Police departments might not aspire to be popular. But the Natick Police Department has racked up almost 10 times the number of "likes" on its Facebook page as police in next-door Framingham, a city twice Natick's size.
One difference is that the Natick PD Facebook page features a weekly compilation of mug shots of those arrested by its officers. Viewers — and even at least one arrestee — have commented and shared the photos with their friends.
Once confined to dusty folders in the bowels of police stations, mug shots are now widely distributed by police departments and commercial outlets. Natick police spokesman Lt. Brian Grassey says his department noticed other police departments posting the shots, "and felt like it was a good way of showing the public what we do. There seems to be great public interest in it."
Those who find their mug shot floating around the Internet may be embarrassed, but they don't have much recourse, says Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury. "There's nothing I can think of that is legally wrong about it," he says.
Civil liberty groups have been divided on the issue, with some voicing concern for privacy rights, but others saying that government records are protected free speech that should be made available.
"We urge everyone to remember that police sometimes arrest people who did not deserve to be arrested," says ACLU spokesman Chris Ott, who adds that "posting people's pictures online is something that can stick with them for the rest of their lives."
Natick's mug-shot posts include a disclaimer stating that the subjects are arrested for probable cause, not guilt. And Grassey says because the names are printed in the image they are less likely to be detected by search engines. (The Yarmouth Police Department includes the names of those arrested in its captions. The recent arrest of an 81-year-old for drunk driving sparked a lively discussion in the comments section.)
Fakhoury says another potential downside to both government and commercial mug-shot sites is that they could "be used to 'out' people who are arrested as part of their participation in political causes" — for instance, those picked up in the mass arrests during last year's Occupy protests.
In one recent case, a Natick arrestee used the comments section to point out that his charges of operating with a suspended license were dismissed in court the next day.
As for the mug shot, he commented that it was "not a bad picture, huh?" He made it his Facebook profile image.