Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Crime Beat Becomes Crime Tweet

A Philadelphia cop taps social media for crime control

Using social media doesn’t just mean mundane status lines and community games. Joseph Murray, a Philadelphia-based detective, has devised a unique way to combine Twitter with his neighborhood watch. As a result, he’s made his area a safer place. Hopefully, his idea will go viral. Imagine all these Twitter-communities keeping watch.

Murray is a third-generation police officer and long-time Philadelphia resident. He joined the force when he was just 19. Six years later, he became a detective. He started his online networking efforts with community blogs when he became a member of the Southwest Division. He wanted potential victims to be aware of danger zones—especially those that were presently in progress. Twitter provided a great tool, for both brevity and speed.

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Murray opened a Twitter account in 2009 and identified himself as a detective. He’s @TheFuzz9143 (his badge number). He signaled that he would be posting tweets about crime patterns, suspects, and public safety. He asked people to let him know if he could be of assistance. It was an invitation to be involved.

“Everyblock is reporting a stranger rape on the 200block of 47th Friday night,” one Tweeter writes. “Nothing in news. Is this true?”

“Not true,” TheFuzz9143 responds. “Can't find anything in any computer system we have here.” Followers can see the response and retweet it. If he gets an update, he can send it out at once, and the update quickly spreads.

In another tweet, Murray related a “great job done by a few citizens who called police when they spotted a guy who committed a robbery a few nights ago. Arrest made. Phone returned.”

As of today, he has acquired around 1285 followers, many of whom live in his area. He’s known some followers as long as 5 years, from the earlier message boards.

“I started Twitter,” he says, “because the neighborhood message boards were becoming irrelevant. I wanted to use the popular medium. You have to adapt or you’ll be left behind.”

He’s aware of the limitations of a few cops driving around a neighborhood: they can be in only one place at any given time. Citizens who join the effort to keep their neighborhoods safe offer more eyes and ears. It’s also a way to build trust and cooperation. Even Philadelphia’s mayor has posted tweets on Murray’s feed.

On a daily basis, he tweets where and when crimes are occurring (“just had a gunpoint Robbery on 47th Street”), and responds to queries. For example, they arrested a guy in the process of a car-jacking who couldn’t figure out a stick shift. Murray even tweets to criminals not yet arrested, warning them they’ll be in custody soon.

Murray is a face to which people can relate, a protector who listens. He’ll even comment on mundane things like what he’s eating or the billboard ads he notices. When things are quiet, he offers safety tips or posts a photo he just took. If someone wants to send a tip confidentially, Murray provides his private email address.

To spread the word, reporters have written about Murray’s efforts to lift the veil that often blocks the police from the community they serve. One Philadelphia journalist contacted residents to get their reactions, finding individuals who keep Murray’s Twitter feed on their home pages or who feel like Murray is a friend. This is positive community policing in action. One neighborhood watch group routinely checks Murray’s tweets before they go out on patrol.

Recently, bureaucracy slowed things down, as officials realized that policies must be in place before officers reach out in this medium. “Per a new directive,” Murray tweeted in January, “all personnel wanting to use social media under their official title must get approval from the commissioner.”

The Philadelphia Police Department recognizes the service Murray provides and they’re currently training 12-15 officers to exploit social network opportunities for community relations. It’s important to have consistency. The department itself has a Twitter feed, @Phillypolice.

The concept is simple: train officers to use Twitter, publicize their “beat” locally, and invite followers to provide information about things they observe. Also, provide followers with safety tips and updates (where possible) about local crime. It’s a terrific way to tap the networking power of social media. It’s not a replacement for 911, but it does connect a lot of people. It also makes them feel safer and more involved.

Let’s hope more towns and cities pick up on it. As Murray states, “It’s win-win.”

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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