@CambridgePolice Tweets Reported Crimes

The Cambridge Police Department this week became among the first departments in the country to use Twitter to report potential crimes in nearly real time.

Since launching the new initiative earlier this week, the department has begun using its Twitter account, @CambridgePolice, to alert its nearly 3,900 followers of possible criminal activity, disturbances, and neighborhood incidents—all in 140 characters or fewer. The tweets, which are sent out by an automated system using descriptions filed from 911 calls, have been appearing just minutes after the completion of a 911 call.

At 7:25 p.m. on Tuesday night, Twitter-savvy Cambridge residents could have read of a potential assault on Broadway Street. And early Wednesday evening, residents of Chilton Street who followed CPD on Twitter could have seen a tweet about a possible missing person in their area.

The new tweets each begin with a timestamp followed by a summary of the reported incident and the hashtag #CambMA.

Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas said in a press release that the new initiative was part of the department’s strategy to use social media to engage with Cantabrigians.

“This is something we’ve had in the works for a while,” Haas said. “Tweeting information about serious incidents will better inform our residents about what types of incidents police are responding to in their community.”

CPD spokesperson Daniel M. Riviello also stressed that timely communication was a top priority of the project.

“It’s a way to share information in real time, so people know what’s going on with their community,” he said.

According to Riviello, the new program does not entail a change of procedure for the department or its officers. The text of the tweets is generated from the brief reports that emergency operators file after every 911 call and that are used to dispatch officers. From there, a new application designed by CPD and the Cambridge Emergency Communications Department sorts through the reports and, after a short delay, shares incidents that meet CPD’s criteria via Twitter. These include most reports related to serious crime, with the exception of murder and rape.

Riviello said he believes CPD is only the second police department to broadcast reported incidents almost after they happen. Last year, the Seattle Police Department pioneered the new strategy by launching 51 hyper-local accounts on Twitter to report potential crime in city neighborhoods.

Riviello said that the public’s response to CPD’s new initiative “seems actually to be pretty positive.”

But in the Twitterverse, reviews have been mixed. While some Twitter users praised the strategy, writing that they appreciated CPD’s efforts to keep them informed, others were more skeptical of the new crime updates. One common criticism voiced on Twitter was that CPD’s automated system does not automatically update followers on the outcome of the initial reports it disseminates.

For example, on Wednesday afternoon, the department tweeted “report of possible person with gun on JFK [S]treet in #CambMA.” When no immediate updates were posted, multiple users complained about the lack of follow-up tweets. Thirty-three minutes later, CPD tweeted that the gun report had been unfounded.

Following the incident, Cambridge resident and Twitter user Jeremy Rothman-Shore questioned the prudence of CPD’s new strategy. He wrote on Twitter on Wednesday evening: “Messages like that make people feel unreasonably unsafe in their own city...Every city has reports of people with guns. But [C]ambridge is now shouting it from the rooftops. It doesn’t make us safer.”

—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at clarida@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @MattClarida.

CORRECTION: February 23, 2013

An earlier version of this article misquoted a tweet written by Cambridge resident Jeremy Rothman-Shore. In fact, Rothman-Shore wrote on Twitter that he believes that some disseminated information about crime, such as a tweet about a report of a person with a gun circulated by the Cambridge Police Department, makes citizens feel "unreasonably unsafe," not "unreasonably safe."

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