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07.06.09twitterPolice departments around the nation are using social networking to make new connections with their communities. Is it the Next Big Thing in fighting crime? Dena Levitz explores the unfolding Twitter universe of law enforcement for The Crime Report.

It was one of the biggest drug busts in recent Baltimore history. On April 4, the city's drug task force swooped on a home in the northwest portion of the city, discovering a veritable garden of pot–400 marijuana plants sprouting from every room in the residence, with a street value of over $500,000. It was a by-the-book raid–except for one curious fact:

Hundreds of Baltimore citizens were following every step of the police action on Twitter.

“Crimes Impact Division conducting drug raid @ 5700 Pimlico Rd HAPPENING NOW,” officers wrote on the first of a flurry of Twitter feeds that went up. Tweets tracked the progress of officers as they rummaged for evidence. The next day, Baltimore cops Tweeted the arrest of a suspect.

Putting police action on cyberspace in real-time sounds like someone's ultimate version of a reality show. But Baltimore police, who have been hooked on Twitter since March, consider it a valuable new tool for connecting with their community. “It's where society is moving,” said Baltimore PD Public Affairs Director Anthony Guglielmi.

Baltimore cops are not alone. More than 50 police forces around the country now use Twitter or similar online networks such as Facebook. Many, ranging from the small police department in Franklin, Mass. to big cities like Milwaukee, have only signed on within the past three or four months.

Christa Miller, a Greenville, S.C.-based writer and marketing guru who researches law enforcement and social media activity on her blog and helps police develop web sites, hopes more will follow. According to Miller, police will miss out on a valuable opportunity to shape law enforcement strategies that are more attuned to community needs if they stay on the social media sidelines.

“(Whether) citizens on the web…are posting troubles about the city or writing daily occurrences about their life, the cops need to be there too,” she said.

But Twitter communities also have to be convinced that police are fully transparent. When a suspect bit a police officer's arm in south Boston in late May, the news was out on Twitter within minutes. Tweets followed the progress of the incident, from the arrest of the attacker to the hospital where the uniformed victim was being treated. Some in the cyber-audience wondered whether cops would be as open if the victim had not been one of their own.

“If that was a zombie bite, would you tell us?” one Tweeted.

“Yes, absolutely,” police posted back, not missing a beat.

The playful reply struck a chord across the Boston blogosphere–and appeared to convince the skeptics. The Boston police Twitter service signed up an additional 1,500 followers soon after the “zombie” call-and-response–bringing the total number of subscribers to more than 4,000, according to Sgt. James Meredith, who oversees the Twitter account for the Boston police.

Meredith, an 18-year veteran of the Boston force, concedes that most people who signed up may have been attracted by the entertainment value, but “that's fine with me.” Whatever gets the public through the door will help police provide a better service to their communities, Meredith said. Now, if Boston PD needs the public's help to locate a suspect, for example, they can count on a large number of potential helpers from their built-in Twitter audience. “[The zombie bite exchange] showed that there's a different side to the police department.”

The art of the soft-sell (others might call it “bait-and-switch”) is familiar to anyone who studies E-commerce, and it could offer a lesson in improving police-community relations around the nation.

So what accounts for the lingering resistance? It's not a budget issue, said former Reno, Nevada policeman Todd Shipley, who terms the cost of involvement with social networking “minimal” for most police departments. According to Shipley, who launched the Reno police cybercrime unit, local law enforcement agencies have historically been slow to use new technology. As a consequence, he said, U.S. cops are “behind the learning curve, and the criminals way ahead.”

Shipley is now the chief executive officer of Reno-based Vere Software, a company that aims to alter the way police use the Internet through training and software to help with web-initiated investigations. He concedes that social networking clashes with the conservative streak in most law enforcement agencies. And, he adds, it is personal, not just institutional.

“Cops are pretty secretive with their personal lives,” said Shipley. “Most in law enforcement have caller ID block, an unlisted phone number and try to get their home address and information removed from search engines. So opening up online puts you in a precarious situation.”

Police management isn't helping matters. According to Shipley, law enforcement higher-ups are increasingly tracking officers' personal sites and blogs and punishing them for the content. “The more agencies, during their hiring practices and post employment, look at the Internet as a source of information about officers' lives outside of work, the more officers will fear posting,” he said. “Those officers who can post or Tweet about non-work related things will be fine with the technology.”

Taking Twitter Seriously

Meanwhile, the police departments that have become Twitter converts are gingerly exploring the technology's potential. In Scottsdale, Ariz., police began using Twitter in October 2008, much earlier than most of their law enforcement counterparts. Like most departments, the public information staff members wade through case information from uniformed officers and then Tweet what they deem appropriate.

“Twitter, even though it was created for social purposes, happened to be the exact platform that we were looking for to get information from us to residents' cell phones and PDAs,” Sgt. Mark Clark, the Twitter administrator, explained. “Whenever you see stuff going on we want to make sure you know what the explanation is.”

That includes sending out daily automobile accident updates as well as the locations of fires and SWAT team deployments so that drivers can avoid these hot spots.

In Richmond, Va., police use Twitter to reach out to citizens and supply material the media doesn't. At the moment they mostly put out alerts about suspects in pursuit or to announce notable arrests. Richmond's force would like to both supply information and receive it. But since the technology is still new to them, there hasn't been too much interaction yet, public information officer Dionne Waugh said.

Most tend to use the service like a modern-day police scanner, detailing incidents as they happen. Which raises problems. “The difficulty is in posting accurately and quickly when details change from minute to minute,” admits Baltimore's Gugliemi. “We try to verify the core facts as much as we can.”

But most Twitter-conscious police forces are still far behind Boston when it comes to interactivity.

In Baltimore, Guglielmi said that with only a handful of public information officers at his disposal and a massive number of criminal incidents happening daily, it's impossible for his department to respond to most Tweets. So the police force uses Twitter as a broadcasting tool rather than as a two-way channel with the public. Tweets about everything from stabbing investigations to officer-involved crashes include department contact information so that residents can send in tips independent of Twitter. The feedback feature is not popular yet, but allows the public to help if they are so inclined, Guglielmi said.

In the coming months BPD hopes to create a YouTube channel that will show video of criminal suspects taken from surveillance footage at businesses.

On the other hand, the Scottsdale police force is content to use the service to distribute information, rather than develop it as an interactive tool. “We don't want it to be a silent witness or a way of solving crime,” said Scottsdale's Mark Clark “It's meant to communicate what's going on. At the end of the message we put contact information…but [Twitter] is not the panacea.”

“Mostly a public service thing”

How much information should actually be Tweeted? Even Twitter fans among the police say that posting information about every incident, or even every violent incident, is not helpful. In Boston, Sgt. Meredith said the decision about what to make public depends largely on whether an incident occurs in a heavily populated area. If letting the public know about a crime will help alert them to blocked-off streets or consistently dangerous areas, he'll post.

But not every crime makes the cut. Meredith recalls deciding not to post information to Twitter about a recent stabbing victim who showed up to the hospital and then was treated by doctors.

“Does someone need to know that they're in the emergency room?” he asked. “It's not a situation where they would have seen caution tape out somewhere or were disrupted by traffic…[The Tweets] are mostly a public service thing.”

Boston PD also doesn't send out a huge number of messages with suspect descriptions, which other police departments are increasingly doing. The Boston Twitter service is not intended to solve crimes, cautions Meredith, although he adds that the force may consider using the network for Amber Alerts.

Richmond police are also trying to figure out what is “Twitter-worthy.” The force's four-person public information team huddles together after every incident and discusses the content before publishing. While posting major car accidents is a no-brainer, decisions about using Twitter for more violent incidents are made by the Major Crimes division, said Waugh. The fear is that such postings could jeopardize an investigation in progress, But Waugh also makes clear that whenever an incident is considered important enough to relay to the media, “we (also) want it up on Twitter.”

Listening in on a community

Jeanette Sutton, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado who studies social media dynamics, said that Twitter can be an essential surveillance tool to gauge public sentiment. “Being able to see what (the public) is talking about, whether it's a concern about a lack of resources or a perception of blame…(is) a source of information like we've never seen before.”

Sutton studies disaster response and behavior, tracking what people write on Twitter and Facebook following crises. For example, she found that in the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, students and others in the university community relied on Facebook to understand what was happening and communicate quickly what they were learning.

Police could take a lesson from this online resourcefulness, said Sutton.

In Boston, there's a push to do just that. In events that attract large crowds, such as the Boston Marathon, officers have used a feature on Twitter where they can view Tweets related to the event put out by anyone in the city. The feature lets users do a keyword search for a topic, like marathon, and then shows a list of postings that match the search. Often, police can find out about scenarios demanding attention even before someone has a chance to call 911, said Meredith.

Boston Police Deputy Superintendent John Daly told a social media conference in New Hampshire in March that using Twitter in this way can serve as an early warning system. If, for example, someone Tweets that he sees smoke in the neighborhood, it can alert cops who might otherwise not discover a catastrophe until too late. But Daly acknowledged that this approaches touchy “Big Brother territory,” since it involves viewing private communications of ordinary citizens.

His colleague Meredith maintains police normally wouldn't use this search feature to randomly read through citizens' musings. Rather, the department would limit use to special events, and then only look through Tweets that come up in relation to keyword searches about the event.

Miller, who frequently explores such privacy issues on her blog , sees no problem with police reading the public's Tweets, especially if the purpose is to monitor crowd situations. “If people are on social media and they're putting details out there, there's sort of an implication that you want others to see what you're talking about,” she said. “You want to be heard. That's the whole idea of this technology.”

Dena Levitz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She has worked as a staff writer for The Washington Examiner and the Augusta Chronicle, where she earned a Georgia Associated Press first place award for non-deadline reporting. Her work, on everything from education news to lifestyles features, has also appeared in the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle. She was recently awarded a John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim fellowship in criminal justice journalism.

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