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St. Petersburg police tweeting about crimes

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:59 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Last Monday, police received a call at 1:15 p.m. that the SunTrust bank branch, at 3601 34th St. N., had just been robbed.

Lt. Dennis Bolender gave the command: Tweet it. The crime appeared on the St. Petersburg Police Department's Twitter account 36 minutes later. Less than an hour after that, another entry appeared with a link to the suspect's photo.

With the advent of social media such as Twitter, people increasingly expect to get their information in real time. Law enforcement agencies across the Tampa Bay area are trying to meet those expectations.

St. Petersburg police are trying to use their Twitter account (@StPetePD) more frequently. The Tampa Police Department (@TampaPD) is training a handful of officers to tweet. And the public information department at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office recently hired someone to handle social media.

Despite such efforts, residents still won't be able to find out what law enforcement is up to in real time. And they probably never will.

Bolender's tweet came after Police Chief Chuck Harmon and Mayor Bill Foster met with representatives from a half-dozen neighborhood associations who complained they didn't have access to an "active calls for service list," said Kurt Donley, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

One, in particular — Judy Ellis from Lakewood Estates — told the chief and mayor she wants to know if there are five patrol cars on her street because there's an ax murderer running around, Donley said. With such information, she could let residents know they should stay inside.

Harmon listened, and Donley left with the impression the police department would be tweeting significant calls once 911 dispatchers received them.

That's not what happened. The lieutenant overseeing the police district where a given call happens decides whether it should be tweeted, said police spokesman Mike Puetz.

Various factors are weighed. A suspect might be following the department on Twitter, for example, and if a description of the car he is using is tweeted, he may switch vehicles to elude capture.

"There will be times when information is so sensitive it's not prudent to put it out on Twitter," Puetz said. "When you put it out there, everybody gets it."

Some agencies, such as the Tampa Police Department, put active calls on their websites, but they often wait a while. In Tampa, there is a 45-minute delay, partly because the agency does not want a crowd to form at a crime scene and partly because they don't want to put an officer at risk by alerting everyone as to his every move, said police department spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

The exception to the 45-minute delay is a major traffic accident; those are posted immediately so motorists can find alternate routes, Davis said.

The St. Petersburg Police Department uses a service called CrimeReports on its website. All residents have to do is sign up and check the neighborhood they are interested in. After that, they receive alerts by phone or email.

There's a delay between the time a report of a crime is made and the time it appears on CrimeReports, Puetz said.

The Tampa Police Department has a similar system on its website called Alert Tampa. The way in which residents are alerted to crimes often depends on how serious they are.

"If we were looking for a rape suspect, and we knew they were in your area and the crime just occurred, we would probably do a phone call," Davis said. "If we've seen a series of auto burglaries, that might be an email."

Donley, the CONA president, questioned the lack of details about particular crimes in CrimeReport. He might learn there are a series of burglaries in his neighborhood on CrimeReport, for example, but never find out the thief was breaking in through people's back doors.

But he said he understands why officers might want to not release everything — or put it out right away — online or through social media.

"What we're getting now is significantly better than what we were getting," Donley said.


sthompson@tampatrib.com (727) 215-6504

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