It’s no secret that social media, and the Internet in general, have revolutionized human communication. The way we interact with others has completely changed, and so too has the way we seek and acquire information, hence why you’re reading this article right now. It all boils down to the fact that we live in a digital world and social media has become our trusty sidekick who we turn to for, well, everything.
Think about it; where do you go to find out what’s going on in the world? News sites do the job, but Twitter does it better. Hello… streaming updates in 140 characters or less? Yes please. How about when you want to dig up some dirt on a new love interest? Obviously an online background check is the most official way to go, but then again, there’s no shame in a little innocent Facebook creeping. Oh, and what about those old classmates who you haven’t seen in years? No problem; just swing by their profiles and boom, you’re instantly caught up.
So, once you realize the ubiquitous presence of these sites in our daily lives, it’s not too surprising that another group of folks has hopped on the Twitter train – law enforcement. Sure, cops and Twitter may seem like an unlikely pair, but that’s probably because most people just picture a bunch of tough guys sitting around tweeting about the flavor of donuts they’re eating. Luckily, police departments did not adopt Twitter as a way to disseminate pointless information. Quite the contrary, actually.
The Profile That Changed It All
In order to fully explain the evolution of Twitter as a vital law enforcement tool, we have to rewind a few years to when it all began. On June 8, 2007, the Wellesley Police Department made social media history when they created the first ever law enforcement Twitter account. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were pioneers of a movement that would change the future of crime fighting forever.
Here we are seven years later, and Twitter has become an integral part of law enforcement efforts. As of 2013, there were 772 police departments with active Twitter accounts in the United States with a combined following of nearly three million users. So, this begs the question: How exactly do police officers utilize Twitter? Turns out there are several answers, and we’ve got the top three for you below. Read on to discover how our social media savvy cops are using Twitter to fight crime.
1. Relay Information To The Public In Real Time
Part of what makes Twitter such a unique platform is that it provides a constant stream of information, which is updated automatically with each new tweet. This is ideal for law enforcement officers who need to get time-sensitive information out to their followers as quickly as possible. Before Twitter, police departments had to rely on media outlets to act as the middlemen in their correspondence, and it often took hours before the information was broadcasted the public.
Now, all the officers have to do is sign on and send a tweet. This rapid-fire method of communication allows them to instantly relay crucial updates to the public about weather, road closures, crime warnings, suspects, and anything else related to public safety. The Boston Police Department (@BostonPolice) is a prime example of the effectiveness of Twitter in an emergency situation.
After the tragic Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, the entire surrounding area was put on lockdown while law enforcement searched for the suspects. During their manhunt, officers used Twitter as their primary mode of communication with local residents, and they were constantly tweeting updates, answering questions, and doing their best to keep the public informed during a time of tragedy and chaos.
2. Create A Local Presence
Twitter allows users to find and connect with like-minded individuals based on location, shared interests, and more. Hashtags also provide users with the opportunity to discover information on a specific topic, and these tags essentially create a live forum for online conversations.
Many police departments use hashtags to categorize their tweets by topic, and more specifically, by neighborhood. Police departments in large cities will often only maintain one active Twitter account to encompass the entire area, so they must rely on these categorization methods in order to reach people in certain neighborhoods.
In police jargon, neighborhoods are called “beats,” which simply refers to smaller territories within a larger jurisdiction. The Seattle Police Department had one of the largest Twitter followings in the U.S., so they wanted to find a more efficient way of categorizing their tweets by location. Their solution was to create 51 separate Twitter accounts for each beat.
Maintaining separate Twitter accounts allows residents to follow specific beats in order to find out exactly what is happening near their home, office, or school without having to sift through tweets for the entire city. The project is called “Tweet-By-Beat,” and according to The New York Times, it is “the most ambitious project of its kind in the nation.”
3. Assist With Criminal Investigations
When we think of police officers, we usually think of the guys out in the field arresting criminals. However, most of us forget that there is an entire team of detectives working behind the scenes on criminal investigations. It takes several years of police work to become a detective, and most rookies work their butts off in hopes of one day getting that promotion.
Twitter has become an invaluable resource in criminal investigations because detectives can essentially go “undercover” just by signing into their department’s account. Unlike other sites, Twitter does not require users to approve their followers, which means that anyone with an account has access to their profile and all the information it contains. Detectives take full advantage of this to gather information about suspects, witnesses, people of interest, location data, conversations between suspects, and much more.
Baltimore Maryland has been fighting a losing battle against hardcore street gangs like The Black Guerrilla Family for years. The reduction of gang-related activity is one of the top priorities of the Baltimore Police Department (@BaltimorePolice), and they’ve turned to Twitter to help with their efforts. Officers keep track of the coded language used by street gangs so that they can track member activity based on a search of certain keywords.
This method allows detectives to obtain pertinent information from various Twitter feeds such as the true identity of members, evidence of prior crimes, meeting locations, and plans to carry out future crimes. By tracking and categorizing this data, detectives can relay the information to officers in the field who can stop the gang before they’re able to commit an offense.
Do YOU follow your local police department on Twitter? If so, do you think social media has a positive effect on public safety? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Let us know in the comments!
Ashley Welter is a writer and social media manager for Instant Checkmate, one of the world’s largest people search engines. She specializes in covering topics related to social media security, marketing, and brand development. For updates on her latest articles, follow @instntcheckmate on Twitter.