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Fighting crime, one tweet at a time

Can social networking become a significant tool in the pursuit of improving public safety?
Eleventh Earl of Mar
via Flickr
Can social networking become a significant tool in the pursuit of improving public safety?

An Internet age ago, Twitter was new and hip. People could express flashes of insight, like about how much they love yeast rolls or their true feelings about Justin Bieber.

Now the Town of Tonawanda Police Department is using it to alert people about traffic patterns, crimes and parking restrictions. They also tweet about criminals and their impending incarceration periods, presumably as a deterrent. No word yet on the inside scoop on doughnut specials.

It may seem odd for traditional authority figures like cops to embrace notoriously anarchic technologies like social media.  But remember when your grandmother started using the word “bling?”  Eventually the cutting edge becomes common. But the use of Twitter by a public safety department isn’t new. In fact, the social networking site far from discourages it, as their guidelines for first responders demonstrate.

We’re now seeing small towns and villages try to communicate with their tiny populations through technology. As services like Twitter become more and more ubiquitous, hearing about a business or agency not using social networks will likely be the more appropriate news item (Twitter is approaching 200 million members). 

Most Tonawandans don’t follow @TTPD, but 192 do. And that’s sure to grow (they began updating their site regularly just three months ago). One day could the public rely on severe weather tweets to ride out a storm – literally? If the power is out, that dusty battery-powered radio isn’t working, and the smart phone is the only thing with a charge, then it could be a lifeline.

That the police department is using Twitter doesn’t mean anything beyond the fact there’s now a cop in Tonawanda responsible for posting information in 140 characters or less a few times a day. Most of the department’s alerts are retweets from other agencies around the Buffalo area.

There isn’t a lot of evidence that people are flocking to these accounts as a primary source of public safety information. While the Tonawanda Police Department serves more than 70,000 people; their current number of followers represents less 0.2 percent of the town's population.

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WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.