Laura Millar
Here at PublicEye headquarters in Nashua, New Hampshire, we are only forty minutes away from Boston. The city is close to our heart, and #BostonStrong is still on our minds on the anniversary of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

As we look back on the anniversary of the tragic bombing and resulting manhunt, it is becoming clear how important a role technology played in how the police, fire, and emergency medical departments responded to the shocking events.  In particular, we are learning about the pivotal role social media played in the events.  A Harvard report, exploring the Boston Police Department’s effective use of Twitter as a quick means of sharing critical emergency information, has reinvigorated the push for public safety agencies to embrace social media.

Here is a list of 4 other examples of how social media has become a critical tool for 21st century public safety departments.

1. The Campus Shooting in Oakland, California

Oaklanda-CA-PoliceIn April, 2012, 43-year-old One Goh walked on to the campus of Oikos University in Oakland, CA. He opened fire, murdering 7 people before turning himself in. Lieutenant Chris Bolton said that before that day, he hadn’t seen much use for social media in public safety. He said, "Without having tried [social media] and without knowing anyone else in law enforcement who was using it, I associated it with many more risks and consequences than I did with benefits."

On the day of the shooting, the two public information officers with Oakland Police used Twitter and Nixle, a public safety alert tool, to send updates, emergency alerts, and squash rumors. The experience changed Bolton’s mindset, and led him to expand the department’s social media presence. They now use Facebook, Twitter, Nixle, and Nextdoor to share information, communicate with the public, and gather tips.


2. Wanted Wednesdays in Sparta, Wisconsin

PhotoCreditJohnMierowWhat started out as simple public outreach turned into a major tip-gathering tool for police in Sparta, Wisconsin. The department has taken to Facebook with “Wanted Wednesdays”, posting images and descriptions of wanted individuals.

The strategy proved to be an immediate success. Police were getting tips and responses within ten minutes of the first posts going live. The citizens of Sparta can respond to the Wanted Wednesdays posts via Facebook, or make a call to the police department. The majority of Wanted Wednesday criminals are captured due to tips received from social media. One criminal saw his own picture on a Wanted Wednesday post, and turned himself in to the authorities. 


3. Fighting Gang Violence in Chicago

Screen_Shot_2014-04-14_at_11_19_54_AM.pngIn Chicago’s highest-crime neighborhoods, one out of every 400 young black men is killed each year. With 50-80% of every shooting and murder being attributed to gang violence, the Chicago Police Department has developed a way to identify the most likely victims – and perpetrators – of gang killings.

Operation Ceasefire is an initiative that uses sociology and anthropological principles to analyze crime and social media, and identify future targets and would-be assassins. Once identified, the gang members and leaders have been called in to meet with police, prosecutors, and social service providers to receive a simple message: “We know who you are. We want to help you stop shooting. If you don’t, we’re coming after you.” The police use social media to prevent the crimes from ever happening. 


4. The #ShamrockShake Earthquake in Southern California

california-desertThere was nothing particularly special about the 5.1 earthquake that hit southern California on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th 2014. For a California earthquake, it was rather unremarkable. What was remarkable was the major role that social media played in the reporting of the seismic event. The first damage reports broke on Twitter, not from authorities or specialists.

Residents shared images of broken dishes and fallen shelves on Twitter, under the amusing and relevant hashtag #ShamrockShake. Disneyland visitors learned about ride closings via social media. A seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey ( @DrLucyJones ) become a trending topic under her new nickname, The Earthquake Lady.  Local police and fire departments soon joined the conversation, announcing earthquake-connected road closures and other alerts. 

The new role of social media in public safety is an important one. More and more departments are discovering the value of social access to the public for fighting crime, emergency alerts, and keeping the people informed of important information. Passive social media accounts are becoming extinct, and departments are learning to harness the power of the public for the greater good. 

To learn more about harnessing the power of social media for public safety, sign up for a free webinar at www.publiceyes.com

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