When Oakland, Calif., police Capt. Anthony Toribio heard the details of the Feb. 23 shooting at a McDonald's on Telegraph Avenue, the veteran officer did something he wouldn't have considered just a few years ago: He turned on his laptop and started typing.
Toribio sent out a description of the shooting suspects to the 11,000 people who follow the Police Department on Twitter, the 971 who follow his account, @area2opd, and thousands more who subscribe to Nixle and Nextdoor crime alerts.
Within an hour, a woman who had read the alert called police: The suspects were across the street in the Infiniti sedan that fled the McDonald's. Police raced to the scene, arrested the men and seized the gun used in the shooting, Toribio said.
Even just a few years ago, Toribio said, Oakland police never would have asked the public for help.
"We would have broadcast this out to the patrol officers working the street," Toribio said. "It may have been days, if not weeks, if ever, before it got out to the community."
Oakland is not alone, said Nancy Kolb, a senior program manager with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a police policy group. More and more police departments are using Twitter and other social media to connect with the public.
"It gives us something ... more than we see on TV," Kolb said of police tweets. "It is a nice way to give a full picture of everything it is that law enforcement does. We see law enforcement sharing stories that would never get shared in traditional media."
In addition to the Oakland Police Department's two official Twitter accounts, five police commanders regularly use their accounts to post tweets asking residents to help solve crimes or be aware of their surroundings.
Oakland police officers are also increasingly using other online platforms to interact with residents, including Facebook; Nixle, which lets police email emergency alerts to subscribers; and Nextdoor, a neighborhood-based social network that residents and police can use to communicate with one another.
The electronic interaction between police and the public not only helps officers nab suspects and find witnesses, it also may help people feel more involved and connected with their police force.
Police say social media offers a way for residents, many of whom distrust police or only interact with officers when a problem arises, to appreciate the job cops do.
"It just lets the community know we are more than just officers; we are involved in the community," said Capt. Rick Orozco, who started tweeting as@Area3OPD in February. "We care about the community, and this is one way to feed them information. It just builds our relationship."
Lt. Chris Bolton, who has been tweeting as@OPDChris since September 2011, said his time on Twitter is often similar to walking a beat and talking with residents.
"I think that just as you would have a chat with someone over a cup of coffee at Starbucks, social media offers the ability to share a little bit about our day and what it is like to be a police officer," Bolton said. "Even some of my greatest critics ... through social media I have reached out and met those people in person."
After racing to the scene of a reported shooting in January, Bolton shared on Twitter the rush that comes after a crisis: "Multiple unit emergency response to 3300 block Grand on call re shooting in progress. No sign of disturbance upon arrival. #adrenalinedump." Other times, Bolton and his colleagues have tweeted crime stats, photos of police dogs or information about community meetings, or they have encouraged residents to load the Police Department's emergency cellphone number into a contact list.
Downtown Oakland resident Jonathan Bair, 34, said he frequently interacts with Oakland police on Twitter.
"On Twitter, the police are like everyone else," he said. "On Twitter, they've got a little photo and they can write back right away, and that makes them feel more accessible."
But while Twitter is useful, not every Oakland officer should be sitting in a squad car and browsing through tweets, Toribio said.
"You really need to look at what the roles and responsibilities are of those who are on social media," Toribio said. "Those that respond to 911 calls or nonemergency calls don't necessarily need to be tweeting."
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle