Cheeky Crime Stoppers Facebook posts successful in Saskatoon, but citizens wonder at what cost
Facebook page has thousands of positive comments, but some say 'fear mongering' posts condemn suspects
The Saskatoon Crime Stoppers Facebook page has been a huge success in the city, leading to the arrest of 54 suspects and wanted people in 2018, police say — but not all Facebook users are happy with the tone of the posts, and one lawyer suggests they could even raise legal questions.
The page has 33,000 followers. Last year, tipsters numbered in the thousands.
Comment after comment on the Facebook page praises the writer of each post. Prizes from local businesses entice people to comment on most Saskatoon Crime Stoppers posts, increasing the page's profile. When a friend comments, often the whole post shows up on your account's profile — even if you don't follow the page.
The page's "Dear Suspect" posts are specifically aimed at suspects who are clearly identifiable in a surveillance camera photo committing a crime. Others feature people who are known to police and have a mugshot, but are on the loose.
One post, looking for a man wanted in Edmonton for allegedly breaching multiple court orders, read "We are sure someone is tired of you sleeping on their couch."
The posts have been described online as "funny," cheeky" and "entertaining" — but also "barbaric."
"One of my main concerns about that is that it's so vindictive, it's so 'attack mode' on this person," said Saskatoon resident Deborah Aitken of the posts. She has commented on one before, expressing her displeasure at the approach.
In an interview with CBC in 2017, the police officer in charge of Crime Stoppers in Saskatoon described his social media strategy.
"Humour, it crosses all bounds," Const. Ryan Ehalt said.
"Basically, our target audience is criminals and people associated with criminals, and by doing it in a humourous approach we believe, and know, that we've been reaching that particular target audience," he said.
Minority of commenters express displeasure
While Aitken describes the posts as "fear mongering" that targets people who haven't been proven guilty, some believe the practice is simply "bad for society."
"This method they use reminds me of a modern day equivalent to medieval times, when they shamed people publicly using the stockades," said Saskatoon's Mark Jordan, another one of the few people who have expressed displeasure in the comments of Crime Stoppers' posts.
"We have all the research needed to prove that punishment and shaming doesn't change criminal behavior in a positive manner," he said.
Criminal lawyer Adam Weisberg works in Toronto and is affiliated with the Criminal Lawyers' Association, a national organization.
You have to be concerned about is the possibility of libel if they're wrong about something, or state something definitively in some of these joking posts.- Adam Weisberg, Criminal Lawyers' Association
He recognizes the success of Crime Stoppers Saskatoon, and believes it can truly help the community — but that there's a potential downside to the tone.
"You have to be concerned about is the possibility of libel if they're wrong about something, or state something definitively in some of these joking posts," he said.
Could affect a jury
Weisberg represented a client several years ago in Toronto. The person was featured on a local Crime Stoppers page. Stills from a public area, taken around the time of a robbery, showed Weisberg's client.
That person, though, had an airtight alibi for the time of the crime and was found to not be involved.
"This [Crime Stoppers] page is kind of glib and makes flippant comments about people — that would be a concern," Weisberg said.
It could have an effect on a trial down the road.- Adam Weisberg, Criminal Lawyers' Association
Aside from condemning suspects in the court of public opinion, Weisberg believes cheeky posts about those accused can work against law enforcement down the line.
"Jurors would be instructed not to do their own research or go on social media, but it's a situation where in a town like Saskatoon, it's not that big," said Weisberg.
"It could have an effect on a trial down the road."
Weisberg commends Saskatoon's initiative, though, in that it "gets as many people on the page as possible to help identify potential suspects."
No response to legal implications
Neither Saskatoon Crime Stoppers nor Saskatoon Police Service have made anyone available to answer questions about the approach.
On Thursday, Cst. Ehalt sent an email to CBC with a statement from Crime Stoppers.
"The primary mission of our organization is to promote justice and safety," the statement said. "Ultimately we seek to make Saskatoon a safer city.
The Crime Stoppers board is "constantly searching for new, effective and creative ways to engage the community."
The statement also highlighted the program's success, including a 53 per cent increase in assisting law enforcement arrests and an award from Crime Stoppers International.
With files from Dan Zakreski