Police add Twitter, Facebook to arsenal

Local departments increasingly engage the public online in their fight against crime

April 04, 2009|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,julie.scharper@baltsun.com

When Anne Arundel County police announced that they had arrested a man for snatching a pocketbook in a mall parking lot, five people gave them a thumbs-up. Others wrote congratulatory messages, including "Hooray for the Good Guys!!" One woman hoped police would have similar luck catching the man who nabbed her sister's purse.

These concerned citizens shared their thoughts with the police not in letters or at a town hall meeting but on the department's Facebook page.

Police agencies around the world - including in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City - are using online social media to publicize murders, road closures and arrests or collect tips and comment. Citizens are responding, rattling off opinions with rare candor.

"Part of our crime-fighting plan is community engagement," said Baltimore City police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, who recently created the department's Twitter page. "These social networking sites are a great tool to have a community meeting without actually going to a meeting. I also want it to be a tool where people can get information in real time."

In the past few months, dozens of police departments have started pages on Twitter, a Web site that allows users to post short updates or "tweets," that can be read online or sent to cell phones. Others have joined Facebook, a site that has quickly grown from a playground for college students to a valuable networking tool.

Baltimore County police created a channel on YouTube last month with videos of crime-prevention tips. The Philadelphia police posted footage of their motorcycle stunt team and funeral information for a fallen officer on their Facebook page. Even the FBI has gotten into the game, tweeting wanted posters and fraud alerts on Twitter.

While using these sites offers police unprecedented access to the public, experts say it also raises questions, including: What happens when the men in blue show up on a Web page where people virtually "poke" friends and "throw sheep"?

Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University Maryland Baltimore County who studies social networking, said "it's kind of creepy" for authorities to be on areas of the Internet normally used for exchanges between friends.

"These sites assume a relationship of equals, they have always been places where you keep in touch with and stay engaged with your friends and acquaintances," Tufekci said. "This is sort of like inviting police in uniform to your party."

Moreover, impostors can cause problems for police. After complaints from authorities in Texas, Twitter employees removed an account that fraudulently claimed to belong to the Austin Police Department and gave phony updates on shootings and speed traps, according to news reports.

And Maryland State Police are displeased with a Facebook page that bears their emblem although it is not associated with the agency.

But Justin Mulcahy, who started the Anne Arundel police Facebook page, described it as an extension of "community-oriented policing." Many of the people who comment on the department's page gush about the access to information.

"You know about what's going on right away rather than waiting to hear about it on the 5 o'clock news or the newspaper," said Brad Rogers, 43, of Riva. "Posting pictures of suspects gives the bad people fewer places to hide."

While a guest Tuesday on WYPR-FM, Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said he sees great potential for the new Twitter feed to increase transparency but he wants to use it cautiously.

Bealefeld said that being able to communicate directly with people allows the department to counteract negative stereotypes that people have about the city. "This is a safer city today than it was yesterday," he said.

Guglielmi, the city police spokesman, said he uses his BlackBerry to update the department's Twitter feed on evenings and weekends with everything from shootings to snarled traffic.

The Boston police, also frequent tweeters, used the site to inform people about blocked roads during the city's St. Patrick's Day parade, said spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll.

Anne Arundel police primarily update their pages during weekday business hours, but some community leaders say they would rather get immediate e-mails about crimes.

"E-mail blasts are most useful to us because we can quickly forward that information to all the community groups," said Art Huseonica, president of the Greater Crofton Council.

Creating a Twitter or Facebook page can help police craft a more approachable image with residents, said Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, a new media marketing agency. "Cops know that they need to have a face. You're not going to tell things to a faceless shield," he said.

Police should know that users of these sites expect frequent updates and two-way communication, said Jen Reeves, a University of Missouri journalism professor and new media expert.

"If they're just using Twitter to post press releases, it's a first step, but it's not really social networking," she said. "And as people become more savvy, they're going to say, 'If you had this information on Friday, why did you wait to tell us on Monday?' "

Police must also contend with chatter that can become strident. Anne Arundel police removed two comments from their Facebook page last week; in one, a woman said she would like to "try target practice" on people who were charged with shooting a pit bull.

Police posted a note asking "fans" to "use discretion when commenting on the page."



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