The Philadelphia Police Department is adding a new tool to its crime-fighting arsenal — Twitter. Supporters say the real-time information-sharing could help police build a stronger rapport with residents and better protect them.
West Philadelphia resident Mike Van Helder remembers when police knocked down his neighbor's door at 6 a.m. "There was shouting and loud noises and of course I didn't know what it was about," Van Helder recalls. "And them being my next door neighbors, I was understandably concerned."
So Van Helder tweeted Detective Joseph Murray for more information.
"He couldn't get back to me immediately, but early the next day, he let me know that it was the Major Crimes Unit serving a warrant on the next-door neighbors," Van Helder says.
Murray had started tweeting on his own, before the department launched its tweeting initiative. And he didn't just tell residents about past crimes. He says he also tried to be proactive.
"I didn't want people in the area that I police to not know what's going on," Murray says. "I felt I had a responsibility to the people that I'm paid to protect to let them know about burglary patterns, robbery patterns in their area so they don't walk right into the middle of one."
A few months ago the department asked Murray to stop, temporarily, so he could learn about the its social media policy and training.
Karima Zedan, director of communications for the Philadelphia Police Department, says the department wanted to fit Murray into a larger plan to train around 15 police officers across the city to use Twitter by the end of April. "We want officers, actually of various ranks — police officers, detectives, captains — across the whole city to embrace this new way of communicating," Zedan says.
Zedan says she thinks Philadelphia may be one of the first police departments in the U.S. to train officers to tweet on the beat. She says the tweeting will allow cops to communicate about crime and safety with residents of individual neighborhoods.
Now, with the department's blessing, Murray is back on Twitter. And Van Helder is relieved.
"Tweeting somebody versus walking down three or four blocks to talk to an officer where I know he hangs out is a lot more convenient," Van Helder says. "It's a lot safer, I feel, if I need to talk to him at night."
But Van Helder says he's a little nervous about what kind of restrictions will be placed on the detective's tweeting.
Zedan says residents need not worry that Murray will be censored or that police will have to get their tweets approved. She wants officers to tweet things residents care about — not send out press releases.
"We just don't want them tweeting information that is sensitive, that's sensitive to an investigation or classified information or information pertaining to victims, that's all," Zedan says.
Zedan says Murray did a good job of using Twitter to build a relationship with the community, and he'll help train other cops. Reaching the public 140 characters at a time might not be easy for some police.
Murray says some of his fellow cops make fun of his Twitter habit. He says his father — who still walks a beat — is amused.
"I'm not doing anything different than officers did in walking a foot beat," Murray says. "Going in and introducing yourself to business owners, residents — it's the same thing. It's just a more modern version of it. So people know who you are, you know, and they're going to trust you more."
Murray says the more that residents trust the police, the more willing they will be to provide information.