What did Lance Armstrong do when thieves made off with his one-of-a-kind time trial bike? The seven-time Tour de France champ tweeted about it. Four days after posting a TwitPic of the bike, a reward offering, and a plea to his Facebook fans, the treasured set of wheels was escorted back to him by the Sacramento police.
Author and Brooklyn mom, Beth Harpaz, recovered her son’s stolen bike in a similar way. “We tracked the perp down using email and Facebook, turning our big-city neighborhood into a nosy small town with a virtual front porch,” she wrote in the Huffington post.
People like Harpaz have been taking matters into their own hands through social media platforms for some time now, but only now are police departments and prosecutors beginning to do the same–raising a host of questions about how best to utilize the tools available.
In Boca Raton, Florida, the police are tapping the power of Twitter to help fight crime. Dan Alexander, chief of the Boca Raton Police Department, tweets links back to surveillance videos and reports on their Web site, Alexander, who goes by the Twitter handle of @bocachief, says it operates much like the old “977-TIPS” hotline as a “new way to engage constituents.”
But a quick scan of Chief Alexander’s Twitter page reveals that he is doing more than just broadcasting. He tweets links to articles and responds with frequency to those who have questions or chime in with tips.
“I’ve formed relationships I would not have without Twitter,” he explains. And while the police are notoriously private about the details of unsolved crimes, as well as about themselves, Chief Alexander believes, “If [the tweets] are personal and relevant, we have the opportunity to influence behavior as we dialogue.”
Christa Miller, principal of her own eponymous communications firm that focuses on public safety says that Chief Alexander “gets it.” Her blog, Cops 2.0 has several case studies of police departments using social media to help them serve their communities more effectively. Still, she admits she has mixed feelings about law enforcement on Twitter.
“It is a valuable tool that allows police to ‘push’ information to its public. Whether to tell people to watch out for a crime trend, draw attention to overall crime statistics, or to highlight the great work by officers, it allows the public to see what police are doing and gets them thinking about how they might help,” says Miller.
At the same time, she notes that Twitter’s instability and the widely divergent times that people are online make it unreliable for emergencies. She advises that Twitter be used in conjunction with a more robust tool such as Nixle, a free service that offers trusted, up-to-the-minute, neighborhood information.
“Public information officers should require followers to submit crime tips via agency Web site rather than direct message or @ message. Some followers do @ tips but I don’t think it’s advisable, both to protect that person’s identity, and to ensure the tip makes it to the right channel.”
Boca Police were recently able to catch a man who stole a television from a store by tweeting a link to surveillance video. A woman who watched the clip, recognized the thief, and was able to lead police to his whereabouts.
Another tweet in Chief Alexander’s stream declares, “Sometimes it’s just too easy,” and links to a report of Rhode Island police picking up a man who allegedly tweeted that he was about to drink and drive.
Chief Alexander is quick to point out that both he and his force are relative newcomers to Twitter; @BocaPolice started in January and he began tweeting this May. “We are just starting to recognize its potential as a source of communication and intelligence,” he says, but recognizes that Boca Raton is a popular tourist destination, so he feels the responsibility of having to reach a wider audience.
“It’s a challenge to move beyond using Twitter for marketing. I’ve tried to make it a two-way conversation to answer questions on policy and maintain integrity.”
Now that the cops have embraced Twitter, can prosecutors be far behind? Adrian Dayton, a New York attorney and author of the forthcoming book, Social Media for Lawyers: Twitter Edition, believes they aren’t using Twitter in an effective way. “Even though they can search for any conversation going on anywhere in the world, most of them don’t know how.” Despite this Dayton predicts, “We will see Twitter conversations being used to prove intent, alibi, and provide other essential evidence,” over the next year.
Miller says, “Overall social media can be a “force multiplier.” If you get a lot of citizens re-tweeting posts, viewing crime maps and surveillance videos, discussing crime problems, then they become responsible for their own communities. They can really partner with police as opposed to expecting police to do everything for them.”