BRUNSWICK — The police department is pushing back against criticism of its decision to post shoplifting arrests on social media, saying it started the initiative as a deterrent because shoplifting offenses in Brunswick are up 100 percent from this time last year.

The Stop a Theft anti-shoplifting campaign is modeled after a similar initiative in Auburn, where police post the names and photos of people charged with shoplifting on their Facebook page.

While everything the police post is a matter of public record, some argue that the police are violating civil rights by “convicting” people in a court of public opinion before have been found guilty. One commenter likened it to being unwittingly filmed and said the department was “skirting a lot of legal boundaries.”

But Brunswick police Cmdr. Thomas Garrepy says “we don’t charge people without reasonable cause,” and the department often has video surveillance to draw from.

“We don’t believe for a second that these were accidental,” Garrepy said.

“This isn’t a matter of forgetting to pay for a tube of lipstick,” Cmdr. Mark Waltz added. “I think people have the general sense that it’s no big deal” when the fine is usually only $100. In a cost-benefit analysis they decide it is worth the risk, he said.

Auburn began posting mugshots on Facebook after it saw a 175 percent spike in shoplifting this year.

“We’re not here to publicly shame people,” Garrepy said, but “they need to realize they can be arrested for this.”

Emma Bond, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, called the practice “mean-spirited and childish,” and potentially harmful.

“Shoplifting and other low-level offenses usually stem from poverty and substance use disorders,” she said in an email. “These are serious problems and our community police should be looking for serious solutions. Instead, they are stooping to public shaming on Facebook that will only make it harder for these people and their families to get by.”

Auburn police addressed the criticism in a lengthy Facebook post in October.

“People need to understand that we have a very good grasp on the Freedom of Access laws, and what we can and can’t say. Any arrest information that we post to our Facebook page is, in fact, public information,” the post read. “Why make the effort to post shoplifting arrests? Our number one goal in our shoplifting campaign is one of deterrence. It’s our hope that one will think twice before shoplifting in Auburn knowing they run the risk of showing up on Facebook.”

In the six months since Auburn started its campaign, there has been a 25 percent drop in shoplifting, the department says.

Since the Brunswick Police Department launched the campaign in late September, there have been 67 shoplifting-related offenses, compared to only 18 at this time last year. The total for 2018 so far is 159, versus 77 in 2017. It’s too soon to tell if the campaign has had an effect, Garrepy said.

Shoplifting costs the average American consumer up to $453 per year in raised prices, Waltz said, adding that “time will tell how effective (the Stop a Theft campaign) may or may not be.

Hannah LaClaire can be contacted at:

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