Eric Thayer (Reuters)

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

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

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A self-driving Volvo SUV in Scottsdale, Arizona. The company has halted testing of its autonomous vehicle program in the wake of a fatal crash on Sunday.

    How the Self-Driving Dream Might Become a Nightmare

    What will happen if we just accept that a certain number of pedestrian deaths are an inevitable part of adopting autonomous vehicles?

  2. Maps

    America's Loneliest Roads, Mapped

    An interactive map highlights the least traveled routes in the country—and some of the most scenic.

  3. POV

    The Gateway Project Doesn't Need Trump's Approval

    The $30 billion rail tunnel project may be a victim of President Trump’s feud with Democrats. But New York and New Jersey could still save it.

  4. A young refugee from Kosovo stands in front of a map of Hungary with her teacher.

    Who Maps the World?

    Too often, men. And money. But a team of OpenStreetMap users is working to draw new cartographic lines, making maps that more accurately—and equitably—reflect our space.

  5. Equity

    The Austin Bombings Were Terrifying. But Were They 'Terrorism'?

    Absent a motive, the serial bombing attacks in Texas hadn’t been labeled with the term. Now, police say the suspect has been killed.