Seattle cops guilty of Twitter misuse

The Seattle Police Department sought to improve its perception and increase public engagement by showing the wide range of challenges officers have to face.

Seattle residents recently got a barrage of crime-related tweets as part of an experiment by the Seattle Police Department, which sought to improve its perception and increase public engagement by showing the wide range of challenges officers have to face each day.

Over the course of 12 hours, the police tweeted nearly every emergency call they received, averaging 40 tweets per hour. By the end of the experiment, the public had been flooded with 478 crime-related tweets.

The reports ran the gamut from car accidents to suicide threats to pan-handling complaints, and even a “suspicious person possibly armed with sword.” Many were mundane, such as “Parking complaint in the 4900 block of Dayton Ave N,” while others were downright depressing, such as “Hit & run accident in the 10 block W McGraw St.”

The department omitted reports of domestic violence, child abuse, or sexual assault, deeming them too sensitive.

PR Play rating:

1. Clueless
2. Ill-advised
3. On the right track
4. Savvy
5. Ingenious

Responses to the tweets were mixed at best. Initially confused by the barrage, many residents soon became alarmed or annoyed. As one reader tweeted, “I had to mute the @SeattlePD. I don't care about mental person panhandling too aggressive while jaywalking. Bad use of twitter!”

Critics also complained that the police department hadn't warned residents about the experiment beforehand, which caused unnecessary concern. Some questioned the use of taxpayer money to conduct a surprise social media initiative.

Despite the criticism, the department declared the effort a success and is planning future Twitter initiatives, including having officers in the field tweeting about what they did on their calls and a “virtual tweet-along,” in which followers can simulate riding with a cop via regular Twitter updates.

The department deserves praise for innovative thinking, but its handling of the effort left much to be desired. The public needs to be warned about potentially startling events. Bombarding them with tweets won't gain positive attention.

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