Policing in the 21st Century: When Police Tweet to Fight Crime or Share their Feelings

Twitter_PoliceIt’s policing in the 21st century: where community outreach comes on Twitter, surveillance tape footage is posted on YouTube and gangs are infiltrated on Facebook.

In Upper Darby, it took one police captain, who remains alluringly anonymous on the Twitter account, to realize that the department was missing a whole way of communicating with the public. @UDPolice was born in March and has since gathered 2,300 followers.

Police Superintendent Mike Chitwood says it helps to give a face to law enforcement — one with pizzazz, comedy and a little irreverence. “With 140 characters, you can’t say a whole lot,” he says. “But with what little we say, the reception of the community at large has been positive.”

Solving Crimes On Social Media

Upper Darby is far from unique in utilizing social media to connect with a larger audience. In June, the Brimfield, Ohio, Police Department spent time in the national news spotlight for its spunky Facebook page that went viral.

A nationwide survey conducted last year of 600 law enforcement agencies found that 92 percent use some form of social media. Of those plugged-in agencies, 90 percent use Facebook, 50 percent Twitter and 37 percent YouTube, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Social Media findings.

Almost two-thirds say their accounts have improved community relations — the main goal of Upper Darby’s Twitter account. But even more say it has helped with the most integral part of their work: investigating crimes.

They reviewed social media profiles of suspects or victims, created undercover social identities to gather information and posted surveillance videos or images in hopes the public might be able to help.

“It’s kind of an expanded version of the good work they would do on the beat,” says Sgt. Dave Norris of the San Mateo, Calif., Police Department. A few months ago, for example, his agency arrested a man on suspicion of attempted statutory rape after police detectives posed as a teenage girl online.

It’s still not a replacement to old-fashioned analog investigations. “Traditional police work is the way to solve most of these crimes,” says Sgt. Eric Gripp of the Philadelphia Police Department. But if there’s a way out there to make their jobs easier, why not get on board?

This article continues at npr.org

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