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Phila. detective makes a convincing case for Twitter patrols

Not just about people-pleasing, online initiatives can build trust and solve crimes

Much has changed in policing over the years – but the need to forge good community relations has always been constant.

Philadelphia police detective Joe Murray says he’s no different from the officers of 50 or 60 years ago who strolled the neighborhood on foot patrol, striking up conversations with residents.

The difference is he's just using Twitter to do it — and do it more effectively.

This screenshot shows recent updates on the Twitter page of Detective Joe Murray, who is a leader in online crime-fighting within The Philadelphia Police Department.
This screenshot shows recent updates on the Twitter page of Detective Joe Murray, who is a leader in online crime-fighting within The Philadelphia Police Department.

Murray, who was already a regular blogger at the time, started sending out crime updates in 2009.

He was met with success to a surprising degree, quickly building a loyal list of followers.

Residents quickly came to see Murray as an easily accessible and approachable voice of the department, who was giving out information publicly in a friendly way. That kind of transparency is often hard for outsiders to see.

“People always say ‘What do the police do?’ By nature, we don’t give much information out. A lot of times there’s a reason for it, but sometimes we can be more forthcoming,” Murray said.

Making sure never to break confidentiality rules or jeopardize an investigation, Murray works to keep his audience in the loop. On @PPDJoeMurray, followers are able to instantly access a stream of incidents unlikely to make it to the evening news, but that's relevant to them as locals.

“You take what people complain about,” Murray said, listing off noise complaints, robbery patterns, and car break-ins as go-to material for his Twitter page.

Show people that you're addressing their annoyances, and they'll be thankful. He says his online presence contributed to more thank-yous than he'd ever heard before.

“There are so many things that go on in the community. Even if it’s something like guys stealing packages off peoples’ porches. If you can take care of the little things for people, they respond well to that,” Murray said.

The benefits of officers' tweeting has now come to the attention of bosses at the department. Beginning soon, 15 officers will have personal accounts like Murray’s from which to post, giving citizens even more ways to talk to cops.

In addition, taking technology a step further, a new system of texting tips to officers was just rolled out, along with  a mobile version of their website that allows users to use their phone’s GPS to determine the location of the nearest police precinct.

An app called iWatch Philadelphia provides an additional avenue for submitting tips — and beyond the text-only tip line, allows for sending images or video to authorities.

Murray insists his use of Twitter isn’t just about people-pleasing, either – it actually helps cops fight crime. Not only can the local residents get to know him, he says, but they always know where to find him if they have a tip.

“It goes both ways. We put information out there and we also get information coming back to us. People want to help the police, and I’ll take their help,” Murray said.

Once, someone who talked to Murray on Twitter said they knew a shooting victim and heard through the grapevine that his brother did it, and police were able to use that information to solve the case.

“If you solve one shooting through one tip, it’s already worth it,” Murray said.

In its ability to reach thousands — or more — at once, the platform has enormous potential for building a seamless mode of communication between cops and citizens. You want the right citizens on your side, and, based on Murray's work, they’re willing to help you if you know where to find them.

On a larger scale, what's happening in Philadelphia could herald the start of an interesting trend, of departments actually encouraging officers to embrace social media and acknowledge the benefits it can offer.

A quick glance at social media policies from a few years ago shows that they were developed with one thing in mind: Keeping cops out of trouble.

They say what to avoid and highlight the perils, without detailing how social media sites can be used to bring benefits both to the officers and the communities to service.

According to Murray, it’s time to focus on the positives, which are plenty.

“I could stop right now and I would consider the Twitter account a huge success,” he said. 

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