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You've heard of cops walking a beat. Well, how about tweeting one? Philadelphia's police department is asking its police to tweet on the beat. By sending real-time information over Twitter, the police are hoping to build a stronger rapport with residents.
Elizabeth Fiedler reports, from member station WHYY, that is supposed to make everyone safer.
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ELIZABETH FIEDLER, BYLINE: Standing on a West Philadelphia street corner on a breezy sunny day, neighborhood resident Mike Van Helder remembers when police knocked down his neighbor's door at six A.M.
MIKE VAN HELDER: There was shouting and loud noises. And, of course, I didn't know what it was about. And them being my next-door neighbors, I was understandably concerned.
FIEDLER: So Van Helder tweeted Detective Joseph Murray for more information.
HELDER: He couldn't get back to me immediately, but early the next day, he let me know that it was the Major Crimes Unit serving a warrant on the next-door neighbors.
FIEDLER: Detective Joseph Murray started tweeting on his own before the police launched their tweeting initiative. And he didn't just tell residents about past crimes. He says he tried to be proactive.
JOSEPH MURRAY: I didn't want people in the area that I police to not know what's going on. I felt I had a responsibility to the people that I'm paid to protect to let them know about, you know, burglary patterns, robbery patterns in their area so they don't walk, you know, right into the middle of one.
FIEDLER: A few months ago, the police department asked Murray to stop temporarily, so he could learn about the department's social media policy and training. Karima Zedan is director of communications for the Philadelphia Police Department. She says the department wanted to fit Murray into their larger plan to train members to use Twitter. She says the department plans to train around 15 officers across the city to use Twitter by the end of April.
KARIMA ZEDAN: We want officers, actually of various ranks - police officers, detectives, captains - across the whole city to embrace this new way of communicating.
FIEDLER: Zedan says she thinks Philadelphia is the first force in the U.S. to train officers to tweet on the beat. She says the tweeting will allow cops to communicate about crime and safety with residents of individual neighborhoods. Now, with the department's blessing, Murray is back on Twitter. And Mike Van Helder is relieved.
HELDER: Tweeting somebody versus walking down three or four blocks to, you know, talk to an officer where I know he hangs out is a lot more convenient. It's a lot safer, I feel, as well if I need to talk to him at night.
FIEDLER: But Van Helder says he's a little nervous about what kind of restrictions will be placed on the detective's tweeting. Karima Zedan says residents shouldn't worry that Murray will be censored, and she says police won't have to get their tweets approved. She wants officers to tweet things residents care about, not send out press releases.
ZEDAN: We just don't want them tweeting information that is sensitive, that's sensitive to an investigation or classified information or information pertaining to victims, that's all.
FIEDLER: Zedan says Murray did a good job of using Twitter to build a relationship with the community, and he'll help train other cops. Reaching the public 140 characters at a time might not be easy for some police. Detective Murray says some of his fellow cops make fun of his Twitter habit. He says his dad, who still walks a beat, is amused.
MURRAY: I'm not doing anything different than officers did in walking a foot beat. Getting - going in and introducing yourself to business owners, residents, it's the same thing. It's just a more modern version of it. So people know who you are, you know, and they're going to trust you more.
FIEDLER: Murray says the more residents trust the police, the more willing they'll be to provide information. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler in Philadelphia.
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