Three local police departments are helping lead the way in tweeting news to residents about traffic snarls, drug arrests, phone scams, and other activities investigated by their officers.
Billerica, Burlington, and Tyngsborough’s departments have among the largest number of Twitter followers of police agencies their size nationwide, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media.
“It’s a great way for us to get information out and a great way for the public to receive information,” said Burlington Police Lieutenant Glen Mills, who oversees the department’s site, @burlingtonpd.
In a top 10 list of US police departments with 50 to 99 officers posted on the center’s website, Billerica (@BillericaPD) is listed as second only to Mountain View, Calif., in Twitter followers. Burlington ranked fifth on the list, which is updated by the association quarterly, but its followers continue to grow daily.
Tyngsborough Police (@TyngsboroughPD) had the eighth-highest number of followers among departments with 16 to 25 officers. Among state law enforcement agencies, Massachusetts State Police (@MassStatePolice) far outdistanced all others with 87,605 followers.
Nationwide, police departments have been increasingly tapping social media as a tool to connect with the public and solve crimes.
“It’s really grown exponentially since 2010,” said Nancy Kolb, a senior program manager for the Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police who oversees the social media center. “More agencies are using social media and they are using it more frequently.”
In September, a survey of 500 law enforcement agencies by the center found that 95.5 percent use social media, up from 81.1 percent in 2010. The most common platforms were Facebook, used by 92.1 percent, and Twitter, used by 64.8 percent.
“It’s a great tool for law enforcement to engage their communities and be more transparent about their activities,” Kolb said, adding that it is also “a wonderful tool for solving crime.”
Billerica’s Police Department opened its Twitter account in 2010, according to Lieutenant Greg Katz, who operates the site with help from another officer, Tim McKenna. It joined Facebook soon afterward, and as of this week, had 6,353 “likes.”
The department had been using Nixle, an online service that delivers community notices to residents who sign up. But Katz said Twitter and Facebook were attractive alternatives because “most people are on one or the other of them. . . . It’s kind of a built-in audience.
“A lot of times people don’t pay attention unless they are a victim or something directly affects them,” Katz said. But now they can quickly check up on police activity while perusing the sites they already frequent.
“We put up a lot of stuff that if you are a resident, you would be interested in knowing about: house breaks, arrests . . . larcenies, suspicious activity, neighborhood issues. And of course any ongoing emergencies, like last month we had a fatal accident that was very disruptive to traffic on Boston Road. We put that out as soon as we could.”
Burlington began its Twitter account a few years ago, according to Mills, whose other departmental duties include serving as crime analyst.
He said the department initially had a page on Myspace but shifted to Facebook and Twitter.
“When you initially hear about it, you think, ‘What a stupid idea; who’s going write a 140-character message?’ But it’s turned out to be perfect for police. This is how we talk to each other on the radio. It’s a great way to get information out quickly,” said Mills, who teaches classes on social media as well as crime analysis to other law enforcement officers.
Mills, who operates the Twitter page with the help of a department clerk, Kate Bozio, said a key benefit of the site is to “build an audience year-round so when that big emergency does come and we need to get the information out quickly, we can.”
As an illustration of the site’s value as a crime-solving tool, the department recently posted a security video showing a woman stealing a tablet computer at Panera Bread. After the video went viral, the woman and her daughter “got pretty scared and turned the tablet in,” Mills said.
Some postings are light-hearted. Last year, police were called to a home where a dog had climbed from a bedroom window onto the garage roof. The dog was rescued, but Mills tweeted a photo of the animal on the roof before it was rescued by a police officer.
The photo immediately went viral.
Tyngsbrough Police Chief Richard D. Howe said his department began using Twitter and Facebook in 2011. Howe oversaw the sites then as a lieutenant, and has continued to do so as chief.
“It’s honestly a great tool for us,” he said. “We’re a small community, but we are nestled between two fairly large communities — Lowell and Nashua — so we have an active department. Residents here love it because it’s a very easy way to get in touch with a large amount of people very quickly.”
Howe said he tweets each morning after receiving reports about departmental activity from his deputy, and often in the evenings from his home.
“I enjoy it because the feedback I get from the community is phenomenal,” he said.John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.