Jun 30, 2012 / 1:00 pm
Police are often adding new weapons to their arsenal, this time, they're doing it 140 characters at a time.
On Canada Day, officers in a small southwestern Ontario city will take to Twitter to publish every call they respond to during a day-long "tweet-a-thon" campaign.
"It's sort of a virtual ride-along where people can follow us and see where we're going, what we're doing and what we're dealing with," said Const. Heather Emmons, a spokeswoman for the Sarnia Police Service.
The campaign is aimed at raising awareness about the high volume of calls police typically deal with during busy times like Canada Day.
For the past few years, the force has answered an average of 100 calls during an eight-hour period on the holiday. Most of them relate to public intoxication, disturbances and trespassing.
"Canada Day does tend to be busy for us," she said. "We want to focus on it being a family-friendly day and not let a few rowdy people ruin it for everybody else. "
Emmons said there will be about 30 officers, double the number dispatched on a typical day, patrolling the city by car, bicycle and foot. Some will also be stationed at a local McDonald's, the origin of a large number of complaints on the holiday every year.
During Canada Day, an officer on bicycle patrol will send tweets out to the micro-blogging site, with Emmons taking over in the evening from a command post set up in a popular park, where the city's main festivities will be held.
Although every call will be blasted onto Twitter, police don't believe the practice will deter people from calling in emergencies. Emmons said she's going to take extra care not to send tweets which contain identifying information such as names or addresses.
It's not the first time police have used Twitter campaigns to raise awareness about the number of calls they receive.
Last fall, police in Guelph, Ont., held their first "tweet-a-thon" during university frosh week. Since then, they have held two more.
Spokesman Sgt. Doug Pflug said their Twitter feed now has more than 2,200 followers, many of whom joined following the campaigns.
"People have a real curiosity on the job that we do, the type of work we do and the calls we do. Social media is just an extension of that," he said.
"It's a fantastic communication tool. It's a great way to engage the community."
Pflug likened the technology to that of traditional police scanners, which allow the public to listen to emergency calls as they happen.
Twitter also gives the police an opportunity to release information that needs to be sent out accurately and quickly, like road closures and natural disasters, without going through traditional news media.
Last year, one of their tweets about a missing person was read on a radio broadcast. A listener heard it, spotted the man's car and contacted police.
"We had an elderly gentleman who was suffering from the early stages of dementia, and he went missing," said Pflug.
"(Officers) found this elderly gentleman in the corn field and he basically wasn't dressed for the weather. Twitter basically saved this gentleman's life."
Pflug says not all calls, particularly those about safety concerns or domestic incidents, are released by police via Twitter or traditional media.
"We can't infringe on the rights of victims or complainants," he said.
Const. Anne Longley, Vancouver police's social media officer, said the service has held three Twitter campaigns since 2010, which have allowed online followers a glimpse of what goes on during an 11-hour police officer's shift.
"Social media has been a very successful way for us to interact with the community that we weren't able to before," she said. "It is interactive. It is not just a way for us to push out a message."
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