The Boston Police Department has a larger Twitter fan base - more than 39,200 followers - than any other local law enforcement agency in the country, dwarfing the followers of Houston, Los Angeles, and Chicago police departments while edging out New York City.
With the help of a text-a-tip program and a new Twitter campaign started late last year, the department has seen a rapid increase in crime-solving tips.
“It’s been really amazing for us,’’ said department spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll. “Use of social media has provided an additional outlet for people to interact with law enforcement.’’
Lauri Stevens - founder of LAwS Communications, a consulting company that helps law enforcement agencies expand into social media - said most police departments have been slow to embrace opportunities presented by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Those who have, she said, find that they can communicate quickly with a larger number of residents and that it does not require much extra money or staff.
“It’s an opportunity for law enforcement agencies to have more influence in the conversation about them and their work than they’ve ever had before,’’ Stevens said.
Boston police have been able to engage the public with a weekly Twitter hashtag - #MostWantedMonday - which links to photos of wanted suspects that are posted at the start of each week.
One of the hallmarks of the department’s efforts is its text-a-tip program, which allows residents to send anonymous text messages to the department’s Crime Stoppers Unit. Officer Michael Charbonnier, program director, said the program makes sense in a world where most young people would not dream of picking up a phone to call in information.
“I have two daughters; they’re 15 and 13,’’ Charbonnier said. “Everything for them is Facebook and texting. Even my son tells me, ‘Why do you still e-mail? That’s so old-fashioned.’ ’’
The texting tipsters receive an automatic reply: “Thx. We’ll ask u a few questions.’’ Then, special software blocks the tipsters’ phone number as officers text back and forth with them. At the end, the software sends an automatic text message reminding the tipster to delete the conversation thread from their phone.
The crimes for which the department receives tips runs from homicides and drug deals to online suicide notes and bomb threats, Charbonnier said. People often text photos as documentation.
So far this year, Boston police have given rewards for 10 tips in investigations related to fugitives, firearms, drugs, and homicides. Many of those tips were communicated by text. Only five tips were rewarded in all of 2011. Rewards are given only for tips that prove useful to an investigation, but many more are received. A total of 187 text-message tips have come in so far this year, and 549 were received in 2011.
While the Boston Fire Department and Massachusetts State Police both also have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, posting regular updates on fires or crimes, neither engages with residents on the level of BPD.
The Police Department also maintains a blog with regular posts about local crime. In a sort of throwback to an old-fashioned blotter, the blog employs a tone that is conversational, even snarky: “Taking a Leak on Boston City Hall Lands One Public Urinator in Police Custody,’’ reads the headline of one post. Other headlines include: “If You Got Arrested at This Year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade - You Probably Did Something to Warrant It,’’ and “Officers Apprehend Three Suspects for Armed Robbery outside Dorchester McDonald’s #McNabbed.’’
Driscoll said that six months ago, she and Officers Nicole Grant, a department spokeswoman, and James Kenneally, a department spokesman, decided to experiment with a less stilted tone on the blog, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. They saw an increase in online traffic and found that more people were replying to their posts.
“We’re police; we like to tell people things and sound very official,’’ said Driscoll, laughing. “But we realized it might be a good idea to be less formal, to use less police-speak.’’
After the department’s website was hacked earlier this year, the department responded with a tongue-in-cheek video on YouTube. Driscoll said at the time that the video was made as a lighthearted way to engage the community about the hacking incident.
Reaction to the video was mixed, but the department’s willingness to embrace new modes of communication, Driscoll said Thursday, has allowed new residents, especially young people, to get involved with safety in their community.
“That’s the beauty of social media,’’ she said. “Individuals have an opportunity to participate in a public safety conversation who otherwise may not have been.’’