Twitter me this, twitter me that

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      "Latest homicide in the city is NOT a random act. Male, 33, shot in 1500 block N. 39. More details as we have them."

   This may sound like a dispatcher, but it's not. Instead, it is a tweet sent out on March 25, 2009, by the Milwaukee Police Department.

   Twitter, home of tweets, was launched publicly August 2006 as a social networking site (SNS) designed to answer one question: "What are you doing?" Users answer this question in tweets of 140 characters or less that "followers" receive via mobile texting, instant message or the Web. Friends, family and even business professionals use Twitter to stay connected and network with others. Milwaukee Police Department is one of hundreds of police agencies also using the service, as well.

Who is using it?

   "People are interested in getting information any way they can," says Anne Schwartz, communications director at Milwaukee Police Department. "One of the things people are moving toward is where to get information from the source. We don't post news on Twitter. We use it as a tool to drive those people back to our Web site." By doing so, Schwartz says tweets encourage people to get information on their own directly from them. Milwaukee began tweeting in January and boasts almost 1,900 followers — one of the highest ratings among police departments using the site.

   Tweeting since August 2007, Wellesley (Mass.) Police Department was one of the first agencies to utilize this means of communication. "We started off using Twitter a couple years ago before it got mainstream," states Wellesley Patrol Sgt. Scott Whittemore. "The guy who started Twitter came from Wellesley." After reading about it and noticing the news media, such as ABC and Fox, were using it, Whittemore decided Twitter could be a good way to get information out quickly and drive more traffic to the department Web site. As a night sergeant, Whittemore likes the ease of being able to send tweets from the street. "We could send a text message and immediately update the Web site from there," he explains. "We put out anything and everything we thought was noteworthy." Currently, departments from across the United States and Canada use Twitter on a regular basis.

Why are they using it?

   "As many people as you can attract to your Web site is a good thing," Schwartz says. "That is, all people are getting a message directly from us. So, we will use any mode we can come up with to communicate with people directly." One of the things Milwaukee announces via Twitter is local crime statistics. "We want people to know what the accurate picture of crime is in Milwaukee," she explains. "We are not getting that from the local media because of their need to show the yellow crime scene tape story. We want people to know crime in Milwaukee is declining. How do I get that message out to the world without using a national press release? Use Twitter." Many advocates agree a large benefit to the service is the ability to get information out to the public directly from the source. "Any time you can get an unfiltered message out it is positive," said David Mitchell, former Prince George's County (Md.) chief of police and core member of the John Hopkins University Public Safety Executive Leadership Program. "I think that it's difficult to get an unfiltered message out, and sometimes it's difficult to get any message out. A message might be important to a police department but not important to a newspaper. What these services provide is an opportunity to push these unfiltered messages out." Toronto (Ontario) Police Traffic Services has utilized Twitter since February and states the speed and amount of people reached as positive aspects of the SNS. "It's a great tool for a safety message, scene management issue or updating people on traffic situations throughout Toronto," says Sgt. Tim Burrows, Toronto Police Department traffic services communication and media relations officer. "It takes no time and is quick and easy. I can drive traffic to my blog and then to the Facebook site. It just expands the safety message and the awareness."

How are they using it?

   Departments are tweeting about traffic situations, ground searches, descriptions of missing children and vulnerable adults, and crime information — such as suspect descriptions. During the recent Tamil protests in Toronto, Burrows used Twitter to keep people informed about street closures and raised awareness of related traffic issues. Toronto has also found tweeting useful for media relations.

   "When I'd get called out to a collision scene, almost from the start, my phone would start ringing," Burrows explained. "I didn't have any information to offer until I went to look. With Twitter, I'm able to let media know this is what's going on, I'm on my way and I'll let you know when I get there. Since then those calls have stopped. It's a lot better for time management and information dissemination." Milwaukee also uses the service to recognize its employees. A recent tweet states, "Amazing job by Milwaukee police dispatcher finding rape victim," and includes a link to Fox6 News for more information.

Negative Issues

   Unfortunately, like most technological advances, Twitter does not come without problems. Earlier this year, the Texas Attorney General shut down a phony Austin Police Department site which had been running for almost a year. Austin wasn't aware of the site until a reporter called Public Information Officer Sgt. Richard Stresing and said she was following him on Twitter. "I asked, 'How can you follow us on Twitter? We don't have a Twitter account,'" explains Stresing. Most of the posts were harmless and Stresing believes it was a joke. "Luckily they didn't say anything that got people in an uproar," he says. "If it continued, they could say or do something that could put the public in fear for their lives or safety, and that's not right."

   Twitter is an external social networking (ESN) site, meaning it's open and available to all Web users. Verification isn't required prior to creating a profile and followers have no way of knowing whether the user is authentic. Designed for interaction between friends and family, concerns over using Twitter to release sensitive public safety information has been growing. "One of the risks for law enforcement is security," Mitchell explains. "In terms of unsecured social networking sites, the disadvantage would be the lack of security and the fact as these sites stand now, people can post this information and send bogus messages out portraying to be someone they are not. That can cause panic."

   Mitchell explains public information needs to be three things: 1) Accurate, 2) Secure and 3) Timely. Another concern with using an ESN is it increases the chance inaccurate information can be disseminated. Even providing factual information can be tricky.

   "It could prevent law enforcement from making official notifications of death or injuries to next of kin," Mitchell says. Giving out too much information could also be a problem. Once the information is sent it becomes part of the public log.

   "I can see agencies sending out something by mistake and once you send something out you can't get it back," Whittemore explains.

   Other, more secure options are becoming available, however. For example, the company Nixle recently unveiled Municipal Wire — a new service that offers the benefit of sites like Twitter, but adds the security, reliability and precision public safety needs.

Exploding tweets

   As technology changes, police departments are given more tools to connect with their community. Social networking services, such as Twitter, allow agencies to quickly and easily send out information directly from the source inviting stronger communication and relationships with the public.

   "I love it; the more people that want to follow [the better]," says Burrows. "I'm humbled by the people who want to hear what we're saying. It's a great tool. The more people who want to hear about road safety, it's a great thing for us." Although security continues to be a concern, Twitter remains popular. "If you would have told me two years ago where this was going to go I wouldn't have believed it," explains Whittemore. "From there, especially in the last six months to a year, it's exploded."

   Editor's note: More information on Twitter and Nixle can be found at www.twitter.com and www.nixle.com, respectively.

   Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix Police Department for eight years. Currently she is working on her M.A. in criminology from Indiana State University and writes full time. To contact Perin, visit www.thewritinghand.net.

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