Police tap into Twitter to keep public informed

Quick blogging tool finds wide following

By Rachel Lebeaux
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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"Rte. 128/I-95 N Northbound at Exit 22: Grove St, Medical emergency: Lft tw lns clsd. Use cau."

"**TRAFFIC ALERT** Rt 495 SB at Ex 16 (KING STREET), MV crash, all traffic being diverted off highway to King Street. Avoid Area."

The cryptic communiqués might resemble text messages from teenagers, but they're actually bits of useful public information from local police departments, distilled down to 140 characters or less and disseminated immediately to residents on Twitter, a social networking platform that was launched in 2006 but has recently seemed to catch on with everyone from high school students to US senators across the country.

Police departments in Franklin and Wellesley have been leading the way by using Twitter to push out information on traffic and other activities. And now the service is gaining popularity, or at least scrutiny, at other area departments.

Boston's Police Department launched its Twitter account this month, with the Fire Department expected to follow shortly.

Police in Wayland are thinking about it, and so is Newton's Police Department, where Lieutenant Bruce Apotheker observed: "We'll take a look at anything that can assist us in getting information out."

Twitter is a blogging tool that allows users to post short messages, up to 140 characters, which are then blasted out to their "followers" - individuals who sign up to receive their Twitter messages, or "tweets."

Participants can send out tweets as often as they like, allowing them to share information in real time.

This immediacy drew Wellesley and Franklin police into the fold in 2007, ahead of many departments nationwide.

"We started it to keep the public up to date on traffic conditions, especially the morning and afternoon routes," said Wellesley Sergeant Scott Whittemore. "I was trying to figure out a way to put information out there in real time, and Twitter answered the call."

At the time, it was "kind of a radical idea," Whittemore said. "People didn't know what Twitter was. Now, we're hearing, 'You guys were really on the forefront.' "

"It's catching on like wildfire in the police and fire department communities," said Gary Premo, communications director for the Franklin Police Department. "It's a unique way of using a service not meant for police."

Wellesley police receive traffic updates from the SmarTraveler service, and upload the reports directly to Twitter, supplementing them as desired, Whittemore said. Wellesley posts 10 to 20 traffic updates every day, relating to construction, accidents, and other slowdowns throughout town, as well as on Interstate 95 and Route 9, which pass through town.

"The advantage of using Twitter is that most of our [officers] have cellphones and are capable of texting," Whittemore said. "No matter where I am, I can post right away. It's live, up to date, and accurate as to what's going on."

Whittemore blocks most followers, preferring that residents and interested parties visit the Wellesley department's link,, rather than have tweets sent to their news feeds automatically.

Franklin's department, meanwhile, has nearly 400 followers at Premo said that he tries to tweet at least once each day to alert residents to traffic conditions, department news, and other information.

"I think a lot of people are very curious about our logs, so as soon as we post them, we tweet it," Premo said. "It's very simple to use real time, and very short, and we can embed a link if people want more information."

The service will never take the place of the town's official Reverse 911 system, which uses an automatic telephone dialing system to send out community alerts, Premo said, but it provides an additional avenue for communication for those who want to stay informed about department news.

Although the number of police departments using Twitter is still small, other departments are considering the service.

"It's something we're discussing of late," said Wayland Police Chief Robert Irving. "We're talking about exactly what would go on there, what we'd be putting out."

Irving, however, is concerned about sharing information via Twitter.

"You have to be careful. Most of our information is public, but there are certain exceptions," Irving said, such as the name of a minor involved in an incident.

For the department to proceed with Twitter, Irving said, there is "the need to have a policy in place."

Whittemore agreed that the immediacy of Twitter might lead to the accidental dissemination of information, such as the inclusion of a resident's address before it reaches the police log - or one that might never be included in the police log.

"Like with anything, you have to use discretion on what goes out," he said,

But the good outweighs the bad, Whittemore said, and the department has received a lot of good feedback, especially from residents who encounter traffic slowdowns.

"Most of the reaction is, 'I can't believe the Wellesley Police Department is on Twitter,' " Whittemore said. "Most people don't expect us to be that technologically savvy."

In Sudbury, Lieutenant Scott Nix said that the town's technology department administers the police webpage, which already communicates a lot of information to the public. He is concerned that his officers might not have the time to keep up with the demands of a Twitter account.

"I don't know that we have the resources to be constantly interacting with people," he said. "Resources come into play when you have to have somebody to monitor that. Without knowing too much about it, it's probably not feasible for us as a small department."

Bellingham Police Chief Gerard Daigle echoed Nix's concerns.

"Everybody is so short-handed and I'm not sure we'd have the people to do it," Daigle said. "I'd really have to see the benefits."

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