Tweets-by-beat, a new Seattle police effort to give residents prompt information on neighborhood law-enforcement activity, is being called the most ambitious project of its kind in the nation.
The business of policing, as cops have known since at least the first bobbies on the beat, is partly about being seen on the job, having a local presence, even if it is just twirling a baton down the avenue.
But does “local” mean the same thing in the disembodied chatter of social media? The Seattle Police Department, which presides over one of the nation’s more tech-savvy — if not saturated — cities, is diving in to find out, in a project that began this week with 51 hyper-local neighborhood Twitter accounts providing moment-to-moment crime reports.
The project, called Tweets-by-beat, is the most ambitious effort of its kind in the nation, authorities in law enforcement and social media say, transforming the pen and ink of the old police blotter into the bits and bytes of the digital age. It allows residents — including, presumably, criminals — to know in almost real time about many of the large and small transgressions, crises, emergencies and downright weird happenings in their neighborhoods.
Say you’re on Olive Way east of downtown. There was an “intoxicated person” on your street at 3:31 a.m. Monday, so the neighborhood report said, as well as a “mental complaint,” unspecified and mysterious, nearby at 9:30 a.m. Sunday was busy for property crime on the beat, with two burglaries and a shoplifting case, along with a grab bag of noise and disturbance complaints, accident investigations and several reports of “suspicious vehicles.”
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“More and more people want to know what’s going on, on their piece of the rock,” said Police Chief John Diaz. “They want to specifically know what’s going on in the areas around their home, around their work, where their children might be going to school. This is just a different way we could put out as much information as possible as quickly as possible.”
Not everything that happens in a neighborhood will automatically pop up in 140 characters or less. Sex crimes were excluded, on the theory that Web attention could discourage people from reporting a rape or sexual assault, and domestic-violence cases will remain off the Twitter list as well for similar reasons. Drawing attention to a private matter and alerting neighbors, department officials said, could make things worse for the victim.
The reports are also structured with an automatic one-hour delay, aimed at preventing people from learning about an investigation in progress and swarming over to gawk and perhaps interfere.
“This is trailblazing stuff,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “It shows a willingness I haven’t seen in large supply to really, affirmatively make available, warts and all, a clear picture to people of what’s going on.”
But O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor, said he thought there could be unintended consequences. Increased awareness of local crime, he said, could lead people to a greater feeling of vulnerability or to the conclusion that the police are not resolving the local crime problem — even if it is a problem they might not have been aware of had the beat-tweet not informed them.
The Seattle police have significant reasons to want to appear forthcoming. The department is in the middle of an internal overhaul as well as a court-directed settlement with federal prosecutors prompted by investigations that found a pattern of misconduct, including excessive force and ethnic and racial insensitivity. The Twitter program is one of 20 initiatives in 20 months announced this year by Mayor Mike McGinn — specifically No. 17, to “provide better information to the public.”
Critics who track social-media trends say an automated community bulletin board like Seattle’s will certainly be fast and cost-effective. But a system run by computers also has the drawback of, well, being run by computers.
If a person responds to a local beat post, say by asking about an incident, or even volunteering that he might have important information about a crime, the reply might well be missed. The automated posting system will not be regularly monitored, a spokesman for the department said, because there are so many beats.
The department’s main Twitter site, though, is run by real people, and feedback there about the project has ranged from the enthusiastic to the head-scratching. A resident asked: Who’s doing the posts? Robots, the department responded. Well, not really. “Technically, our computer dispatch system, but robots sounds more exciting,” the department’s reply said.
One follower of the new beats, John Eddy, said he liked the truncated computer-speak of some of the posts. ” ‘Urinating in pub’ is my favorite so far,” he wrote on his own Twitter account.
One prominent law-enforcement media expert, Capt. Mike Parker of the Los Angeles Police Department, who oversees its sprawling public communications system, said he thought the deeper impact of Seattle’s program could be the message it sends to other police agencies around the nation, which he said are in many cases timid or uncertain about how to use the new social-media tools.
“It gives confidence to other police leaders, as well, that it’s OK to do that,” he said.
Twitter itself, meanwhile, was suspicious of the idea. The project was delayed for several weeks after Twitter closed down 18 of the Police Department’s new accounts. Lots of new Twitter addresses popping up all at once apparently raised red flags that a spammer might be setting up shop. The crime beat feeds were thus delayed … to prevent a potential crime.