May 7, 2012 By Jessica Mulholland
Fifteen Philadelphia police officers will soon be trained in the use of a new crime-fighting tool: Twitter. At a City Council hearing last month, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said that with a tight budget, he plans to have his officers make more use of tweeting and other technologies.
Ramsey's communications director, Karima Zedan, says that the department is launching an effort to have officers at all levels tweeting regularly using their smartphones. In this abridged, edited transcript, she discusses why using Twitter to the police's advantage will bring many benefits for Philadelphia's communities.
Our driving philosophy has been: Why not try to pave the way and use [Twitter] as a great tool to connect to people and put a face to the men and women who serve in the department. That's really what Twitter allows us to do. We've been on Twitter (@phillypolice) since September of 2009. It's been a great way to respond to people's questions, to give information to highlight programs that the police department is doing [and] to highlight the good works of people.
We have a very enthusiastic detective on Twitter, Joe Murray, and he's actually been tweeting for probably close to two years. We didn't even know about it. Joe Murray has been connecting to communities in our University City area (where the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University are, and a number of other organizations) and he's gained a following. Right now he has over 1,400 followers, and people have really loved having him as a virtual presence.
If you read @ppdjoemurray's Twitter stream, you see just how engaged he really is. He'll tell you, "I'm not really doing anything more than what people did back in the '50s or '60s, people went out on foot patrol, they went into stores, they went and talked to people. I'm doing the same thing; I'm just doing it with my cellphone."
Joe Murray will help lead the way. He understands the language, he knows how to use it and he's had great success. He's already contributed so greatly to our efforts here, to pushing information out and supporting the department's efforts. He is helping people see that this could be a really great tool. [Officers] will have their own independent accounts, and we really want them to become known in their community.
We expect them to tweet information that is timely and relevant: public safety alerts, crimes in the area. We want them to stay within [the social media policy], so for example, please respect the privacy rights of victims, respect the integrity of an investigation [and] those kinds of obvious things. We don't want them tweeting about that. We don't want them sending out press releases; we can do that. We want them having conversations with people, which is Twitter's tagline: "Join the Conversation."
Definitely, we plan to expand it. We have a lot of people and we don't need everyone on Twitter, but it would be great to have a number of people, particularly in patrol, uniformed patrol and our detective divisions who are talking to our communities every single day.
I think when they start seeing the positive interactions that come about as a result of these conversations, change will happen quickly. From my personal experience, when it comes to implementing any kind of organizational change around communication and technology, we have to show them why they should be invested, give them good reasons and show them the results. And when people see that they can talk to this person directly, set up community meetings, give the information that people really, really want — all from my cellphone — that's really quite empowering. I think once people experience that, they will come around.
I think when it comes to making change, there are always cynics and a fear of change, a fear of what the change will mean for them. But really, Twitter, Facebook, all of the social media channels, they're no different from what was 10 years ago a regular cellphone, and before then, a telephone. These are all just other tools in our tool chest of ways to talk to and communicate with people. Five years from now, we will be having the same conversation about a different technology innovation, and how to incorporate it into our daily lives. We had the same conversation about email, and now email is a regular part of our lives; for some people it's even passé. Some rely strictly on text messaging. So it is a complement to what they are already doing.
I think it will help them become connected to their communities much quicker than perhaps they expect. I also think if people know who is on the other end -- if they can put a face to whose on that account — they're more likely to give more information when it comes to solving a crime. Joe Murray has provided an excellent example of that. He's gotten a lot of tips. People email him every single day with tips because of the information he's putting out on Twitter. He's using social media to build trust in our communities, and that's the best possible outcome — these channels, they bring people closer to the department, they build trust over time, people get to know us and our communities become safer.
At Issue: Is Twitter -- and other social media use by police -- a return to the days when police officers walked a beat and talked to people, or a public relations activity that distracts from dealing with crime?