Is Twitter a Great Tool for Police Departments?

Twitter is an indispensable tool for those who value real-time updates—and who needs those more than police departments?

The Seattle PD has begun to see how it can best use Twitter through a service called “Tweets-by-beat”. It’s a virtual police blotter arranged by precinct in the interest of informing citizens about up-to-the-minute crime stats, enlightening the public on “the rhythms — and sometimes the tedium” of police work, and making the department itself as transparent as possible. (The project was created at least partly to control the PR damage stemming from a series of investigations that uncovered some bad behavior on the part of Seattle cops.)

Tweets-by-beat utilizes the same elements that helped Twitter play such a central role in the recent events of the “Arab Spring”, when revolutionaries and their supporters used the service to figure out exactly what was happening where so they could better coordinate their immediate strategies.

So far, the Seattle PD’s Twitter feeds include reports of mundane crimes like parking violations, vehicle theft and the all-important menace of public intoxication–but its potential applications are nearly endless.

When we imagine this project in its current state, we think of guys following police scanners from their garages for fun…or Weegee-like characters looking to get the scoop on the best crime-scene photos (though the project’s one-hour messaging delay will probably prevent the latter from getting involved). We can also easily imagine a future in which citizens use Twitter to report crimes, make complaints and request police assistance.

What do we think? How can police departments and the public they serve make the most of Twitter and other social networking tools? What kind of problems might arise from a service like this one?

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.