Click here to read an online extra to complement "Twitter me this, twitter me that"!
"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."