Want to know why the police are congregating outside the house down the block? Chances are that if you wander down there and ask, they'll just growl at you to head home and not to worry about it. But get online and ask Lieutenant Matthew Murray via Twitter. He says he will be glad to tell you what's going on -- if he hasn't already tweeted about it. "I try to answer those kind of questions as fast I can," he says. "I don't want them just hanging out there."
Murray is a former homicide detective who's now the head of the department's social media and information wing. He's had the department on Twitter since June, MySpace since August or so. There's also a YouTube channel up and a Facebook page in the works. It's part of a concerted effort to supplement traditional media and information outreach to better serve the public -- in part by reaching out to them quickly and directly, without the filter of the traditional media. "We can get stuff out really fast -- and stuff the media might not be that interested in," he explains. "We can get a crime-scene video out [on MySpace] in seconds, and link it to Twitter."
It's also a way for the public to talk back, to share concerns and ask questions publicly or anonymously. "These are people we might not not normally talk to," Murray says. So far the reception has been positive and the department is amassing a solid following.
The department Twitter feed is by far the most popular and frequently used, according to Murray. It's there that they release info on crimes, solicit help from the community and link to their other social-media outlets. They also use it to take questions from the public and to publicize various aspects of Denver and state law -- including a popular Friday feature that spotlights the weirdest laws on the books. Murray says plans are in place to utilize Twitter as a cheap, easy way to update people in the case of a major safety issue, such as a terrorist act or natural disaster -- kind of like a free complement to reverse-911 for the tech savvy.
The MySpace page hosts photos, including suspect shots and the most up-to-date Denver most-wanted list. The department also uses it to put up crime-scene video and the occasional press release. YouTube is currently used as an online presence for The Blue and You, a video series that's kind of like a local, department-sponsored version of Cops. Here's an example: