Thomas Heverin

Today, ConnectedCOPS is spotlighting a researcher who is studying law enforcement agencies’ use of Twitter. Thomas Heverin hails from the College of Information Science & Technology, Drexel University, based in Philadelphia, PA – USA. He is a Ph.D. student in Information Science who has conducted studies on the public’s use of Twitter during a violent crisis and on U.S. city police departments’ use of Twitter. He also served several years as Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. He happily agreed to do an interview with us.

Can you describe some of the research that you have done?
Earlier this year, I authored a paper with Dr. Lisl Zach, also from Drexel University, about the use of Twitter in response to a violent attack in the Seattle-Tacoma area of Washington State. When four Lakewood police officers were killed, we found that members of the public used Twitter as one method for disseminating information about the shooting and the 48-hour search for the suspect. We analyzed the thousands of Tweets sent with a specific hashtag: #washooting. By following the hashtag, we collected a continuous stream of messages about the event. In addition to sharing information, Twitter was also used to voice opinions, display emotions, share personal information about the fallen officers, and show support for law enforcement. We noticed minimal participation from official agencies on Twitter during this crisis.

During the WA shooting incident, what did you observe regarding dissemination of info in that incident via Twitter vs traditional media?
Twitter provided a means for individuals to discuss the information that was being disseminated and provided a way for individuals to collaborate in real time. For example, some Twitterers would question the sources of others and ask for more information. In other instances, individuals would team up and divide the task of monitoring different information sources. We also observed some members of the public emerging as key informants. These individuals were sometimes close to the police activity or monitored emergency radio channels and shared the information as soon as they heard something new. It seemed like citizens became journalists.

What projects are you working on now?
Currently we are interviewing representatives from various city police departments to determine the reasons for adopting or not adopting Twitter and other social media tools for communicating with the public. Preliminary results show that one main reason for adopting Twitter is to send information directly to the public as opposed to going through other channels. Once the interviews are completed and the data is analyzed, the results will be published in a book chapter.
In recent paper, Dr. Zach and I conducted a study on the use of Twitter by police departments from large U.S. cities. We found that police departments from these cities, primarily use Twitter to disseminate crime and incident related information. We also found that most police departments do not use Twitter to converse back and forth with the public. A select number of the city police departments do initiate conversations with the public, reply to questions, retweet others’ tweets, and follow the Twitter feeds of members of the public.

Do you have any insight for why only a small number of city police departments use Twitter to converse back and forth with the public?
From preliminary interviews with representatives from police departments, we are finding various reasons for not using Twitter to hold two-way conversations with the public. Some departments use Facebook to hold two-way conversations. Other departments feel like there is not enough time to monitor what individuals are saying on Twitter. Other departments tie Nixle to their Twitter accounts and use it just for disseminating information. Many police departments mentioned their desire to do more with social media.

Any future plans for research?
Our research on law enforcement use of Twitter has only focused on large U.S. cities. In the future, we may expand our reach to smaller cities as well as different types of law enforcement agencies including state police and possibly federal agencies.

What are your career plans once you complete your PhD?
After completing my Ph.D., I want to continue to do research on the technologies used by law enforcement agencies for communicating with the public and for disseminating information. I am also interested in researching the public’s views on law enforcement’s use of social media for these purposes. Ideally, I would like to work as a professor at a university or for a government agency.

More information
If you want to read more about Thomas’ research check his website: . While, completing his PhD studies, Thomas also works at Temple University as a physical science librarian. Follow Thomas on Twitter @tjheverin