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For the Toronto Police Service, Twitter makes traffic safer

When Sergeant Tim Burrows, of the Toronto Police Services (TPS), started using Twitter in April, he thought he would be talking solely to the Toronto media. To his pleasant surprise, his twitter efforts caught on with the public. Burrows is in charge of strategic communications and media relations for traffic services unit for the entire city. He now has over 2,300 followers from every continent. Burrows says “I saw the value in Twitter, but I truly didn’t see the value that other people saw in me and what I had to say. At first I guess I was kind of narrow-minded as to what I could do with Twitter.”

Sgt Burrows at the scene of traffic accident in Toronto

Sgt Burrows at the scene of trafficaccident in Toronto

Burrows’ early tweeting activity was to conduct scene management. He would tweet so that the media knew he was aware of a traffic accident, was on his way and would be providing updates. In fact, he credits a local television assignment desk editor with first suggesting he use Twitter to communicate with reporters. He still does scene management for the media, but he also tweets safety messages, tips of the day, and advises the motoring public where traffic enforcement officers will be conducting dedicated enforcement on any given day.

Among the benefits he has experienced are improved community relations, faster notification of traffic accidents and a better educated motoring public.

Interaction between Burrows and citizens over social media is increasing too and that bodes well for community relations. He has a stable of people who retweet his messages so his reach is expanded even further. Additionally, sometimes people ask for advice, send in photos with questions, or they’re angry about something. Burrows finds that getting back to an angry citizen with Twitter works wonders to build a bridge because the person is often happy just to have been heard and receive a response. “People are learning that police are not your enemy, we’re actually here to help keep you alive”.

Burrows’ tweets automatically post to his Facebook page, where he also provides traffic safety advice and posts videos. He also has a traffic services blog to provide expanded observations, “When I say slow down on Twitter, on the blog I can actually tell people why they should slow down”. And of course, he uses Twitter to drive traffic to his blog.

What lies ahead for Burrows and social media? He says the TPS is investigating setting up a Traffic Services TV podcasting channel possibly on Blip.tv or Vimeo or a similar service. He explains, “we will recap major incidents and dissect why an accident happened. If we can explain why, that’ll help people avoid the circumstances so that maybe it won’t happen to them”. Burrows plans to have experts in forensics investigation and reconstruction provide expanded observations.

His mandate was to find every way conceivable to spread the message of traffic safety and to communicate to citizens that it’s a quality of life issue. It’s a mandate he seems to be achieving. While he started with Twitter to talk to the media to help get info to the public, he’s learned very quickly that with much of his information, he can bypass the media and with Twitter actually talk directly to people.

Citizen involvement is key to success of Stolen Bikes Boston social media plan

It’s been just a month and a half since the City of Boston, teamed up with the Boston PD and Stolen Bikes Boston to launch a social media strategy to recover stolen bikes. Just last week, the first bike was recovered through the plan. Postings on Facebook lead to the recovery of the bike in Arlington. Another bike that was stolen from South Station has been reported as being sighted in Roxbury.

The director of this innovative program, Nicole Freedman, says the key is to alert as many people as feasible as soon after the bike is reported stolen as possible. People can choose from three ways to hear about a stolen bike, through Facebook, Twitter or an email list. The notices go out after someone reports their bike as stolen at the website which is stolenbikesboston.com.

Stolen Bikes Boston Twitter Stream, August 26thDown the road, Freedman hopes to be able to hook up with police authorities, such as those at universities and hospitals to recover bikes that are stolen and subsequently dumped and hopefully match them up with their owners. “Believe it or not” says Freedman, “there’s a significant secondary market for higher end bikes that quickly get shipped out of the area for resale elsewhere, often out of the country”. Tracking down those bikes will be challenging.

Additional social media efforts could include a proprietary iPhone application, “It’s something we’re looking at to see if it will help increase amount of bikes that can be returned. That’s our priority. It’s something we may do if we decide it’ll help in that effort.”

Social media is about creating conversations. The Boston Bike program is doing just that. But for the program to achieve real success will require an engaged public to participate by reading at least one of the three informational feeds and then being on the lookout. The alerts go to any citizen who signs up as well as police, bicycle repair shops and others in the cycling community.

So far, the Boston Bikes program has 173 registered users and 66 stolen bikes. To date, 380 people are Facebook fans, there are about 250 followers on Twitter and 50 who have asked for alerts through email. Freedman acknowledges that they’re still pedaling uphill and will continue to until they reach a critical mass of followers. She says, “one thing I know is that there are a lot of people that are coming very regularly to follow the stolen bikes program. It seems to be becoming viral.” Followings are built slowly, once they pass the crest of the hill, it’s certain to pick up steam.

Great Expectations

I received two e-mails this week which highlighted the challenges we are up against in this new age of media. Both people were not pleased with how quickly they received information about crimes reported in our city.

In one case, a subscriber felt she should have been notified about an attempted distraction theft at the mall immediately through the Nixle system.  The second customer was unhappy that he read about a robbery at a local pizza business in the newspaper days after the event. 

In both of the cases mentioned above, we quickly generated news releases within 24 hours of the events, so the natural reaction was to get defensive.  We have really worked hard at being more open and informative.  We have opened up many channels of communication to include crime alerts, offender notifications, interactive mapping, a newsletter, video programming, Nixle, Facebook, Twitter, and blogging.  What more can we do?  

Upon reflection, it’s clear that both cases offered lessons to learn and opportunities for improvement.  To date, we have limited the use of Nixle to primarily real-time and ongoing events (traffic snarls, missing persons, suspect searches, etc.).  We will now expand our use of Nixle to include past events which have obvious public safety implications.  We may do the same with other e-mail databases. 

Given limited resources and an overabundance of information out there, the traditional media will be limited on what they cover and how quickly they do it. These cases highlight the need for us to more effectively drive people to our content.  We will now be posting releases to our site, as opposed to simply sending the information via e-mails to the local media outlets.  We are also working on some other ideas for improving the speed and the quality of content, giving people more reasons to want to visit our site.  

I asked for feedback and I got it.  Keep it coming.

For Social Media to Succeed in LE, Gotta Get Buy-in From the Top Cop(s)

As more police departments join social media networks it’s clear to observers like myself which ones really “get it” as a department. Many individual cops tweet and have Facebook pages. But, when a department is on social media and does it well, more often than not, the chief tweets and has a keen understanding at least, of the potential value of the tools. In order for the agency to gain the credibility it would need to achieve success, the top brass needs to not only buy in but also communicate their approval and encourage their officers to participate.

articleimage1In Oxnard, California, Assistant Chief of Police Scott Whitney led his department’s charge into the world of social networking. Whitney says a friend who plays poker and follows the game on Twitter, explained to him how it works and Whitney immediately saw the value to law enforcement. He’s optimistic about the value especially to his SRO, narcotics, crime prevention, and sex crimes units. Whitney got the Chief, his PIO, and his nine beat commanders to sign up, and he tweets too.

When the movement starts at the top, it’s more likely, although not necessarily a given, that the department has a plan for social media or some sort of vision. But, in some cases, it takes one or two progressively-minded officers to take things into their own hands to demonstrate to the command-types the value the new media offer. That’s what’s happening at Toronto Police Services.

Constable Scott Mills and Sergeant Tim Burrows are two very forward-thinking officers in Toronto. They each took to social media to further their separate professional causes. Mills is a CrimeStoppers and Youth Officer, while Burrows is responsible for communicating everything that’s traffic safety related for the entire city. Burrows says it didn’t take long for him to realize that traditional media was too big and too slow, “where with social media I can drive my message to so many people, so that was a really easy avenue for me to attack on.”

His efforts, as well as Mills’ haven’t gone unnoticed. They both have support from their commanders. As Burrows points out they’ve earned their supervisors’ trust, “we haven’t done anything controversial or outside the boundaries”. Their Public Information Office works closely with both officers. Meaghan Gray is the Assistant Director of the PIO. She says the department would probably be dealing with social networking even if Mills and Burrows didn’t lead the way, but it helps that they did. Gray says, “I think the Service recognizes what they’ve been doing, the benefits and positive responses, not just for their own programs but the benefits to the Service as a whole. Cleary what they do has an impact on the rest of the Service.” Gray adds that the Toronto Police Service is currently figuring out where social networking fits within its communication strategy and how to move forward. The Toronto CHief and his Command officers have expressed their support of its PIO to explore the ways in which the Service can use social networking tools for official police business.

However an agency gets into social networking, the sooner the commanders are on board, the better. Mills and Burrows are lucky, not to mention smart, and they were in the right positions to leverage the tools. They’ve managed to garner their commanders’ support through the backdoor.

Scott Whitney is sold on the value of social media. He’s ready to let all 238 sworn officers in Oxnard on Twitter. He said there isn’t one officer in Oxnard that he wouldn’t welcome on Twitter, to tweet on behalf of the department. He adds that his Chief would agree. Whitney says, “We trust our officers. We give them guns, tasers, batons, why wouldn’t we give them Twitter? We hire people of good character. Every now and then we might make a mistake, but we’ll correct it when and if we do.” The biggest mistake may be not participating at all.

On Twitter, Mills is @1800222tips, Burrows is @trafficservices, Whitney is @acwhitney

Cops vs. Social Media

Chief Alexander is the Chief of Police in Boca Raton, Florida. Look for his regular posts on this thoughts about social media and policing here on this blog. He is @bocachief on Twitter.

Because social media provides us with a dynamic way to connect with a rich and diverse online community, I believe it has yet to be realized value for law enforcement.  There are, however, a number of factors working against cops as they look to use social media as an effective way to engage, educate and, yes, even entertain.  Here are the top five obstacles as I see it:

1. It’s fast, we’re not.  We have to take our time.

The allure of social media, particularly Twitter, is speed and efficiency. The Miracle on the Hudson demonstrated how quickly an item gets reported via social media and then spreads like wildfire.

How often do you hear the police public information line about how it is too premature to comment on an “ongoing investigation?”  We are not trying to stall for the sake of building drama.  We have to build an airtight case and we can’t release information which will jeopardize our investigation.  Oftentimes, we are working several different angles, including multiple interviews and the careful collection of evidence.

In this new media world order, no one has the patience for all of the facts to emerge. Cops are now struggling with telling the story quickly, in under 140 characters.

2. We creep people out.

A tweeter we followed received this ominous message: “Boca Raton Police (BocaPolice) is now following your tweets on Twitter.”  He said it kind of creeped him out at first.  Here’s another one: “I was alerted that @bocachief was following me. I hope I wasn’t speeding.”

There is truth in humor.  When I encounter strangers in uniform, someone will typically say, “I didn’t do it!”  Mothers point to me and warn their misbehaving children that I will put the kids in jail if they don’t straighten up. It’s not surprising that firefighters don’t get that kind of reaction.  You probably won’t hear, “Behave or that paramedic will stick you with a needle.”

People generally still trust us, but are naturally anxious about getting “social” with us.  They often have their first and only interaction with us on traffic stops. It just wouldn’t sound right to say, “Please sign the citation and be sure to follow us on Twitter.”   Not a great way to connect.

3. It’s personal, we’re not.

There are a number of reasons why cops seem to be impersonal at times.  We are programmed to always be on alert for an imminent attack.  Many of our customers are not willing participants and frequently they’re not happy to see us.  Because we build cases based on cold hard legal standards, cops often project a “just the facts, ma’am” image.

We also see the worst of the human condition, causing us to have a real hard time relating to most people in a meaningful way. If we do amass friends and followers online, they are typically a very select group of like-minded individuals.

Even in the subconscious, cops like to gather intelligence on who they are dealing with before we get comfortable.  The insanely wide open world of social networking doesn’t jive well with that cynical frame of reference.

4. We’re afraid of getting burned.

We represent authority, have been given a lot of power, and are held to a higher standard.  Right or wrong, cops are easy targets for many folks (politicians, lawyers, media, etc.) and no one cuts us any slack when we screw up.

The byproduct of using social media effectively is increased exposure.  While “transparency” is currently hip, it doesn’t make cops feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

5. We can’t handle the volume.

The police public information officer (PIO) is often the sole person responsible for handling social media for the agency.  The traditional PIO work was event-driven, involving organized communication, primarily with the media. 

Social Media is constant, ever-changing, and involves multiple points of contact. The PIO now has to develop content, update multiple sites, and be responsive to many customers in this brave new world.

I truly believe that the benefits of social media outweigh the costs.  I think there are ways to easily overcome these potential roadblocks, allowing us to leverage social media to take “community policing” to another level.  It will be exciting to see how this phenomenon will play out for policing.  Let me know what you think.

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