Police departments around the state are turning to social media to share important — and sometimes super entertaining — information. Some departments even have their own apps.
But at what point do cops cross the line into sharing too much information?
The South Portland Police Department recently started posting on Facebook mug shots and details for each drunk driving arrest. It’s likely the only department in the state that does so, Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, told The Portland Press Herald.
The department — which also occasionally posts mug shots from other crimes, according to the paper — leaves the photos on Facebook for a few days before taking them down and says it is temporarily focusing on OUI arrests to raise awareness about drunk driving. The department also notes on the posts that those arrested are presumed innocent.
But the fact it’s doing it in the first place raises ethical questions about when and whether it’s OK for police to publicly humiliate arrest suspects before they are tried.
These kinds of photos and arrest details are public information. But historically, disseminating them required a news organization, whose editors or producers had to first decide whether they were newsworthy.
South Portland police skip that step.
Other cops do it
It’s not a new idea. A New Jersey police department in 2010 made the news for posting drunk driving arrests on its Facebook page. Here in Maine, Westbrook’s police department posts arrest roundups. Plenty of local law enforcement agencies share photos of wanted suspects to generate leads. It makes sense. They need the public’s help to track down potential criminals.
It’s part of a broad trend in recent years, as governments and public agencies increasingly bypass the media thanks to the instant publishing power of sites like Facebook.
Bangor used photos of its Duck of Justice to drive social media engagement, and Presque Isle police have their own app to connect with those they serve. By building that audience, they have a broader reach when they, too, need the public’s help to track a lead or solve a crime.
Most people who commented on the South Portland Police Department’s page stand by the spirit behind the posts.
After all, it’s hard to defend someone accused of driving drunk. It’s a ruinous crime that’s caused pain and sorrow for thousands.
In 2013, 42 people in Maine died in crashes that involved booze, representing 29 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
In South Portland, police say they usually notice an “uptick” in drunk driving with the warming weather.
“We hope that by highlighting these cases, it will act as a reminder and a deterrent for those thinking about drinking (or drugging) and getting behind the wheel of a car and that impaired driving of any kind will not be tolerated in South Portland,” the department wrote on Facebook.
Is it a deterrent?
So isn’t the South Portland Police Department doing the right thing? Couldn’t this save lives?
That all depends on whether getting called out on Facebook is enough to stop inebriated people from getting behind the wheel.
And that’s likely made more difficult sheerly based on the fact that we’re talking about drunk people, here.
According to a 2010 study published in the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, the brain can think it’s sober even if the body isn’t. If you don’t think you’re drunk, the cost-benefit analysis of whether to drive is probably a lot easier to calculate.
And even if someone — while sober — thinks it’s wrong to drive drunk, that attitude could change after a few drinks, according to this seemingly obvious University of Missouri study.
Then there are the myriad existing consequences for driving drunk.
And you could be responsible for killing someone.
If these serious consequences don’t sway you from driving drunk, will temporary Facebook notoriety?
The embarrassment of it
And then there are the ethical questions of publicizing a suspect’s picture on social media.
Some commenters on the South Portland Police Department’s Facebook feed criticized the move.
“I’m going to unfollow this feed. I don’t really feel like participating in the public shaming, no matter how noble the intent,” Lisa Keenan, of South Portland, commented on a recent arrest photo, which has since been taken down.
And Matt Nichols, an OUI defense lawyer, agreed.
“The idea of deterring bad behavior with public humiliation went away centuries ago with scarlet letters and putting people in the stocks in the public square,” he told the Press Herald. “I don’t think embarrassing people is a legitimate law enforcement function.”
They’re both right about one thing: This is public humiliation.
That’s the whole idea behind posting this information. When the South Portland Police Department says it wants to deter drunk driving by publishing this info, that is obviously the idea.
The question is whether we need police to fill that role.
What do you think?