"In a windowless second-floor office in the stucco building that houses the Boynton Beach Police Department about an hour north of Miami, there's a computer monitor on the back wall displaying a full-screen version of Twitter client TweetDeck.
"Lots of real estate listings," commented Stephanie Slater, the BBPD's public information officer and chief media spokesperson, sitting in front of the monitor. "A few people are just tweeting news headlines about what's going on in town. Nothing really."
Slater, a former cop-beat reporter for the local Palm Beach Post, was keeping tabs on a Twitter search query for Boynton Beach to see what users of the chatty service are saying about the city of 65,000. She's also in charge of maintaining the police department's own Twitter account, its Facebook fan page, and its library of YouTube videos. As law enforcement's role in the social-media universe has increasingly become a topic of discussion and debate, the BBPD has become one of the first police departments in the country to step forward and say that they think they've figured it out.
"We had two guys break into a liquor store the other day, so we posted the video of them smashing the door in the hopes of identifying the suspects," Slater said, minimizing the TweetDeck window and loading up a YouTube video of surveillance-camera footage with the caption 'Police need help identifying liquor thieves.' "It's gotten 425 views already, and for a small police department in Boynton Beach, that's a lot of views." They haven't identified the booze snatchers yet, but Slater said they've had "a few tips."
Most of the headlines these days about law enforcement and social media aren't pretty: Philadelphia city council members have accused Facebook and Twitter of ignoring crimes that may be plotted through social-media channels; a San Francisco Bay Area cop posted on Facebook that he'd be in favor of shooting handgun owners on sight; the Austin, Texas, police department grew alarmed when they learned that somebody was impersonating them on Twitter.
Not so much at the BBPD. "We figured this would be a perfect way to kind of brand the police department, and to interact with our community in a fun setting, to use something that people enjoy doing to educate them," Slater told CNET. She created a MySpace page for the department in the fall of 2007, back when the News Corp.-owned social network was still more prominent than Facebook. Next came a YouTube account and a Facebook fan page--the BBPD was the first police department in Florida to create one--and finally, early last year, a Twitter account.
"Anything that we send to our local media we put on all of our social media sites so that it's basically that we are our own newspaper, we are our own radio station, we're our own TV station," Slater said. The BBPD's Facebook page is dotted with short updates congratulating Officer of the Month awards, announcing when the department would be making an appearance on TV show "Cops," and more serious updates like missing-person searches. "It personalizes the local police department. For a lot of people, their experiences with police are not positive, so here's a great outlet for people to have a positive interaction with their local police department."
And indeed, she elaborated, the rise of social media use at the BBPD went hand-in-hand with the increasing difficulties plaguing traditional media outlets."
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