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@Boston_Police - CTO John Daley talks Twitter and the bombings

It was the the tweet heard around the country: "CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody"

The first official announcement that law enforcement agencies had concluded their manhunt for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev didn’t come at a press conference. It didn’t come from a press release or a dispatch over a police scanner. Bloomberg News says it came instead from two tweets:

The tweets mark a monumental change in the way law enforcement and the government at large connects to the public during a crisis.

The Twitter account is run by Deputy Superintendent John Daley. He is also the Chief Technology Officer.

Daley sat down with Chris Dorobek for an extended interview on the DorobekINSIDER program about how the Department was able to harness the power of social media during the crisis.

"Our Chief Dan Linskey was out in the street and he got on the radio and said, 'we've got to start using social media now to get the word out.' That's a testament because he is the number two guy in the department and social media was on his mind. He was thinking that this is an important component to responding in a crisis. We immediately started sending out real-time tweets of what was going on at the scene and gave people instructions on what do do and where to go. It wasn't just our public affairs office that were tweeting, our operational staff was involved as well," said Daley.

The Real Power of Twitter

We found the importance of Twitter underscored when the traditional media was reporting an arrest had been made - incorrectly at the time. When we first saw that on the TV, we began to doubt ourselves because we knew we knew there hadn't been an arrest but if CNN was saying it, it had to be true. But after we double and triple checked we decided to counter that message and let people know what was going on. That was a critical moment for us. It showed that we could, apart from the millions of dollars of communication infrastructure that CNN and the networks have -  step up and put out an authoritative piece of information that would basically contradict the networks. After that message when out our follow-ship tripled again. The tweet sent a message that we were just as important source of information as the news media, if not more so," said Daley. "We didn't understand just how influential we could be."

Influence Play

"I tweeted out the message of there not being an arrest and I was sitting in our command center. We have TV monitors on all the walls and literally less than 30 seconds after I hit post, all the crawls started changing. That really underscores the immediacy and power that just one person holding an iPhone could have over the message that hundreds of thousands of people were watching," said Daley.

Too Much Data?

"We had problems with the overload of information. It was an unprecedented situation where we had tens of thousands of people in close proximity, all with cameras and phones capturing video for one purpose or another. Not related to the bombings. After the bombs went off everyone with an image or video thought they could be helpful so they started sending them to us. They also posted the images to Flickr, Facebook and as that happened other people on social media saw that and they thought they had cracked the case. It was very well intentioned. But they were also desperate to tell us about it, they wanted to get our attention and show us what they had found. It was a struggle for us because we had seen all those photos but we had to tell people yes we've seen them. Thank you. But there are only so many times you can respond. And if you didn't repsond people got more desperate," said Daley.

Twitter 911

"During the marathon we did take 911 calls over Twitter. People told us about suspicious packages and we were able to send out officers to investigate. But that was unique. Twitter just is not built for that format. We don't want people to have expectations that if they tweet to us we will see it right away and get a car right out," said Daley.

A Law Enforcement Twitter Account must:

  • Engage in a dialogue. If you are just broadcasting news on the Twitter feed then you might as well just have a website and send out press releases. The value of social media is that it is interactive and dynamic
  • Get the confidence of the masses. You have to project an image that you are apart of the community and that you understand, listen and will respond to concerns.
  • Consider privacy. It's not rocket science. Just like in the real world there are rules. If a police officer monitors something as a member of the public it is fair game, but if they start using alternative identities or going in controlled spaces, each of those more intrusive steps requires some judicial overview or investigative documents. We shouldn't be doing anything on social media we wouldn't be comfortable with in the real world.

Can't Setup Twitter in a Crisis @Boston_Police

"We've been using social media for awhile and tweeting since 2008. We were one of the first police departments in the country to have a blog. Our police commissioner Ed Davis is really pushing us to use social media. It has been really ingrained in the way we do business. We were well positioned going into the marathon," said Daley. "Effective use of social media is not just an add water type of situation. You really have to understand the medium, vocabulary and etiquette. You can't just learn to tweet in a crisis.

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Tags: DorobekINSIDER, boston, citizen engagement, communications, digital government, leadership, social media, twitter

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Comment by Pat Fiorenza on May 31, 2013 at 4:32pm

Fascinating discussion. 

Comment by Rob Sanchez on May 29, 2013 at 4:19pm

Very informative!! Here's a graph that shows the spike in Twitter updates that week which I found interesting, http://mphprogramslist.com/files/2013/04/graph1.png. This intro of this article highlighted Boston PD's response to the bombings, http://mphprogramslist.com/50-most-social-media-friendly-police-dep.... Since the 15th, the Boston Police Department had gained approximately 70,000 followers on Facebook and 275,000 on Twitter.

Comment by Eric Rabe on May 29, 2013 at 9:32am

Great post.  Here's a related one from my U of Penn blog at the time of the bombings -- http://bit.ly/YUTwE6 -- Eric Rabe, Fels Institute, UofP 

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