Blue Line


September 18, 2012  By Doug Pflug

1074 words – MR

Police Tweet-a-Thons
A virtual ride-along on the information highway

by Doug Pflug

The Guelph Police Service (GPS) has amassed almost 5,000 followers through its two main Twitter accounts, @gpsmedia (2778) and @Chief_BLarkin (2114), since launching its social media engagement platform in November 2009. 


The #GPS uses Twitter as a means to:

• Engage community groups and businesses

• Promote the great “face time” work our police officers do on a daily basis

• Solicit service delivery feedback from the community and businesses

• Provide emergency messaging during serious incidents and municipal emergencies

• Create and maintain positive police-youth interactions

• Cross promote and market community partner events

In researching ways to increase Twitter followers, I came across a news article discussing a 2010 Vancouver “Tweet-a-Thon.”

“Social media has been a very successful way for us to interact with the community that we weren’t able to before,” explained Vancouver Police Social Media Officer Cst. Anne Longley. “It is interactive. It is not just a way for us to push out a message.” The GPS has since held three Twitter campaigns, offering on-line followers a glimpse of what occurs during a police officer’s typical 10-hour shift. 


The #GPS hosted three 10 hour Tweet-a-Thons during high call-volume time frames, specifically the annual 2011 Project Safe Semester kick-off and wrap-up and the 2012 St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. I tweeted general information about each call for service dispatched to fellow officers. Most of the complaints concerned public intoxication, noise ordinances, disturbances and trespassing. 

We wanted to give the public real insight into the types of calls we respond to, while balancing the public’s rights to privacy and other pertinent legislative requirements, so followers can appreciate how engaged we are. 

During the Project Safe Semester #PSS2011 campaign,I tweeted 164 times and responded to 44 direct messages for the kick-off and tweeted 108 times and replied to 43 direct messages for the wrap-up.

When the Tweet-a-Thon began, I provided followers a basic outline of the geographical locations and boundaries within the City of Guelph:
<@gpsmedia #pss2011 call location info: N-4 =downtown, N-3 =entire city south of Wellington, N-1 =west side N-2 is east side both split at Woolwich St>

The tweeted locations remained vague. We didn’t want people following us around or showing up to potentially dangerous situations, so restricted the information in the tweets to neighbourhoods rather than exact locations.

My frequent tweets highlighted the variety of calls dispatched to officers, hourly cell and prisoner checks, arrests, offences committed, tickets issued for public intoxication, urination and other offences. At the end of the evening, I tweeted:

<@gpsmedia EVENING WRAP UP 3:55 am – 193 calls, 12 males, 2 females and 1 youth in custody at GPS HQ @Deputy_BLarkin #pss2011 Thanks for the follows!!>

Following the event, I reviewed the results, including several messages from followers and tweet statistics, and deemed it a success. This new approach provided a great opportunity to engage the social media community and incited several positive and supportive comments. Here are just a few examples of the positive responses:


@joey_lotion: @gpsmedia @Deputy_BLarkin #pss2011

@karenjconnelly: @gpsmedia #pss2011

I conducted a supplemental search to determine the potential re-tweet impact from other Twitter members following this real-time event. A “re-tweet” is the re-posting of someone else’s tweet, distinguished by a specific re-tweet icon. I tweeted a serious disturbance call and within a short time, the message was re-tweeted to 21,795 Twitter accounts.

Top 10 Re-tweets by followers:

@ctvswo (local TV station) 9,670
@Cityofguelph 4,587
@guelphmercury (newspaper) 3,682
@Chief_BLarkin 1,517
@lisamaclean 918
@Mario_bourque 625
@kate_B 491
@darry_law (local radio host) 305

Total: 21,795

It’s astonishing that one 140-character message can appear on almost 22,000 hand-held devices, tablets, laptops, etc. in just a few moments.

We credit Twitter messaging and re-tweets for assisting us in locating a missing elderly male in December 2010. His vehicle plate number was tweeted, picked-up by media and broadcasted. A short time later, a radio listener saw his vehicle beside a rural corn field. Police were called and officers located the man in a disoriented state. We believe that had he not been found so quickly, he may have easily succumbed to the weather and perished.

Since this time, Sarnia and Chatham-Kent police services have conducted similar Tweet-a-Thons, mirroring the successes achieved by their predecessors. Approximately 30 per cent of police forces currently have Twitter accounts. It is yet another tool used to reach out to the community, display transparency and at the same time, help us do our job.

Although still in its early stages throughout North America, the concept of social media in law enforcement has proven to be a very good community engagement tool. The GPS further utilized Twitter as an information-sharing tool last summer after a large gas leak in a residential neighbourhood, resulting in a near citywide power outage. 

Once we confirmed the power was out, we immediately began tweeting messages to followers advising them of the outage and asking them to provide their location and indicate whether they were experiencing any interruptions. When your power goes out, so does your phone, TV, computer and radio.

Once the power was restored, many followers expressed their gratitude as everyone seems to have a hand-held device and our tweets kept them up to date in a time of crisis. As a result, we are currently investigating the formal application of Twitter during municipal emergencies as part of the City of Guelph’s emergency management strategy.

Little academic literature exists to effectively measure the impact of social media on policing. The emerging benefits has led most police personnel to believe this is not a fad, however, but rather a fixture for police services to efficiently engage the community in times of crisis and buttress positive police-community interactions.


GPS Media Relations Officer Sgt. Douglas Pflug is vice-chair of the Ontario Media Resource Officers Network and has lectured across Canada and the US on the benefits a comprehensive social media platform can provide your police service. Contact him at (519) 831-9285, @gpsmedia, or for more information or assistance with your Tweet-a-Thon.

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