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Implementing Social Networking into Law Enforcement Ops: Critical Incident

Breaking news is more likely to be delivered via Twitter than ever before.

News organizations use it so much that the BBC just issued a warning to its reporters to not break news on Twitter accounts before bringing it to the actual newsroom. Twitter is becoming the place to break news…and to get news. People use it to get updates and events – as they happen, from either the main player or from eyewitnesses.

Can anyone say Gimme? If there is a critical incident in your jurisdiction, Twitter is offering you real-time information, data, intel, evidence, etc. You just have to know how to use it. It’s as easy as following and searching.

To “follow” means you subscribe to updates from a known user who is providing useful information. For instance, this could be an official entity that is tweeting – like the main PR person for a major outdoor concert event in your downtown area. By following this person you can see the official updates they give about parking and crowds and who is scheduled to perform when.

But you can also see what issues are being brought up by concert-goers who might require police assistance (crowd control, theft, medical emergencies, etc.). This would be a Twitter account that a detail commander could make sure is monitored during the short-lived detail.

Or, you might need to follow a Twitter user long-term to gather intel you know will be helpful. Protest groups, like the Occupy movements, use Twitter to not only document their perceived mistreatment but also to organize and rally their own troops. Major law enforcement agencies are monitoring the Twitter activity of such organized movements and gathering intel to help police deployment and manpower directions.

Following known Twitter users is one way to keep abreast of critical incidents, but the best way might be to employ the Twitter Advanced Search feature. Not easy to find for the novice Twitter user, it’s the best way to gather real-time information from anyone tweeting about a particular event…and to narrow it down to location.

The URL for the advanced search is:!/search-advanced. You can search for key words, exact phrases, specific people (either those who sent, those who received, or those who were mentioned), and you can even narrow down the place from which it was sent down to a one mile radius.

The location would be searchable if the person was using a phone to update Twitter (likely) and has left on their geolocating service (also likely). Plus, like any intel collection mission, if you find one person with good info, you can follow trails that will lead you to others with potential data to collect.

Twitter, even in small communities, is not something to be overlooked. It is a valid way to gather details about an ongoing critical incident so as to strategize for the best law enforcement response. It is also a valid way to gather data about future events and plan for deployment. There’s a reason why Twitter is predicted to reach over 500 million users before May…people use it. So should you.

Cara Donlon-Cotton is a former course developer and instructor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. She currently teaches a variety of media relations and social networking classes to local law enforcement agencies. She can be reached at or through the Public Safety Training & Education Network at Photo by Mark C. Ide.

Published in Law and Order, May 2012

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