Cops on the Tweet to Solve Crimes and Educate the Public/Huber Heights, Ohio, Police Facebook page Cops on the Tweet to Solve Crimes and Educate the Public/Huber Heights, Ohio, Police Facebook page Design Department

release because the media isn't going to cover it," Moen said. "We'll throw stuff like that on the Facebook site, and sometimes we get lucky with somebody recognizing somebody."

Tweeting a 24-Hour News Cycle

Law enforcement agencies learned long ago to use the traditional media to educate the public and ask for help solving crimes. Now they've found more outlets to reach more people and keep the message in the public eye.

Traditional ways of contacting local residents have gaps that can be filled, in large part, with Web 2.0 tools. They augment traditional communications, such as emergency notifications geared toward landlines, television news and newspapers.

"The folks [using] Facebook, MySpace or Twitter might not watch the news that night or read the paper that day," said Economou, who sends out all his police department's tweets in order to maintain a unified message. "In a 24-hour news cycle, a story is on the front page of the paper and then six hours later it's not on the Web or television or whatever. What we do [with Twitter] is drive them back to our Web site where the information is always there."

For the most part, police use Twitter -- a Web site that updates and broadcasts messages of no more than 140 characters -- for one-way communications to deliver information to the public and direct citizens to the department Web site, which they hope keeps crime information fresh in the minds of the public.

"It took the one-to-one text messaging and made it one-to-many," said Sgt. Mark Clark of the Scottsdale, Ariz., Police Department. "That's pretty good for public safety. If we want to get messages out to many cell phones, that's the way we do it."

Messages detailing where a crime -- such as a robbery -- occurred, and major traffic accidents that hamper traffic, etc., are delivered this way. "If someone drives into their neighborhood and sees crime scene tape, most likely there's been a tweet or a Nixle message saying what's going on in the neighborhood," Clark said.

Nixle is a text messaging service the Scottsdale Police Department uses in conjunction with Twitter. Nixle allows for 140 characters, like Twitter, but can be linked to a press release, photos or a map. "When we upload to Nixle, it uploads to Twitter at the same time," Clark said. A man responded recently to a Nixle message that included photos of stolen property that belonged to him, he said.

Clark uploads updates from his BlackBerry to about 900 followers, a number that has increased steadily since the department started tweeting in October 2008. He said he tweets or sends out Nixle messages about twice a day, sometimes more often. Some days he might not send anything. "It's incident-driven, and we try not to spam people because we know it's going to their cell phones."

The tweets go to the local media's news desks and anyone else who's interested. While it's mostly for one-way communication, sometimes there's reciprocation.

Finally Sharing

Social networking sites are also a way for law enforcement agencies that traditionally operate in silos to share information about cases and crooks. That's how, in 1999, the concept for CrimeDex came to Jim Hudson, then a supervisor with the Portland, Ore., Police Bureau's Fraud Detail.

"That was the original idea -- an online database to bring everybody together to realize they're working on the same case," Hudson said. "That was a major problem. We'd be sitting around the room with maybe 100 investigators from two states passing around Xerox copies of checks, and everybody is trying to remember if they have a case like this back in the office. You'd invariably discover three agencies had been chasing the same guy for six

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor