Social Policing

Authorities turn to social media to connect and inform their communities

Branden Andersen / The Bulletin /

Published Jul 16, 2013 at 05:00AM

When a thief lifted a bright-yellow, high-end mountain bike Wednesday from Pine Mountain Sports on Century Drive, Bend Police Lt. Chris Carney did what police officers do, and issued an old-fashioned “be on the lookout.”

But he used Twitter, a modern twist on the old staple, and one that goes beyond the usual police network to, so far, 300 followers of Bend PD on the social media platform.

“We figured we could help by getting the photo out there,” Carney said. “It was a perfect opportunity to use Twitter and get the community involved.”

Last week, Redmond Police Department announced the launch of its new Facebook page, another effort on social media to reach out and connect with the community it serves. The department has operated a lightly used Twitter account since 2009.

“It’s easy to interact with the general public when you have an interface that people are familiar with,” said community service officer Chris Duchateau. “They are using it every day, so it’s not asking the public to do anything different.”

Facebook and Twitter, two of the most popular social media platforms on the Internet, are being recognized as powerful tools for law enforcement. Facebook registered 1.11 billion users worldwide as of July 14, according to digital marketing website Digital Marketing Ramblings. Twitter, the social media website that allows users to send out 140-character “tweets,” or messages, to followers, has 200 million active users, according to the same study.

Computer and smartphone users spend 27 and 30 percent of their time on social media, respectively, according to marketing studies. A study by Pew Research Center found 47 percent of smartphone users got news from social media “sometimes” or “regularly.”

After emergency situations such as the Boston Marathon bombings and the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting, Twitter and Facebook were seen by authorities as potential avenues to quickly inform and warn the public about developing situations.

“How Boston police used social networking after the Boston bombings is actually what encouraged me to propose the use of Twitter,” said Bend Police Department public information officer Lt. Chris Carney, who in May encouraged the department to create a Twitter account.

Boston Police confirmed details of the Boston Marathon bombings on Twitter, informing the public about casualties, suspects and rumors.

“We want to make sure we can be as helpful as they were in the event of a crisis,” Carney said.

Bend and Redmond Police join the ranks of other state organizations already on Twitter. The Oregon State Police established a Twitter account in August 2012, and now more than 3,100 followers subscribe to its updates. The Oregon Department of Transportation started tweeting in January 2009 and has just over 10,829 followers. Both organizations believe Twitter is important to connecting and informing a segment of the public that doesn’t use traditional avenues, such as radio or television, to find out about traffic closures, crimes and general public safety information.

“We’ve noticed that we continue to gain followers,” said OSP spokesman Lt. Gregg Hastings. “People are posting replies, retweeting information and seeing value in the information we provide. It has been a huge win.”

Hastings said he moderates the OSP Twitter account to preserve the professional nature of the messages sent out. Most of the time, Hastings said, he is posting or automatic posts are going up with OSP information to flashalert.com.

“Our approach is somewhat conservative,” he said. “We want to avoid anything negative or compromising posted to the account.”

Since the responsibility of moderating the social media accounts falls to one person each for Bend and Redmond police and OSP, they keep their platforms reduced to either Facebook or Twitter.

ODOT takes a different approach. ODOT spokeswoman Sally Ridenour, spokeswoman for ODOT in Salem and moderator for the agency’s social media accounts, said ODOT uses multiple social media outlets to connect with the public.

“Social media is in our communications toolbox,” she said. “We have a lot of different ways to communicate with our customers, but social media is a big one.”

ODOT started its social media campaign in 2008, when it started with an account on Flickr, a photo sharing website, to get photos of incidents to the media. The photos served their purpose, but also appealed to people using the site for recreation.

“We were starting to engage and connect with people, although it wasn’t the original intention,” Ridenour said.

The agency followed its Flickr campaign with a channel on YouTube, where it posts videos ranging from information about conditions on Central Oregon highways to teaching the public how to put chains on tires. The success of both ODOT’s Flickr and YouTube accounts led to the agency starting Twitter and Facebook accounts.

“Each tool is for different people,” she said.

Ridenour said part of her job is to see what information people respond to and do not respond to. When people interact with posts, whether they be “likes,” “retweets” or “favorites.”

Bend Police measure success in the same way. Carney said he keeps an eye on what people are taking notice of and what they aren’t. So far, he said, he has tweeted everything from a theft in progress to a thank-you message for park users who are adhering to leash laws.

“We’ve always tried at this agency to show that we are just community members,” he said. “We have a job to do, and we do it really well. But, overall, we’re human. Come over, shake our hand, and talk to us. That’s essentially what Twitter can do — remind people that we’re humans.”