The police department in Boynton Beach, Fla., established a presence on social media early on – back in 2007. Its first platform? MySpace. While the department no longer posts new content on its MySpace page, it maintains a presence to prevent anyone else from assuming its identity on the platform, according to Boynton Beach PD Public Information Officer Stephanie Slater. Today, the force of 158 sworn officers in Boynton Beach is represented on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest and Ustream. And this breadth of activity is intentional, Slater explained to Government Technology. "We know not everyone is just using one [social media platform], so that's why we use that many," she said. "We're trying to reach as broad an audience as we can." And the platforms serve not just to disseminate information – the goal is truly to engage the citizens of Boynton Beach. Noticing a lot of Facebook comments about speeding through school zones, the PD placed additional officers in school zones, documenting enforcement efforts with social media posts and photos, taken from enough distance to respect the privacy of those being cited. Residents were so appreciative, the department continued the effort -- with a twist. It polled Facebook users to get feedback on where officers should be stationed. The location with the most votes was rewarded with a police presence. "At the end of the day, why do we do traffic enforcement and speed zone enforcement at these school zones? Because there are children going to school and it’s for the safety of those children -- it's not to write tickets,” Slater said. “And for us to be able to do that and the community to be part of it and watch it happen, that was awesome." To date, the department has hosted three live chats with Chief of Police G. Matthew Immler, and Slater also broadens the reach of the PD’s ride-along program by conducting virtual ride-alongs via Twitter, using the hashtag #ridewithbbpd. During a one- or two-hour span, the activities of the officer are tweeted out and participants can follow along and ask questions. During a recent ride-along, Slater said, an officer was dispatched to a domestic violence situation between two elderly residents involved in an altercation with a cane as the Twitterverse followed along. Boynton Beach’s latest foray into citizen engagement comes in the form of the MyPD app. They chose the app, from Massachusetts-based Wired Blue, since it is low cost and feature-rich, according to Slater. Peter Olson, the former Peabody, Mass., police detective behind the app, explained that about 100 law enforcement agencies across the county are now using the app. Development began in 2010, when there weren’t many other products on the market. “I thought it would be great to have a multi-featured app that police departments could use to communicate with citizens,” Olson said, adding that the first priority was to develop a solution that would be powerful for users. While custom solutions can run as much as $50,000, most departments deploy the MyPD app for less than $1,000 per year. So far, a couple hundred Boynton Beach citizens have downloaded the tool, which offers more than 20 features. Among the most popular is the ability to submit a tip to a specific section of the police department. Tipsters can divulge contact information, or choose to remain anonymous. "Let's say you want to submit a tip on gang activity,” explained Slater. “You hit submit, and that information is directly sent to our gang detectives. You have information about a cold case? That info is directly sent to the supervisor of our major case squad." The app’s push notification capability pushes out departmental tweets to subscribers at regular intervals, saving users from having to actively monitor social media feeds. But to cut down on “noise” and focus communication on the most relevant information, MyPD doesn’t distribute retweets or direct messages, Olson explained.
In areas where several police agencies in close proximity are using the app – like in Massachusetts, for example – users benefit from being able to get information from multiple agencies with only one app download. Living and working in two different cities, both of which are on MyPD, means users can stay informed day and night.
According to Olson, more enhancements are planned for MyPD in its next annual update later this year. New features, like the push notifications law enforcement agencies now use, will be developed based on user feedback.
Boynton Beach, Fla., photo from Shutterstock.