ARLINGTON TX May 21 2012 – When officer Zhivonni McDonnell reported for a shift earlier this year, she was armed with one of the Police Department’s newest tools: a smartphone equipped with Twitter.
As she accompanied a Citizens on Patrol member that night, McDonnell, the department’s social media specialist, tweeted updates on what they were seeing and doing, giving followers a taste of what the volunteer group does.
Think social networking is just a frivolous time-waster for celebrities, kids and the weak-minded? Law enforcement agencies from Arlington to Zurich increasingly see Facebook, Twitter and other platforms as 21st-century ways to walk the beat, prevent crime and bust the bad guys.
The key, said Chyng-Yang Jang, an associate professor in the University of Texas at Arlington’s department of communication, is having personnel who are trained in their use.
“If you’re going to use it to just post information, then I don’t think it will be too effective,” he said. “The real powerful thing is the two-way communication.”
Cleveland police used it during an Amber Alert in April and received a tip within a few hours that led to the children’s rescue. In Pennsylvania, a police department made three arrests in one week off leads generated by social media. Recently, one of Denton’s most-wanted misdemeanor fugitives saw his mug shot on the Police Department’s Facebook page and turned himself in, hoping to keep his family and friends from finding out.
Social media “is here. It’s going to stay,” said officer Ryan Grelle, spokesman for the Denton Police Department and one of the first in North Texas to use the tool aggressively. “My captain told me, ‘Just do it. Don’t embarrass us, but do what you think we should do.’”
Arlington police, who have also made arrests off information distributed via social media, use the platforms to publicize good work by officers that the traditional media may not cover, to provide safety tips and to keep the community posted on emergencies like the April 3 tornado outbreak. Going to the Rangers game? Follow @arlingtonpd for reports on traffic and parking — and to see who’s having fun tailgating.
With 4,160 Facebook fans and 3,101 Twitter followers as of Friday evening, the department is gaining on the top five U.S. law enforcement agencies for its size, according to the most recent numbers reported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Social Media.
The outreach is not simply a public-relations move to control the message and put a smiley face on everybody who wears a gun and badge. “If it were,” said Sgt. Christopher Cook, supervisor of the department’s communications team, “then we would never post about murders. We wouldn’t want anybody to think their community wasn’t safe.”
The desire to add another layer of transparency and accountability starts at the top. “By being there, engaging in dialogue with our citizens through social media,” said Police Chief Theron Bowman, now an interim assistant city manager, “we are able to have candid and personable conversations, thereby facilitating legitimacy, the building block of thriving communities.”
Cook took charge of the communications staff in July after about two years in which former Dallas Morning News reporter Tiara Richard was often the lone department spokeswoman. Now the team also includes McDonnell, who focuses on social media, and Cheryel Carpenter, who came over from the city staff to handle the department’s community relations.
All four share the duty of monitoring and updating the department’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Nixle platforms.
“We found that you really have to have the staff to handle that stuff,” Cook said. “There’s just no way to keep up with it otherwise.”
Last fall, the staff attended a Social Media, the Internet and Law Enforcement — or SMILE — conference in Dallas, where it learned what departments elsewhere in the country were doing in cyberspace, including the idea of virtual ride-alongs.
The “tweetalong” — a Twitter hashtag that the Arlington department believes it was the first to use — has proved popular, in one case helping the department attract hundreds of followers in mid-December when Bowman tweeted while accompanying a drunken-driving task force patrol shift. The next tweetalong is scheduled for Tuesday.
Law enforcement agencies across North Texas are feeling their way around how to best use the platforms. Dallas police are posting official news releases on Facebook.
Fort Worth police, who drew criticism two years ago for questionable tweets, now use Facebook and Twitter in much the same way as Arlington. Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson has hired an administrative assistant who is knowledgeable about social networking to guide him.
“We’ve tried to be careful in disseminating information,” he said. “Most of what we do is very serious, and not everything can be put out to the public. We’re going to operate as much on a transparency level as we can. I think that in the right times and in the right ways, it can be a good channel to communicate, but we’re not going to force it on anybody.”
Properly used, social media platforms can put the police and the average citizen on equal footing, fostering a casual exchange in a comfortable manner. That can be reassuring for many people who would normally encounter officers only during a traffic stop or other stressful situation.
“It shows that there’s a real person behind the badge,” Grelle said. “Police officers are human, too.”
And the nature of social media is such that important information is transmitted via retweets and Facebook “shares” to a much wider audience than a department’s first-line followers, giving police a network of additional eyes and ears.
In February, for example, Denton police began posting their most-wanted felony and misdemeanor lists on Facebook. The tips they received have led to eight arrests, including the embarrassed fugitive who turned himself in.
On April 18, the Cleveland Police Department posted an Amber Alert on its new Facebook and Twitter accounts, which had about 2,000 followers. Some 200 of them quickly shared the information with their own followers, and so on. Within hours, the suspect and missing children had been spotted, according to a May 5 story on cleveland.com.
Meanwhile, the Southwestern Regional Police Department in Pennsylvania made three arrests off Facebook tips in one week, according to a May 10 newspaper article.
But, as the Arlington staff found, using social media platforms requires time and personnel, which translate into financial costs. Finding those resources can be challenging, said James McLaughlin Jr., executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association.
“Once you start on social media, you’re always on call,” McLaughlin said. “Your audience doesn’t want to wait a week for a response. They’re expecting a two-way interaction.
“Nothing is more important than accuracy,” he added. “Your credibility is only as good as the last information you put out there.”
Most Texas agencies seem to be using some form of social media now, he said, and the list grows almost daily.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police founded its Center for Social Media in October 2010 to help agencies use the platforms to prevent and solve crimes, strengthen community relations and generally enhance service delivery. The Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs is a partner in the center, which acts as an information clearinghouse and offers free training and tips for agencies.
Few outsiders are more attuned to the social media activity of North Texas police agencies than John Burgdorf, a 19-year-old college student from Dalworthington Gardens.
In October 2010, while still a student at Pantego Christian Academy, Burgdorf founded the website Dallas/Fort Worth Police Scanner, a social network that reports fire and police activity to more than 20,000 subscribers on Twitter and Facebook.
“You learn social media through experience: learning from your mistakes, taking in advice from others and adapting to the … changes,” Burgdorf said.
Until recently, Arlington police were doing little with their Twitter and Facebook accounts, he said, but they seem to have discovered the power of the platforms.
That holds true for YouTube as well. In mid-April, the police and fire departments teamed up with A Wish With Wings to arrange a comic-book-hero crime-fighting event for a 7-year-old leukemia patient. A video of the Batman adventure went viral, attracting almost 227,000 views — 87 percent of the all-time views on the Police Department’s YouTube channel.
The department is also testing a live-chat option that residents can access from its website, arlingtonpd.org.
Officers working the lobby desk at police headquarters respond to inquiries as time allows, often saving an in-field service call, Cook said.
Burgdorf has been impressed with the department’s digital efforts.
“In my opinion, they shouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “They are doing a fantastic job, and it’s only getting better.”
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