, Newburyport, MA

March 21, 2013

Hashtag #fightcrime

Social media trending as law-enforcement tool

By Dave Rogers
Staff Writer

---- — For about two months now, the Newburyport Police Department has alerted residents of snow emergencies, road closures and other police matters in just 140 characters at a time.

Newburyport is among police departments and other law-enforcement agencies around the world turning to Twitter, the revolutionary social media tool, to enhance its work.

Tomorrow, Newburyport police will join more than 170 law-enforcement agencies in a 24-hour Tweet-a-Thon beginning at 8 a.m.

Using the hashtag #poltwt, agencies will look to create awareness about police work and issues law enforcement face as well as to promote social media in policing.

The tweet-a-thon is the brainchild of Newbury resident Lauri Stevens who in 2005 founded LAwS Communications, which advises law-enforcement agencies about how to best utilize social media tools and formulate social media policies to better their departments.

Stevens, who wrote the Toronto Police Department’s online strategy recently, said the first-of-its-kind social media event brings a level of excitement knowing that it should unite police agencies from around the world.

“We hope it sends a message to non-law enforcement that their police officers are up to speed with social media, and that they should use the channel to talk with police officers and to be stewards of public safety,” Stevens said.

Newburyport police Inspector Matthew Simons, who serves as the department’s social media caretaker, said the tweet-a-thon should be a learning experience for him as well.

“It’s going to be neat to see how departments across the globe are utilizing Twitter,” Simons said, adding he is hoping the event allows him to incorporate some of what he learns within the Newburyport Police Department.

Simons said the department has been using social media platforms for about a year. He started by launching the department’s Facebook page. In that time, the page has accumulated 858 likes, with another 389 people following on Twitter. Both platforms have allowed the department to inform the community of breaking news such as road work or bridge closures, snow emergencies and emergency calls.

In the process, it has created greater transparency with the community, allowing residents to contact the police in ways that may seem less intimidating than calling the dispatch desk or visiting the Green Street station, Simons added.

The hope is that the department, via Twitter, can provide real-time updates on breaking situations such as snowstorms or traffic flow.

For the most part, Simons is the sole officer tweeting and keeping up with Twitter. He is eventually hoping to train dispatchers and other personnel on how to use Twitter so they can provide updates as well. Facebook messages, meanwhile, are posted by Simons, other detectives, one dispatcher and City Marshal Thomas Howard.

Simons stressed that Twitter and Facebook aren’t monitored around the clock.

“It’s becoming a bigger endeavor,” Simons said, adding that he thoroughly enjoys working with Twitter and Facebook. “It’s been an eye-opener for me.”

When Newburyport police opened its Facebook page, social media use among law-enforcement agencies in the region was sparse. But since then, Amesbury, Newbury and other departments have created their own Facebook pages and opened Twitter accounts. But none of the departments seem to be as active as Newburyport police in updating their status, relaying information or tweeting the latest news.

In recent weeks, however, Newbury police have taken to Twitter and Facebook to remind residents and anyone hoping to see the devastation on Plum Island in the aftermath of recent storms that access to Plum Island Center and the beaches south of the groin has remained closed.

Police there closed the beach almost two weeks ago following a massive winter storm that knocked two houses off their foundations and forced the demolition of four others. Several other houses were deemed uninhabitable or in danger of meeting a similar fate.