Police are out at 44th St/Broadway on an officer who was stabbed – Sacramento police officials tweeted at 9:28 a.m. April 14.
In less than 140 characters, the tweet gave sufficient information to the media and community. The number of calls that would have inundated an understaffed Sacramento Police Department dispatch center dropped, leaving dispatchers to effectively answer other emergency calls, spokesman Sgt. Norm Leong said.
From posting real-time updates on traffic accidents and officer-involved shootings on Twitter to posting crime prevention videos and quirky crime news on Facebook, Sacramento police officials say new social media tools have enhanced their communication with the public – in much the same way community policing built relationships.
Lauri Stevens, a social media analyst who recently hosted a conference in Washington, D.C., that was attended by more than 60 law enforcement officials, said she considers Sacramento's Police Department one of several in the nation that is at the forefront of using social media to advance its public safety goals.
Stevens also tracks more than 800 law enforcement agencies worldwide on her Twitter site, @lawscomm.
Agencies have had successes in using social media as an investigative tool to crack down on gang and other criminal activities, but they are just beginning to embrace the same medium as part of everyday police work, Stevens said.
"It's real early in the adoption curve with law enforcement and social media," said Stevens, who is also department chairwoman of web design and interactive media at the New England Institute of Art in Boston.
Stevens said the benefits have been mostly anecdotal so far. But the Toronto Police Department has credited YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for an increase in the number of anonymous tips to its crime stoppers hotline from 350 a month in 2007 to almost 1,000 a month in 2009, she said.
A police constable in England posted an April entry on Stevens' blog, describing how he tweeted on his iPhone at the scene of a protest and dispelled rumors that would have increased tensions.
Still, the majority of law enforcement agencies remain skeptical of social media use, Stevens said.
They fear that the tweets or Facebook posts could disparage the department or compromise a case, or worry about the time and manpower they would need to devote to the sites.
Sacramento County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Tim Curran said he believes that relying on traditional media outlets and the department's website to disseminate information is more efficient.
"During this extraordinary budget crisis I believe the public we serve would rather we devote our limited resources to crime-fighting than to chasing the latest social media trend," Curran said.
Mike Bostic, who retired in 2007 as an assistant chief with the Los Angeles Police Department and now works for technology company Raytheon, said he was a former social media skeptic.
Now an avid Twitter user, Bostic said "it's almost out of necessity" for agencies to adopt the tool.
"If you don't, your officers are going to do it anyway," Bostic said, adding that it's important that departments have policies on how to use social media and teach officers to use it appropriately.
"It's a great opportunity to tell your own story," Bostic said.
Leong said using Facebook and Twitter allows the department to highlight events – such as a promotion ceremony or Halloween safety tips – that the media may overlook.
When Bandit the police dog was shot by a home-invasion suspect in March, the department posted updates of his recovery that had a personal touch lacking in their formal news releases. Dozens of Facebook users responded with heartfelt wishes on the department's Facebook "wall" – a public forum for comments.
Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel said social media technology has allowed his department to enhance its role in educating the public about crime prevention.
He cited a series of rape prevention campaign videos that were posted on the department's Facebook page.
Braziel said that 15 years ago, exposure for a similar campaign probably have been limited to a few days on television and confined to residents of the Sacramento region.
But if "you put it on the web through social media, you are reaching people all over the world with the same message," Braziel said.
Almost 1,400 people had joined the department's Facebook page by April – some from as far away as Buffalo, N.Y., and Caracas, Venezuela, according to the locations on their Facebook pages.
Stevens said Sacramento is one of several agencies with a comprehensive and consistent approach to using social media. Others include police departments in Bellevue, Neb.; Boca Raton, Fla.; and Torrance, near Los Angeles.
The Sacramento Police Department links its Facebook and Twitter pages to its website home page; its blog, "Ask Officer Michelle," offers interaction with a real cop; and its Facebook page is open to comments, Stevens said.
She also said that Braziel, who was a communications major at California State University, Sacramento, "gets it." Braziel recently sat on a panel on social media use at a national conference in Philadelphia. He will be a speaker on the same topic at the California Peace Officers' Association's annual training symposium this month. Stevens will moderate the same panel.
Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.