Twitter for law enforcement: Agencies and officers

Feb. 9, 2012
Like any law enforcement tool, whatever you put into Twitter has to be worth the time and effort.

In the three years since sworn officers first started exploring its microblogging service, Twitter has evolved from a domain for tech geeks to a major source for breaking news, new relationships, and even customer service.

It's also become an online space where rumors fly, careers end, and thieves take advantage. While many law enforcement agencies and officers use it nowadays, others remain skeptical that Twitter can do anything for them.

Like any law enforcement tool, whatever you put into Twitter has to be worth the time and effort. For instance, most people in the US have internet access, but this doesn't mean they're using social media (although Facebook may be the exception).

On the other hand, even if most of your citizens don't use Twitter, what if the news media were active there? Local politicians? What if you found out that gangs like Hood Starz or Gangster Disciples were trying to establish themselves in your area, and were actively using Twitter to recruit local schoolkids?

It's important to understand social media tools at the very least because you never know which ones will provide valuable evidence in a case... or which will become important during a major incident. What people share and how they communicate can affect both. Are you prepared? 

A few ground rules

First: if you've identified yourself as a police officer, especially one employed by a particular agency, never think you're tweeting off duty. Even if your agency has an open policy on social media, you're never a totally private citizen. Don't do anything you wouldn't want your mother or your chief finding out about—accidentally or on purpose.

Second: if you use Twitter personally, don't assume that representing your agency will be the same. There are similarities, but joining in an ongoing conversation is much different for a “brand” account than it is for a person.

Third: if you're using Twitter for investigative purposes, keep everything separate from whatever you do officially or as yourself. Different username and password; different mode of logging in; different device (if mobile); you may even want to go as far as using a proxy so that you can't be traced back to your police department.

Your Twitter bio: person and personality

A Twitter bio has both image and words. The “image” part can include either an officer's picture, or an agency symbol like a badge, patch or crest. Many official accounts have officers' in-uniform pictures, which both personalizes the officer and transmits the values of policing. Unofficial or personal accounts can use any image, as long as it's appropriate (see ground rule #1 above).

Some police departments have a “no social media pictures in uniform” policy. For those trying to avoid snapshots taken during a drunken binge, in the wee hours of the morning while escorting cute bartenders to their cars, or graphic crash or crime scene photos, this is reasonable.

However, think about the opposite effect. As emergency medical services blogger Greg Friese pointed out last month, “No uniform/no apparatus policy eliminates opportunities for photos and posts that reflect pride in work, colleagues, and equipment.”

The “words” part of a Twitter bio is only 160 characters long, so make the most of it. The “personality” you show in your Twitter bio communicates what a follower can expect. Your bio might be entirely professional, warm and inviting, or even a little bit humorous. But do fill it out. Left blank, a bio can leave a prospective follower guessing at the account’s purpose or even its legitimacy.

If you don't intend to monitor the account regularly, say so. Many official agency bios do include a disclaimer like “Not monitored 24/7; call 911 for immediate assistance.”

Your Twitter background image

Twitter provides several generic background images (the full-screen image behind your tweets), one or two of which—on dark blue or gray backgrounds—could work for law enforcement use. Some agencies upload city panoramas, or images of police buildings and cruisers.

However, a custom background image both looks more professional, and allows you to communicate more information than your Twitter bio alone. @TorontoPolice's background is an excellent example: it names everyone in the agency's corporate communications unit, and directs users to other social channels like Facebook and YouTube.

An individual officer can use a custom background as a visual bio. @Mia_Ria's background depicts the Iowa sergeant with her two daughters, and skating with her roller derby team. Her tweets and bio reflect these images: funny, sometimes irreverent, and at times tender. It's a good example of how an officer can show some personality without getting herself in hot water.

Following and being followed

Facebook has “friends.” LinkedIn has “connections.” Twitter? “Followers.” These are people whose 140-character messages you choose to display in your “stream”: a fast-moving, real-time update of the news, thoughts, responses, and ideas people are sharing.

That means your Twitter presence is what you make it. An individual police officer will tweet differently than an agency, so it stands to reason that he or she will follow, and be followed by, different people (though overlap is likely to some extent—think media). If you're using Twitter personally, decide what you want to use Twitter for. Get to know other officers? People who share your hobbies and interests? News source?

Either way, focus on the people you're following, rather than on numbers. Some believe a higher follower count means you have more credibility. After all, @Boston_Police has more than 36,500 followers; @FBIPressOffice, nearly 300,000.

However, because Twitter is about relationship-building, it's best to target your followings. An official agency account holder should plan to follow news media, local bloggers, politicians, other public officials, and other public safety agencies in their region.

An officer who is tweeting in an official capacity (say, a fraud investigator or victim services advocate) will want to follow individuals in his or her own community, plus other professionals, nonprofit agencies and even vendors who support what they do—the better to have fresh information to retweet.

And remember that the people you want to build a relationship with, may not be all that interested in building a relationship back. As with any new friendship, build by making your messages about them—not you and your perspective.

Tweeting (and retweeting): Twitter conversation

A “tweet”: those 140-character messages. Tweets got a bad rap early on when people who couldn't think of anything to say, but still thought they should share something, began to share the mundane. Breakfast. Toothpaste brands. Petty annoyances.

Tweets like this dilute the real power of the tweet. Compressing a sentence into just 140 characters forces you to distill a thought into its purest form. An example from my stream: “I just completely rewrote an entire blog post. Amazing what we need to start with, before we can get to what we need to say.”

There could easily have been more to that thought, and I'm naturally wordy because I like to explore many different angles when writing. But the short form of a microblog made me figure out the most important points—and gave rise to a conversation with a few of my followers.

Precede a tweet with @username--@christammiller, @OfficerCom, @frankborelli etc.--and now you're speaking directly to a person (or more). Start a new conversation, or respond to something they've said; this is how whole conversations can take place on Twitter. It goes easier when you make an effort to login and pay attention to what's going on from day to day.

Also, the retweet: Read someone else's tweet that made you laugh, or a news article you think your followers would enjoy? The retweet lets you share another person's news or thoughts. They look like this:

RT @gutterchurl: excellent post from @christammiller!… [Post-conference strategies for getting more value]

(You can also use “MT” for “modified retweet” when you need to edit a tweet so it will fit in under 140 characters.)

A final note: try not to use text-message lingo when you tweet. Compressing words into shorthand (w/ for “with”, b/c for “because”) is one thing, but a grown professional who uses terms like “gr8” and “W8ting 4 u 2 get here”—terms teenagers use to communicate—reduces their own credibility. You can do better. Practice if you need to.


Known as “the pound sign” on your phone, the symbol # preceding a word or phrase in a tweet is known as a “hashtag.” These can be formalized or humorous, but they help with Twitter searches. #Occupy, #IDtheft and #Anonymous are all examples of hashtags that police might want to follow.

Create your own hashtags to use in tweets about your community, or use existing hashtags when you're tweeting about a larger trend. In a recent post for the IACP Social Media blog, Dionne Waugh explained how @RichmondPolice uses hashtags: to track specific incidents, city news, or trending topics. and are both good ways to research hashtags. Some people prefer to “register” hashtags when they plan to tweet events or live Twitter chats, over which they have ownership. can help, but note that hashtag registration is generally accepted as unnecessary—hashtags catch on when used regularly.

Bringing other social media into the mix

Some law enforcement agencies or officers connect their Twitter accounts to other services like Facebook, LinkedIn and Nixle. This is perfectly acceptable, but be sure it makes sense to do so—engagement is different for Facebook and LinkedIn than it is for Twitter.

For example, I have connected a client's Facebook page to its Twitter account, because I know our Twitter followers would benefit from the news items I share in both places. My personal Facebook, however, is not connected to Twitter (even though I sometimes share thoughts in both places) because I see my Twitter account as more professional than Facebook.

Also connect Facebook to Twitter when you want to drive traffic to your Facebook page: for instance, to identify surveillance images or videos you've posted, when you need more reach than your Facebook page has. However, keep in mind that you don't need a direct link to share YouTube videos or Flickr images—these typically have a “Share” function you can use for specific items.

Twitter safety

No article about Twitter would be complete with a mention of ways to protect yourself from scambots and phishers. In the last few weeks I've seen an influx of direct messages going something like, “You seen what this person is saying about you? Terrible things!” with a shortened link. (Twitter shortens links so that they'll fit within 140 characters.)

What cop wouldn't be immediately worried about potential reputation damage? Yet this scam has been around for a year or two. Click the link, and it grants the spambot access to your account (including your password), which it then uses to send more bogus links in fake messages. Spam like this depends on the receiver's insecurities: reputation, weight, relationships, and so on.

Remember, if a real person has a real problem with you, they should use real channels rather than acting like a middle-schooler spreading rumors. (And would you really want to stoop to that level for a legitimate complaint?)

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About The Author:

Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in law enforcement and digital forensics and can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Christa M. Miller

Christa M. Miller is Director of Mobile Forensics Marketing for Cellebrite USA. Christa has worked for more than 10 years as a journalist, specializing in digital forensics and other high tech topics for public safety trade magazines including Law Enforcement Technology and Christa is based in South Carolina.

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