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.