To head off problems such as the unruly, violent crowds that descended on Towson and downtown Baltimore this year, police departments locally and across the nation are seeking new ways to tap into Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.
Baltimore police reviewed Twitter posts during the city's Sailabration and Grand Prix race to get real-time information about possible criminal activity. In Tampa, police monitored Internet posts for the Republican National Convention, looking to spot problems before they arose. And in Cincinnati, police make similar efforts to prepare for major events such as Oktoberfest and a Reds playoff game.
But sorting through the vast amount of information and deciding what's relevant is a daunting proposition — one that may take up more police resources and expertise than can be spared.
"We've seen agencies monitor social media at mainly large-scale events," said Nancy Kolb, senior program manager at the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
She said departments have been able to identify concerns — from traffic to safety — and watch crowds via the Internet. But she added, "It's certainly not the norm. Departments generally don't have the resources to monitor social media 24/7."
Most police departments are not using social media sites to their full advantage, said Dennis Jay Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "For the most part, they're not doing much of anything," he said, adding that most tend to use social media for public-relations purposes. "It's a quick-acting tool that police departments aren't quick at."
Police have blamed social media sites for luring large crowds to Towson and Baltimore — incidents that left police overwhelmed and scrambling to restore order. Last weekend, hundreds of people descended on Towson, creating a disturbance in which seven people were charged with crimes, police officers were injured and one person was shot. On St. Patrick's Day, city police struggled to contain mobs that packed downtown, sparking a number of fights.
In both incidents, people posted publicly to Facebook and sent out tweets as problems escalated.
Although police departments increasingly use Twitter and Facebook to alert residents about crime and ask for help in investigations, the sites can also broadcast potential dangers, giving police more information without having officers on the ground, experts say. Online tools, including websites that compile posts to social media sites and save searches by location, can offer departments quick information.
City police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said social media are very useful tools during large events such as the Grand Prix and Sailabration, as thousands of tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook check-ins flooded in from users downtown.
During Sailabration — a summer event built around a parade of tall ships — the department launched its largest social media monitoring initiative, he said. The office of emergency management reviewed hundreds of messages about the event to look for crime and threats, and "to see if people are enjoying the event."
Guglielmi said social media monitoring has been used not only for events but also for tracking dirt bikes, providing "real-time community intelligence."
Even when the city is not hosting major events, he said, criminal intelligence staffers regularly monitor social media sites.
Based on a tip, Baltimore County investigators may look at social media sites, said Cpl. Cathy Batton, a police spokeswoman. But police "do not routinely monitor social media. Our use of social media will always be complaints- or investigation-driven. We use it to investigate crimes, assess threats."
Kenney said that monitoring social media is easier for major events, "when you actually know who will be posting." In the Towson situation, he said, police might not have picked up information unless they were aware of the event ahead of time.
But some say that with a little training and understanding, social media can prove very useful to departments.
Lauri Stevens, is a social media specialist whose company, LAwS Communications, is producing the Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement Conference in Sunnyvale, Calif., in February to educate law enforcement on the use of social media.
She said it's important for police departments to become active online, but usually, they only become engaged beyond public-relations efforts when a serious incident occurs.
"It's like getting a town hall to put a traffic light in," she said. "Something bad has to happen first."
Departments can deter crime by spreading their own message, she said. Social media users often trust what comes from law enforcement channels, which can allow authorities to affect the outcome of a potentially dangerous situation. During the London riots, she said, police were able to dispel rumors, heading off further violence.
She said college police have been especially adept at using social media, because much of their audience is composed of active users. One agency was able to see how a party moved from one location, and officers beat party-goers there, she said.
"If a law enforcement agency isn't using social media," she said, "they are going to learn soon, they can't [afford not to]."
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