AUBURN, Maine — In the digital age of social media, it’s become the norm for law enforcement agencies to post information and photos on their pages. In many ways, platforms like Facebook allow police to reach a bigger audience and cast a wider net for information and potential leads—particularly for things like missing person reports and getting help identifying potential suspects in investigations.
But one of these posts by the Auburn Police Department on June 25 has caused an uproar among Maine communities and criminal justice organizations. Their post, which starts by saying, “Let’s kick this Friday off with a game of ‘Do you know these people,’” has four surveillance photos from the Big Apple convenience store. The photos show four people who appear to be youths.
Police do not elaborate in the post as to why they want the public’s help in identifying the individuals in the photos. They simply ask people who may know them to contact the department with information.
The post has more than 300 comments and shares, filled with people questioning the legality of the post.
“This Facebook post from the Auburn Police Department appears to show children—some of them appear to be very young—without blurring their faces or otherwise protecting their identity in any way, and we don't have information and it's not clear from the post why it is they posted this,” Emma Bond, the legal director at the ACLU of Maine, said in a phone conversation with NEWS CENTER Maine. “But it does have some really stigmatizing implications that could be harmful to these children.”
When asked about the post and questions that were raised regarding the individuals' apparent age, Auburn Police Chief Tim Cougle said “it’s difficult to tell if somebody is a juvenile or not … it isn't always clear how old somebody is today, especially with the quality of some of the surveillance footage too. Sometimes that makes it a little challenging.”
Bond said Maine’s juvenile code has some specific protections when it comes to criminal justice agencies sharing private or identifying information about juveniles who may be involved in some type of investigation.
“So it's really concerning that the Auburn Police Department chose to publish these children's faces in the way that they did,” Bond said.
She continued to say that despite the post being cryptic and not disclosing why they posted the photos, the implications are that these youths are involved in some type of investigation.
Cougle wouldn’t elaborate on why the department was looking to identify the people in the photos and said they’re “not necessarily accusing them of a crime.”
“We're just, you know, asking for people help to look for them,” Cougle said.
The law protects juvenile intelligence and investigative record information, Bond explained. And although the law does allow some dissemination, “it restricts the type of audiences that criminal justice agencies can share such information with, and it has a specific provision recognizing the importance of protecting personal privacy, including the personal privacy of juveniles who might be being investigated.”
“Given that there are legal protections about what information criminal justice agencies are allowed to disseminate about children in the course of investigations, it should be expected that police departments will follow the law,” Bond said.
Bond, as well as any in the comments, said the Auburn Police Department should take the post down. Skye Gosselin, a community organizer for Maine Youth Justice, feels the same way.
“They 100% should take this post down and I think that the police should realize that what they're doing [with posts like this],” Gosselin said.
She said actions like this by police departments across Maine and the U.S. is why Maine Youth Justice, an organization that’s working to close the Long Creek Youth Detention Center and promote community-based alternatives to youth incarceration, is calling for the defunding of police. Gosselin said a lot of the youth she’s spoken to at Long Creek have said they’re afraid to talk to police and feel scared to be in their own communities. She said posts like this only further that mentality.
“Enough is enough. We need to stop using harm and punishment as a solution,” she said. “We need to start using restorative justice techniques and we need to start taking action.”
Cougle said if the department can confirm if it’s someone suspected of a crime and they can confirm their identity, they could “certainly remove the posting.”
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