How the Police Use Twitter

The following is a chapter from #TwitterBook. It's very popular, so I put it on a webpage.

I noticed the police are active on Twitter so I met with the police in Palo Alto Police Mountain View to talk with them about Twitter and social media.

There are almost 18,000 police departments in the USA. Several thousand are using social media for investigation and outreach. They do investigation, of course, but community policing outreach is more important: they see social media as a way to improve transparency. It allows the police to have a personal presence and collaborate with the community. They can reach out to the public and the public can also contact them.

The Boston Marathon Bombing was a watershed moment because it was the first time that the international community was able to receive timely and accurate information in a major critical public safety situation directly from a police agency via social media. In the general panic after the bombing, the web was filled with rumors. The Boston police used Twitter to update people about the search for suspects. When the suspect was finally surrounded and captured, the police tweeted updates every few minutes. Boston Police’s use of Twitter created an expectation among the public that if a terrorist event happened in their community, the police in their jurisdiction would be on social media and do what the Boston police did. It raised the bar for police agencies.

Social also allows police departments to bypass the media and reach the public directly. Newspapers and TV/radio news often spin stories to make them more dramatic, which attracts viewers, which increases advertising revenues. Crime in the US has fallen steadily for more than 30 years to record lows, but you won’t know that if you watch TV news.

When the police told the media that they were going to start using social, the media said please, don’t do that, it takes the news away from us.

Previously, the police held press conferences for the news media. While police still conduct press conferences in major cases, many now post routine press releases directly to Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. By creating their own broadcast capability, the police are able to talk directly with the public when something is happening. The result is greater accuracy because the news media can’t spin the story. Instead, the media now often retweet the police tweets. For example, a press release tweeted by the Palo Alto Police Department can be retweeted by the media and can reach 150,000 people within moments, giving the public the opportunity to read accurate information directly from the source.

How does this work? A few months ago, two Palo Alto police officers stopped a car on a busy downtown street at lunchtime. The driver then drove away from the stop, crashing into multiple cars, and then fled on foot. It created quite a scene. The cops ran after him for a few blocks. However, people in cafes and restaurants began tweeting about police car chases, hostages, guns, and so on. The police were able to immediately reply by Twitter that none of that was happening. It was just a foot chase. They can clarify, correct, and update, which calms the situation and prevents the spread of misinformation to the public.

Social also allows police to be seen as human. Some of the tweets are really funny. One day, they tweeted they would set up a speed trap at an intersection. After they caught one guy, they tweeted he should have been following the cop’s tweets!

The police use a blog Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. They also use Nixle, which lets police send SMS alerts to their communities. They use YouTube for videos and Pinterest to post photos of lost and found items, their police dogs (great pixs!), the officers, and other items. Silicon Valley police also use NextDoor, a social media site that’s based on neighborhoods.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, over 50 departments, including police, fire, ambulance, and other emergency groups share information through the Bay Area Law Enforcement Social Media Group (#BALESMG). Other cities are encouraged to contact them to learn more. There’s also IACPSocialMedia, a central resource for social media for the police.

There is also software for the police. For example, BrightPlanet offers BlueJay, which lets police monitor tweets within their community. They can mark off an area on a map, select terms such as #meth or #shooting, and get alerts when these words show up in live tweets in their selected locations. The police can also add a list of users to monitor. BlueJay delivers the tweet text, the type of device that was used to post the tweet, and if it’s enabled on the device, the GPS location with a dot on a map. The officer can zoom down to street view to see the location. By clicking on the user, the police can see his past tweets, posted pictures, and tweet habits. The police can download the most recent 10,000 tweets that match the users, keywords and place names in their watch list.

People will tweet to buy drugs, offer drugs, or brag about drugs they just bought. Street gangs often send out tweets to brag about their crimes. These often include photos and videos of themselves in the act. “Woohoo! We robbed the corner store! Here’s pix of us with the money!“ Police click “like” on those. They don’t realize their postings can be seen by the police. Cops, even in small towns, have learned how to use social media to watch for hashtags such as #meth, #molly, and so on.

You may wonder why the police are so active in social media. Many of the city departments, including the fire department, water department, and so on are using social media, but police get the attention because they have SWAT teams and dogs, plus people like to watch cop shows.