From blotter to Twitter

On your way home from work, your phone vibrates with a tweet from your local police department offering a description of a missing girl. Looking up, you see someone walking down the sidewalk that bears a striking resemblance to the police description. Less than 140 characters later, you’ve sent in the location of the girl and may have directly helped authorities find a missing person.

Whether it’s publishing missing person reports or upcoming community events, police departments around the world are turning to Twitter to better communicate with the audiences they’ve sworn to serve and protect.

The massively popular microblogging site has allowed law enforcement agencies to reshape their public image by immediately sending helpful tips and potentially life-saving information into the pockets and desktops of citizens.

No two departments use Twitter exactly the same way.

A quick search for “police” will yield tweets concerning everything from road closures and arrest reports to department hiring opportunities and home safety advice. The Toronto Police Department (TorontoPolice) tweeted:

0225 17:21 Pol. Req Asst Identifying 3 Susps In Robbery Invst, Composite Drawing Of Susp Rlsd http://is.gd/9bGJC

with the hope that their followers may be able to identify the suspect through a link they provided to a composite drawing.

The Remington Police Department published an Amber Alert notice:

AMBER ALERT – Missing from Roanoke VA – 3 year old child. May be in a white 90’s Chevy Blazer. More Info: http://bit.ly/7MSbdh

again providing their followers with information critical to the case.

There was a flurry of tweets from police departments this winter alerting their followers to snow emergencies and road closures. As the Northeast was bombarded by blizzard after blizzard, police regularly updated their Twitter with up-to-the-minute information about Snow Emergencies and traffic hazards.

Twitter may be most valuable to police departments as a refreshing new approach to maintaining their public image. Where some departments use Twitter almost mechanically to update followers with news, others establish a conversational tone that invites dialogue and feedback from their constituency. In some cases, this may even lead to an unexpected glimpse of the lighter side of the department. The Boston Police Department, for example, encountered one such moment that quickly spread across the internet:

The Boston Police reveal a deadpan sense of humor through Twitter.
The Boston PD reveals a deadpan sense of humor through Twitter.

Social media has revealed itself to be a powerful tool both for entertainment and information. There are hundreds of departments currently using Twitter as their public mouthpiece — is your department being heard?