Law enforcement in the region recently rubbed elbows with their counterparts an ocean away, each brought together by something that would have drawn blank stares from public safety officials not long ago: the hashtag.
On Friday, the Ottawa Police Department was one of more than 100 law enforcement agencies participating in the second Global Police Tweet-a-Thon, joining agencies from as near as Lyon County and as distant as Kenya. Meanwhile, law enforcement in Lawrence and Douglas County are still working to figure out how much manpower will be needed to truly be effective on social media.
Friday’s Tweet-a-Thon was a sequel to the March 22 inaugural event, both put on by Lauri Stevens, a law enforcement social media strategist based in Boston. For much of Friday, the hashtag #poltwt remained a trending topic worldwide. Capt. Adam Weingartner tweeted on behalf of @ottawapd the types of calls officers responded to and a smattering of statistics such as the latest tally in police fatalities in the United States.
Weingartner said he is currently the only staff member tweeting for Ottawa police. Manpower, Stevens and area officials say, correlate with the frequency and effectiveness of a department’s tweets. For example, Lawrence’s police department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office are still both limited in their social media presence while they still plot what such a presence will look like.
Lawrence police do have a Facebook account and also funnel information it wants on Twitter through the city’s Twitter account, said Sgt. Trent McKinley, the Lawrence Police Department’s public affairs officer. But Twitter accounts done particularly well, he added, are typically the result of five or more staff members tending to the account.
“Given the amount of resources to do this right and Twitter always being something that’s on, this may not be the time for us to do this right now,” McKinley said.
Before committing any manpower to monitoring and engaging on social media, law enforcement in Lawrence want to make sure they can do so effectively and purposefully. For Lt. Steve Lewis of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, that is avoiding creating content just “for the sake of creating content."
"I want us to be able to create a product that is useful, informative and worthwhile to the public,” Lewis said.
McKinley said the Lawrence Police Department has monitored Twitter accounts of departments in similarly sized towns like Boulder, Colo. Often, McKinley said, they have observed police departments that tweet just a few times each week, and, worse, some that simply post links to their websites without any explanatory text.
But Twitter, when done right, can indeed be an effective tool for public safety: In Ottawa, tweeting photos have so far helped locate a missing teenager as well as return a toddler to its parents after the toddler was found wandering in a street, Weingartner said. And subscription-based services like BlueJay have helped police pick up on chatter about crime occurring in an area or, Stevens said, identify those who feel the need to tweet about committing a crime of their own.