Tweet battle between police, union about social media strategy

The weekend tweets from the Baltimore Police Department featured a recruiting video, an appeal reminding domestic violence victims that officers can help, and a message honoring a colleague who died 40 years ago.

But when a fatal stabbing at the Inner Harbor went unmentioned on Twitter by the city agency, police union president Robert F. Cherry decided police weren't making the most of their 140 characters.

So the Fraternal Order of Police lodge used its own Twitter account to criticize the police tweets on Sunday night, calling them "public relations propaganda" and saying major crimes too often go unmentioned because "police don't want you to know everything."

The dispute underscores the difficult balance that police departments must strike as citizens increasingly look to them on social media for timely public safety updates. Reporting every crime can overwhelm followers and hurt a department's — and a city's — public image, experts say, but leaving too many out can damage police credibility.

Some agencies are more forthcoming than others, however, and several have been experimenting with new ways to engage with residents. Seattle, for example, has dozens of feeds tailored to individual neighborhoods. Philadelphia and other cities have empowered individual police to tweet crime information from their own accounts.

Lauri Stevens, a social media consultant for police departments, said police across the country are still trying to find their way on social media. "There're different degrees of comfort levels," Stevens said. "Police aren't going to get cooperation if citizens don't trust them, but that trust has to be built. It comes from sharing information, not just keeping information, and having a conversation and engaging people."

The Baltimore Police Department was one of the first in the country to integrate into its daily operations the online micro-messaging service, blasting out every shooting incident and giving updates on gun seizures.

But these days residents are just as likely to see police tweeting about weather, crime prevention tips, and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts' public schedule.

"The reason they have [30,000] followers isn't just to hear about the feel-good stories that are going on, they want to know what is going on in my neighborhood," Cherry said in an interview. "It may not look good for the politicians or the police commanders, but if you're going to use social media the way you originally intended, you have to take it to the next level."

Chief spokesman Anthony Guglielmi developed the department's use of Twitter and said his office's policy is to tweet every shooting and homicide — though it will occasionally miss one, as it did on Sunday night — as well as notable arrests. Because of its wide following, the department often also is asked to spread information such as traffic and weather alerts.

Guglielmi said "citizens have a right to know what's going on in their community." But he said police "don't have the bandwidth to have every single crime reported to 911. That's not what it was designed to do.

"It's designed to educate the public about serious crimes, and in turn we look for community intelligence back," Guglielmi said.

That can leave citizens wanting. "BCPD NEVER tweets about crimes in Brooklyn, even when the helicopter spends 45 minutes overhead," one resident tweeted on Sunday night.

When a serious, non-shooting crime goes untweeted, that may be because the public affairs staff doesn't know about it — the information comes largely from text messages sent out to commanders from the agency's communications section, which tend to be limited to shootings. The messages are also posted by whichever spokesperson is on call, and incidents often occur overnight while they're asleep.

In a city where police are fighting to convince residents that major crimes are down despite a spike in homicides, reporting every crime could affect the perception of safety. Eugene O'Donnell, a retired officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it would be a mistake to equate "more information with better information."

"There are legitimate issues they do have to weigh and balance," O'Donnell said. "It could have broad implications — knowledge is definitely powerful and could drive people's conduct.

"I don't think we should forget that for a lot of organizations, tweets are centrally about the image of the agency," O'Donnell added. "Spinning has been part and parcel of the police world for decades now. This is just a new frontier for spinning."

In Washington, police tweet a slew of incidents, including robberies with descriptions of suspects as they occur, and dump nightly calls for service into online message boards set up for each precinct.

Other cities have started multiple Twitter accounts to better target information and cut down on the volume of tweets from any one handle.

Seattle has pioneered something called "tweet-by-beat," with 51 hyper-local Twitter feeds putting out calls for service — excluding sex crimes and domestic violence — through an automated feed. That was a move made after the agency in 2011 overwhelmed followers of its main account by tweeting nearly every incident reported to police. Police in Cambridge, Mass., in February also began "real-time" tweeting of 911 dispatcher logs.