community policing in that it provides another mode of communication,” he said.

The sheriff’s office frequently uses Facebook as an extension of its “Fugitive Files” feature on WGME-13. When someone is wanted, police post photos and information to generate tips from the public.

“It’s kind of like the digital posse in that you’re empowering citizens through technology to be the eyes and ears of the community,” Joyce said.

Maintaining a police department Facebook page isn’t without challenges, however.

Higgins monitors the Scarborough page throughout the day when she is in the office and by phone in the evenings. She said the page attracts a lot of inappropriate comments, which she deletes. If inappropriate comments persist, she blocks the user from the page.

In South Portland, police cut back on posts about arrests and sex offenders because of inappropriate comments from followers, Clark said.

“We’re always checking the comments made on our posts,” said South Portland Officer Jeff Caldwell, one of four employees who post on the page. “We delete them if they’re out of line.”

In Westbrook, police deal with occasional inappropriate comments, but Nugent said “it hasn’t been an issue to the point where it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

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