SCARBOROUGH – The Scarborough Police Department, like others

across the country, including the South Portland Police Department,

have found Facebook a fine tool for communicating with residents in

the quickest, most efficient way. Other communities, however, such

as Cape Elizabeth, have held back using social media, either due to

time constraints or fear over the impact of a misguided post or

comment.

SCARBOROUGH – While many employees are frowned upon for using Facebook while at work, Jamie Higgins, a crime analyst for the Scarborough Police Department, is permitted to log on to the popular social media site during her workday.

In fact, it is part of her job.

Higgins, who has been working in the department since 2002 and since 2010 as a crime analyst, is the force behind the Scarborough Police Department’s Facebook page, created roughly a year ago to better connect with the community.

“For many people, this is how they communicate today,” said Scarborough police Chief Robert Moulton. “We were thinking about how we could reach people more effectively. We thought this was a quick and easy way to do it.”

The Scarborough Police Department, like others across the country, including the South Portland Police Department, have found Facebook a fine tool for communicating with residents in the quickest, most efficient way. Other communities, however, such as Cape Elizabeth, have held back using social media, either due to time constraints or fear over the impact of a misguided post or comment.

Taking the lead

Even Moulton needed a little nudging to accept Facebook. At first, Higgins said, Moulton wasn’t convinced it was appropriate for the department.

“I noticed other police departments were using it,” Higgins said. “I approached the chief about it, but at first he said no because he didn’t know what Facebook was all about. After I explained it to him, I think he realized it was a good tool for the public to be informed about things, such as road closures, that they may not have heard about in the news.”

Although the department has a website, Moulton said Facebook gives officers a quick way to share crime and public safety warnings, photographs of suspects, weekly police logs and other information the department feels is valuable to the general public.

Recent posts have included advisories not to text while driving or leave your vehicle unlocked. There have been winter storm warnings and road closings. One post pointed out what to do if you see suspected drug activity, while another served as a tribute to Jasou, a dog in the K-9 unit that died a year ago. This week, the department posted a photograph of local Boy Scouts who recently visited the police station.

“It is just a way to get the information out to as many people as possible in an effective and timely manner,” Moulton said.

The department has also used Twitter for public announcements, but no tweets have been made since late August.

“We really have felt pretty good about it,” Moulton said of Facebook. “People seem to appreciate it. It is a good quick, down and dirty, way to keep up with what is going on.”

The response, Higgins said, has been good. She has only had to block two people who were making inappropriate comments, which Moulton said is one of the concerns he has with sharing information on Facebook.

“The downside to this,” he said, “is you never know how people are going to respond to it.”

Moulton said Higgins is free to put what she feels is appropriate onto Facebook, but questionable material is passed through her superior and then ultimately to Moulton. Higgins said generally anything that would be released to the media is deemed appropriate for the site.

South Portland police have also found the site to be an easy way to get information out to the public. Like the Scarborough page, South Portland’s police page is devoted to getting information on crimes, such as burglary or theft; traffic updates, such as when the Casco Bay Bridge is closed; or police-related stories in the local or national media.

Lt. Frank Clark, the department’s public information officer, said the department has been using Facebook for almost two years, since he was approached with the idea of using the site to connect with the public.

“It’s been a pretty decent way, or tool, for us to do just that,” Clark said. “It is a two-way back and forth; it is not static like the website, where we continue to put information.”

Facebook, Clark said, has been particularly effective in getting information out to the motoring public or residents in a certain section of the city.

Putting information such as pictures of suspects online has helped the department investigate crimes in the city, Clark said.

“We have had good feedback from people with information about people who have been involved in crimes,” Clark said. “It’s been a good resource for us.”

Unlike in Scarborough, there is no one person responsible for updating the site. Four officers, led by Community Response Officer Jeff Caldwell, are tasked with running the Facebook page.

Weekly police logs are no longer published on the because of limited resources to transfer the information online, Clark said, but sex offender notices continue to be published on the site.

There are no recommendations from police organizations as to how to use Facebook, Clark said, so the control comes down to the individual departments.

For the most part, he said, there has been a positive response from the public and most people have been appropriate with their comments.

“We do our best to monitor the site,” he said. “We put a disclaimer up that we are using the site as a positive tool for better communication.”

Holding back

Municipal officials in Cape Elizabeth have a different view on Facebook and have shied away from the site.

Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Mike McGovern said the town’s recently adopted communications strategy does not allow the use of Facebook for municipal purposes.

One reason, he said, is the concern about how people can comment and what they can include in those comments.

“The whole idea of dealing with comments (is why we don’t use Facebook),” he said. “They can quickly be made and if they go unresponded to, they are assumed to be correct.”

The town ran into that problem a few years back when they allowed e-mail exchanges and forum discussions to be placed on their official website. This concern made them rethink the way they communicate with Cape Elizabeth residents, leading the Town Council to adopt a new communication strategy.

Part of that strategy was to make sure the town’s website, www.capeelizabeth.com, which was recently redesigned, serves as the official online source of municipal information.

South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said the city is not looking to pursue joining Facebook, although the topic has come up before.

“The new thing is to be in social media, in social networking,” he said. “Everyone is plugged into that. We recognize that, but we also have concerns about keeping issues fresh and having the manpower to keep that information fresh.”

Right now, he said, is to keep the focus on providing information on the city’s official website, southportland.org.

Although Scarborough officials look to their website, www.scarborough.me.us, as an official source of municipal information, Town Manager Tom Hall said municipal offices may soon begin to use Facebook to better interact with the community. The town’s Community Service Department recently started using Facebook to publicize program and event updates.

“Going forward, I see applications for Public Works and even Town Hall. We’ll probably be moving in that direction,” Hall said. “The next logical step will be working more with Twitter and other social media.”

However, cautions Eric Conrad of the Maine Municipal Association, there are several things community leaders should think about when using social media outlets.

He said any municipal department using Facebook should create policies for its use, including whether there is any review of postings before they go live and whether one particular individual should be responsible for posting all outgoing information.

“A lot of people are experimenting with social media these days, but a municipality really has to think about guidelines for its use,” Conrad added.

He said it makes sense for public works and police departments to use Facebook as a way of providing necessary information to a wide range of residents, such as parking bans or street closures for instance, but said other municipal departments should carefully weigh what information they want to convey.

Conrad said his organization has not fielded specific requests from municipalities looking for guidance in the use of Facebook and other social media, but said the organization did offer two workshops on the issue at its recent annual meeting.

“We saw that many police departments are already using Facebook,” he said. “So we thought it would be good to offer the workshops this fall.”

It is, it seems, a sign of things to come. For a growing segment of the population, social networking, led by Facebook and Twitter, is becoming the preferred method for getting news and information.

“It seems those two vehicles are ubiquitous in our society,” said Hall. “And for certain people they will demand that that’s where they get their information.”

The Scarborough Police Department is one of the most active departments in using Facebook as a way to get information to residents. Posts include everything from storm warnings and crime updates to law enforcement news from across the country. (Screen image)


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