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Social Media Quick Tip: Track Twitter Conversations

Put the Cnut & Bettween apps in your investigations arsenal

If there’s a Twitter user who turns into a person of interest, an investigator could go to their Twitter page and see the last few tweets to and from that POI. But it’s easier to just use an app. Here are two quick and easy ways to not only see who someone is tweeting, but also what they are tweeting about.

1. Cnut: With Cnut, put in a Twitter username and you’re presented with all the tweets to, from and mentioning that user. It only shows tweets from the past few days, but is a quick and easy way to get a visual depiction of that person’s latest Twitter activity.

2. Bettween: The second app goes a bit further. Check out Bettween.com. This site allows you to put in a Twitter username and it returns to you the people with whom they actually exchange tweets, in reverse order of number. Then you can click to view the conversations.

There are tens of thousands of third-party applications to leverage Twitter. The last estimate I recall was that it was more than 70,000, and that was about a year ago. Some apps come and go, and none of them are perfect. Flexibility and acceptance of change is key to getting along in this world of social media. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll find one or two apps that come in handy.

This Social Media Quicktip was previously published on LawOfficer.com.

The Tactical Advantages of Twitter

The verdict in a contention case is expected in a matter of weeks, and no matter what the jury’s decision, the city streets are likely to fill with protesters, and it could get really ugly. As highly trained law of officers, you know what needs to be done. Until reckoning day, you create the integrated policing unit, you meet, you plan, you train. The front line and support officers are well prepared and well provisioned.

  1. Incident Command Structure designed. – CHECK
  2. Critical personnel identified. – CHECK
  3. Support systems in place. – CHECK
  4. Front-line provisions: Shields, Batons, Tasers. – CHECK, CHECK, CHECK
  5. Twitter. – CHECK

Whoa, Wait, Whaaaaa?…………. Twitter?

How could it be possible that something with a name like Twitter could be a serious law enforcement tactic? One very macho Nebraska cop once said “I won’t use Twitter until they come up with more manly terms.” That was more than a year ago. It probably comes as no surprise that to this day, he doesn’t tweet. But despite it’s name and the turquoise feathered mascot, it doesn’t mean Twitter isn’t really useful for law enforcement operations.

Here are three ways Twitter could be used in a situation like the one described above to create tactical advantages, no kidding.

  1. Talk directly to any antagonist, IN THE MOMENT
  2. Follow any POI without them knowing
  3. Map a tweet to see exactly from where it came geographically

Talk directly to any antagonist. I like to also call this one “Seizing the virtual scene”. Any protestor, these days, as s/he is doing what protestors do, is tweeting as they do it. But they don’t necessarily follow each other. So how can they communicate via Twitter and know that other protesters see what they tweet? The answer is in the #hashtag. Law enforcement can use the same opportunity to inject its messages of public safety directly into that same conversation and thereby taking control of the virtual scene.

What’s a hashtag? A hashtag on Twitter is simply a word, or an acronym that is preceded with the hash mark, aka pound sign (#). In Twitter, beginning a word with that symbol makes it clickable. You click on it and you get all the tweets sent with that hashtag IN them. What’s the relevance? If you just tweet as the PD, especially in a contentious situation, the people you really want to see those tweets probably won’t. Maybe some of your followers will see them. But the protestors won’t, because they aren’t following you, they’re following the hashtag(s) for the event.

A hashtag can be created immediately, right on the spot. If the media or the public hasn’t created a hashtag that is relevant to your event, create it yourself. Keep it as short as possible as it uses up some of your 140 characters in every tweet. Then, check to see that it’s not being used to signify something else (with a quick Twitter search), then just USE IT in your tweets. Others (media) will follow and also use the hashtag.

In the above-described scenario, as in any mob situation, a few people are really angry and/or motivated and the rest are just following along. On Twitter, all it takes is one or a few of them to begin to suggest acts of violence or spread rumors that might agitate. Until Twitter, you had no way of communicating directly to them, in the moment. The officers at the scene, even if they could get through to them don’t really know the details themselves. But back at incident command, details are known. So put a communications officer in the fusion center and feed him or her some tweets, and use the hashtag.

By using the hashtag relevant to an event, you are injecting yourself into that situation/event. You are forcing people who could otherwise care less about what you have to say to see what you have to say. The protesters who are following the hashtag will start seeing your tweets. Their first reaction might be surprise that you’re there. Beyond that is the potential to influence the actions of the less radical – those follower-types who can be swayed either way, might make a better decision. If they see tweets of reality and public safety coming from law enforcement, they might think twice about their own actions.

Superintendent Mark Payne of the West Midlands (UK) Police experienced this phenomenon first hand last year during a protest between the two groups “English Defense League” and “United Against Fascism”. Both groups were using Twitter to communicate and had incorporated the hashtags: #edl (English Defense League) and #uaf (United Against Fascism) in their messaging. Prior to the event, they had used Twitter to spread misinformation about the other, resulting in increased tensions. Superintendent Payne (then a Chief Inspector) decided to work directly from the scene of the protests. He wrote this about the event on the ConnectedCOPS blog:

Using the iPhone I was able to use Tweetdeck to monitor a range of messages from all sides of the argument. I was in touch with the command cell, and able to dispel rumours instantly. Before the start of the protest, there was a message posted on Facebook that EDL members had smashed the windows of a mosque overnight. I checked, found it was not true, and tweeted a message to say so. Then a tweet was circulated that an EDL steward had been stabbed by UAF supporters, again after checking I was able to refute the allegation. This carried on throughout the day. When the EDL broke through police lines, I was able to update people straight away, and all significant events during the day were subject to messages.
~Superintendent Mark Payne, West Midlands Police

The added benefit is that the media will closely follow the tweets as well, increasingly the likelihood of accurate reporting on the outcome.

Two ways to secretly follow any POI. With Twitter’s list feature, users can create up to 20 lists. Each list can be made public or private. Leading up to any public safety event, or for any long-term surveillance reasons, put persons of interest on a list and keep it marked “private”. Then follow that list (either manually within Twitter or with Twitter management tools such as TweetDeck or HootSuite) without the knowledge of those listed.

A second way to follow someone without their knowledge is to simply put the URL (web address) of their Twitter RSS feed into an RSS reader.

Put tweets on a map. Both Google and Bing have Twitter mapping functionality that, for the users who have geo-location enabled, allow you to see the exact location of their tweets.

For example, Bing Twitter maps are searchable by location, keyword, or Twitter username. In the above scenario, put in the intersecting streets of the protest and see what tweets are happening in the area. Or, if there’s a particularly offensive tweeter, literally watch his or her movements as s/he moves about.

In Google maps, try putting the RSS feed of any Twitter user into the search bar. If they enable geo-location, see their tweets from where they tweeted them.

It’s all Grist for the Mill
No social media tool is the magic answer to law enforcement’s toolbox, and neither should social media be seen as the holygrail within your overall communication scheme. But when approached with proactive planning and realistic expectations, social media can prove to be a very valuable tactical device for law enforcement.

This post was previously published in The California Peace Officer.

Related articles:

Using Twitter Hashtags for Emergency Management, by Scott Mills

Seizing the Virtual Scene, by Lauri Stevens

Facebook is no Field of Dreams

Congratulations. You finally convinced your department to let you start an official Facebook page! So you set up an account, upload your department’s logo, and start posting. “This is great!” you think to yourself. You get your family to follow you. You get your friends to follow you. You get some of your colleagues to follow you and before you know it, you have maybe 50 people following the department’s page. But then, things start to go flat. The number of followers you get stays the same, or maybe goes up one or two people a month. What happened? You thought if you built it, they would come. Social Media is so hot right now and people should be flocking to your page.

So lonely!

But here’s the rub, hardly anyone besides your initial followers that you encouraged to follow your page even know your page exists! There are millions of pages out there and your page has become a needle in a haystack. So what do you do now?

Sell, sell, sell!

You work in a police department not a car dealership, but you really do need to do some selling and promoting to build an audience for your page. The best way to sell your page is to get your Facebook address out there.


There are literally hundreds of places to post your Facebook page link but here are some suggestions to get you started.

  • On your department’s business cards
  • On your department’s website
  • On your department’s patrol cars
  • In your city’s water bill
  • On your city’s Facebook page
  • On any event flyers your department puts out
  • In your department’s press releases even if it’s just a tagline at the bottom to ask people to follow your page.

And word of mouth helps too.

  • Have your officers mention it in your Citizen Academies and Self-Defense courses.
  • Have your PIO mention it if they do a public service radio interview.
  • Add it to scripts for your community service videos.
  • Call your local media and see if they will do a story on your new page.

The point is building a Facebook page is just the first step in creating a great resource for your community. Advertising that it’s out there is the next and often most important step.

So, what other ways can you think of to promote your Facebook page?

The Toronto Police Service Launches Social Media Program

Law enforcement agencies worldwide watch as the Toronto Police Service kicks it up a notch.

For two months last winter, I had the honor of working side-by-side with members of the Toronto Police Service (TPS) onsite at the headquarters in Toronto, to develop the Service’s social media strategy. Since turning in my proposed strategy and recommendations at the first of the year, the TPS has continued to move forward by affirming the recommendations in the report, communicating in a final report and presentation to the senior commanders, working with in-house talent on web-site redesign, creation of other design elements and finalizing policy/procedure through the various stages of approval. They have arrived at a point in time where they’re implementing the strategy and the rest of the world gets to see what they’ve been up to all these months. This Wednesday, July 27th, the TPS will officially launch its social media program.

When it comes to social media use in policing, the Toronto Police Service is already highly regarded as one of the most forward-thinking law enforcement agency users of interactive digital tools in the world, especially for community engagement, but also crime prevention and investigation. The TPS named its first social media officer in April of 2010 with the appointment of Constable Scott Mills to that role. Mills had come off of years of experience promoting Crime Stoppers and legal graffiti art in social media. Coupled with the talents of Sgt Tim Burrows in traffic, the TPS was well on its way to earning the respect of law enforcement worldwide.

Deputy Chief Peter Sloly

Then, a little over a year ago, Peter Sloly was named Deputy Chief. Sloly was hearing more about social media and was well versed on what Mills and Burrows were doing, and he started to pay even closer attention. “First of all, front line cops bought into it so it must make sense. It’s bottom up, not top down. Here two cops with different approaches had found the same levels of usability for the platforms,” stated Sloly and added, “Scott was in the deep end going deeper. Tim came in later and took a year or two. But around the same time Scott became a super user, they arrived at the same point. It was then that things began to crystallize for me.”

Sloly and about five of what he called his “most risk-averse” people attended the first SMILE Conference in Washington. That was April, 2010. After the conference, he gave those same risk averse people a chance to convince both himself and Chief Bill Blair that social media was a world in which the TPS should not go. But that didn’t happen. Instead they too began to come around to seeing that there are benefits to using social media and they said so, to the Chief.

Deputy Sloly realized then that the TPS’ social media program wasn’t so much a program, but rather the very successful efforts of a handful of people. He wanted it to make it bigger and he wanted to add structure and governance. After a thorough RFP process, LAwS Communications was fortunate to be selected. At the kick-off meeting in his office, Sloly said to me, “we’ve been well served by our in-house experts, but I need you to back us up and get the entire service on the same foundation.” He gave me a team of about 10 people from across the Service and gave us nine big goals and ten short weeks to get it all done.

The nine goals:

  • To establish an external social media strategy for Corporate Communications;
  • To make suggestions on website redesign;
  • To create and make recommendations for using social media to improve internal communications;
  • To identify other areas of the Service that would benefit from leveraging social media;
  • To create a training module;
  • To create an ongoing support system for officers engaged in the use of SM;
  • To evaluate and create a social media communications policy/procedure in order to ensure sound governance is employed;
  • To create a plan to measure the Service’s effectiveness at using social media;
  • To develop a marketing campaign that would highlight the Service’s social media strategy.

The Launch

On July 27th, the TPS will hold a media event to announce the launch of the social media program. On that day, the first group of TPS members to have been trained will have completed their course and will be set up with corporately branded social media profiles and be given the go ahead to represent the TPS to the public on social media. Much of the first class consists of corporate communications personnel so the numerical increase in profiles will be small given that most of them were already on-line. But seven more training sessions to follow will be completed by November 5th, culminating with the vetting of a total of 177 members from 27 Units, including 17 divisions and 9 community consultative groups, all representing Canada’s largest Metropolitan police service. Every profile will adhere to strict guidelines prescribing the look and design of the profile as well as profile content. In early 2012, a whole new set of training will commence to bring even more members on board.

The TPS will also begin to unveil its new website. Using all in-house talent the TPS has begun to create a new site architecture that will be more intuitive to the end user. In the beginning we’ll see the new design and the TPS social media profiles will be highly visible. Meaghan Gray is the Information & Issues Manager in the Corporate Communications Office at the TPS and has spearheaded the social media effort for the past year. She explained, “Another significant change that people will notice is that we will feed of all our social media on the website. Once people get up and running they’ll all be fed through the main page of the Internet site… the latest video, latest Facebook postings, everything. As opposed to now where it’s just the icons.”

A big part of the training each member will undergo covers the TPS social media policy. The TPS’ in-house term for policy is “procedure”. The creation of the procedure was a complex process in and of itself. It had to be inline with all other corporate procedures as well as national and provincial law officer codes of ethics. Deputy Sloly was adamant throughout the process that without proper governance the project would never win the approval of Chief Blair and other executive staff.

The TPS team also created a procedure for investigative use of social media. While in the beginning it was made clear that investigations was not part of the project, it soon became clear to key players that it was essential to address that part of the operations as well because its intertwined with communication activities, so investigations was added. The final report also recommended the creation of a cyber-vetting policy to govern the investigation of new members. The IACP commissioned PERSEREC report on “Creating a Cyber-Vetting Strategy” was supplied as an appendix and proved immensely useful to Gray. “I literally went home and highlighted each piece I thought we could use and it went together into a procedure just that easily”, she said.
To support the procedures, the Corporate Communications office will be the primary office to conduct ongoing informal monitoring of all TPS-branded social media profiles. Gray explained, “we’ll have a library of all social media profiles and will watch them for inappropriate or incorrect content or any that’s riddled with spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. It’s not going to be a big brother is watching approach, it’s meant to identify the need for ongoing training and mentoring from our office.”

The Discovery and Design Process

With team members selected from across the TPS, each bringing to the table a unique perspective, weekly (on average) team meetings were held to achieve the various goals. Team member Christine Mercier is a Legal Clerk in the Legal Services Department. She pointed to the importance of having all areas of the TPS represented, “These different perspectives, though they made the process lengthy, were very insightful. I feel that is was important to be as inclusive when developing a strategy for an organization with diverse needs and concerns.” The team conducted 7 weeks of discovery with members across the service, including in-person interviews, surveys, focus groups, environmental scans, continuously gathering input and creating an atmosphere of open-dialog, transparency and resulted in a great deal of buy-in from within.

TPS Video Services Producer Martin Blake said it was truly a team effort, “Through this transformative process of engagement, we have no only invited the public to engage us, but have also enhanced our own internal processes, roles, and functions. We now have more productive and meaningful interactions with the communities and individuals we serve, and have also increased our self-awareness as an agency, enhanced our service delivery, and increased our efficiency.” Blake is also serving on an internal communications improvement committee that had some overlap with the social media project.

In the end, we designed a strategy that called for a three-phased rollout, potentially occurring over 18 months and eventually including every Unit in the Service, even homicide and sex crimes will be included. The recommendations were all accepted but modifications were made to some and the schedule as originally designed has been altered for some aspects of the program. For example, a total of six blogs across the TPS were suggested. For technical (platform) reasons, the blogs have been delayed. The first we are likely to see is the transfer of the TPS newspaper, The Badge to a blog. The Traffic Services blog, which already exists, will likely be expanded to include the 17 traffic officers from the divisions and we may one day even enjoy a TPS Crime Blog with contributions from every area and every type of crime, among other blogs.

Success is inevitable

The signs all seem to indicate that the TPS will be highly successful in its efforts to integrate the use of social media. The key reasons I believe it will achieve success are that it has strong leadership and buy-in at top levels, it has provided for strong governance, as well as change management integration within the project and the TPS has realistic expectations.

The man at the helm is a realist. He’s a leader with a vision and he possesses the willingness to question the way things have been and look ahead at how they could be. And, like many Chiefs, he’s a risk-taker.

But most importantly Deputy Chief Sloly understands that social media isn’t the utopian answer to cure what ails policing. He does however, understand that it can have a serious impact, if employed strategically, on issues like the fallout from cuts in staffing and/or public trust issues, for examples. As he likes to say, it’s no silver bullet, “But we’re going to have this incredible array of tools that give us far more options to deal with public safety and public trust. Social media enables us to do old business in newer ways. We still have to do old business.” Sloly is also keenly aware that citizens want to engage with police in social media and they want to be talked with rather than at, which is something of a culture change for the thin blue line, “Getting police culture to understand this thing comes with the necessity for some very very strong admissions as to where the weaknesses of our [police] culture lie,” he added.

The TPS process has also allowed for the change management that is necessary to be part of the process. Early in the discovery phase, we held a one-day retreat with a professional facilitator including between 25-30 members of the Service to talk about the potential of social media use within the TPS. Similar to what he did with the “risk-averse” group mentioned above, Deputy Sloly gave the people gathered there permission to reject the entire notion at the end of the day. Instead, we created greater buy-in. The two-month long discovery phase served to create even greater buy-in as we had dialog with the stakeholders. So much so, that in the months since, upon hearing of the project, others have asked to be included if they hadn’t been, according to Gray.

Constable Mills, who is well known to become frustrated when others don’t move at his pace, called the process “painstakingly in slow motion” but acknowledged that the time taken to educate everyone involved has paid off, “This is a significant accomplishment, and has been called a ‘cultural revolution’ by some of those involved. The payoff and potential for increased community safety in Toronto and worldwide is well worth the time and effort,” he said.

Strength of governance is key and the TPS has all the pieces in place ie: three procedures (communications, investigations, cyber-vetting) to give guidance to the practitioners and a monitoring process as well as an open-minded culture of encouragement rather than discouragement.

The TPS team members in charge of the project from the Deputy Chief on down also understand that flexibility is paramount to success. Anybody who uses social media to any degree has learned that change is inevitable and one must be ready. The fact that, with few exceptions, they are all using the tools themselves speaks volumes to their ability to embrace this notion. But they know too that there will be bumps in the road and that the program will need tweaks along the way. They’ve faced several hurdles already and have overcome them, such as having to abandon the original intention to furnish their people with smartphones due to budget constraints. But they didn’t let that or any other issue kill the project. Their expectations are soundly grounded in reality.

Law enforcement around the world has taken note of the Toronto Police Service’s social media successes and now more than ever will be watching the TPS as they continue to break new ground for law enforcement, all in the name of accountability, transparency and customer service. Dozens if not hundreds of agencies across the globe are doing a good job with social media. But the TPS is kicking it up a notch or two by applying a practical yet pioneering strategy and thereby adding real substance to the words “to serve and protect”.

If you want to check out the launch of the TPS social media project, follow #TPSSMLaunch or log in to one of two video streams. The event will be streamed on the Toronto Police Ustream account as well as on on the Toronto Police LiveStream account on July 27 from 2:00-3:00 p.m. for a live video stream of the event and the opportunity to ask Deputy Sloly a question about the project.

Social Media Quick Tip: Axe Impersonators

Search for your agency regularly & report fake profiles so the social networks can take down their accounts

Police impersonators exist in the virtual world as well as the real world. They portray themselves as officers, but some accounts have been found to impersonate agencies as well.

It’s a good idea to search for your police agency on the various social networks. If you find impersonators, report them to the networks. Most are good about taking down fake accounts. Don’t expect a social networking to take down accounts that exist to criticize your agency. Unfortunately, they’re not likely to help unless the accounts are actually pretending to BE your agency by obviously using the agency name.

Additionally, help your citizens to know your agency’s social media profiles really belong to the agency. The best way to do that is to make sure links to your social media profiles are prominently placed on your website. Although it’s easy for an impersonator to put your Web address on a bogus social media profile page, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to put a link to your social media profiles on your website. Citizens can then check your website to verify authenticity.

This Social Media Quicktip was previously published on LawOfficer.com

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