Chicago Police Got New Twitter Accounts. Will It Make a Difference?

A few social media norms the department should be prepared to address.

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Eric Thayer (Reuters)

The Monday after a very deadly Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, the city's police department announced a few tech additions to their 20-year-old Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS). A suite of pilot programs, which start in three districts before expanding citywide, now enables residents to send anonymous tips via text, as well as photos, during a 911 call. Three district-specific Twitter accounts were also launched to share important alerts with the community. It may take weeks to see just how willing Chicagoans are to engage with the police, but is the Chicago Police Department itself prepared to take up these digital efforts? Twitter, the most public of the technologies involved, offers some insight on this question. 

If Chicago police are intent on opening themselves up through Twitter, here's a few things they should be prepared to address. The social media experiences of law enforcement in plenty of other cities can serve as helpful lessons.

1. Actual Crime The Chicago Police Department's main Twitter account is a harmless “brand page” that periodically links to event calendars and local news articles, when it could easily offer timely updates on arrests, stabbings, requests for tips, etc., as is done in cities like Boston, DC, or Baltimore. The new neighborhood-focused accounts, @ChicagoCAPS07, @ChicagoCAPS11, and @ChicagoCAPS18, ideally would become the more immediate and transparent channels for crime updates. But so far, they’re still serving up more event calendars and nothing on crime in the districts. 

2. Tips from Twitter  While the stated purpose of the new Twitter initiative is for police to share alerts with the community, the social platform is generally understood as a two-way street. Tips via Twitter would not be completely anonymous and raise the possibility of unnecessary rumors and fear. A decision is needed about whether to act on tips from Twitter, and resources are needed for vetting information that may come from the platform, solicited or not. As the Boston Police experienced during the Marathon Bombing investigation, Twitter reach can be expansive, and dealing with investigations on the platform is both a risk and an opportunity.

3. Criminals Themselves It’s uncomfortable to think about, but criminals are using Twitter, too. Back in early June, Wanda Podgurski, a fugitive who’s been on the run for months, taunted the San Diego district attorney on Twitter with messages like “Catch me if you can." She was finally captured on July 4 in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, a mere 15 miles south of San Diego. Offering no details on how they tracked Podgurski down, authorities did say that information from Podgurski’s Twitter account was turned over to the DA office’s Computer and Technology Crime High-Tech Response Team. Criminals bragging about their crimes on social media actually happens regularly. Being able to monitor and make use of suspicious Twitter activity in targeted neighborhoods can benefit both crime fighting and crime prevention.

If implemented thoroughly, public engagement through Twitter begets accountability for and trust in the police. If committed half-heartedly, these new channels of community-building will be left hanging like the Chicago Police Department's Nixle community alert initiative, becoming nothing but a “quick-fix” distraction to the city's most persistent crisis.

Top image: Eric Thayer / Reuters

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