OAKLAND -- On April 4, people in Oakland may have come across the following message on the popular social network Twitter: "Thanks @davcron for being my 1k follower. You've won an #OaklandFirstFridayAlien Balloon, redeemable here ... now!"
The lighthearted tweet doesn't sound like it could have come from the city's police department. But in North Oakland, where police officers in the area are spearheading the use of social media to connect with locals, it did.
Departments usually use social media to spread information about crimes in progress or suspects to look out for. But for North Oakland, it isn't just that -- it's also about trying to engage people and strengthen the sometimes weak bond between police force and community.
"They want to be involved, and they want to know what is going on," said police Capt. Anthony Toribio, of Area 2, which covers North Oakland.
Perhaps the most active member of the Oakland police department online is North Oakland's Lt. Chris Bolton, who was honored March 20 for his work in turning what many people consider a trivial medium into a real tool for connecting with the community.
"He really took initiative and a leadership role," Toribio said.
Toribio nominated Bolton for the award, which was given out by ASIS International, a security management professional organization.
Bolton is arguably the department's most visible member on the popular social network Twitter, tweeting daily about his own experiences and about the work of Area 2. It was Bolton who tweeted about the balloon; he was working during First Friday, the monthly street and art fair on Telegraph Avenue, when he noticed he'd reached 1,000 Twitter followers. He then tweeted a picture of a balloon twisted into an alien face and offered it to his 1,000th follower.
"Chris adds more levity to his tweets," Toribio said dryly.
That kind of thing is characteristic of Bolton's social media activity, which mixes personal humor, information about recent crimes and positive words for the work of his colleagues. Bolton believes tweeting good news and various observations with what he calls his "awkward humor" help the community realize there's somebody behind the badge.
"They don't just see a uniform; they see me as a person," he said.
It's all part of an effort Bolton is leading within the department to engage with the community through social media. But it's not a charm offensive -- it's something he thinks brings real benefits to the department and residents. By sharing information he hopes he can reduce the fear of crime.
"I think that knowledge brings a sense of safety," he said.
Last June, Bolton was promoted to lieutenant around the same time the department moved to "geographic policing," dividing the city into five zones -- each under its own captain. Bolton believes it was in Area 2 where he started to make real connections via Twitter.
"That's where I think it's paid off," he said.
North Oakland's Area 2 is also the city's test area for using communication tool Nextdoor before rolling it out over the whole city. Nextdoor, a social media network tied to addresses, lets people communicate only with their neighbors -- and, in some cities, their local law enforcement.
"I'm really excited about it," Bolton said.
Nextdoor's free "city program" links police departments with the local network and is used in 160 cities nationwide, including New York City, according to the company. The Oakland police department recently met with Nextdoor for training before launching it as a communication tool for all of Oakland in late April.
"We're working with them to integrate them on to Nextdoor," said Nextdoor head of communications Kelsey Grady.
The police department will be able to post information to any of the 140 Nextdoor neighborhood groups in Oakland and see any comments to their post, although Grady said they won't be able to read any other information posted with the private neighborhood groups.
"It doesn't mean now the Oakland police department can use this as a surveillance tool," she said.
Toribio is himself on social media, regularly posting notes on Nextdoor like weekly crime stats or the April 11 note praising two officers for arresting two individuals for a robbery that had happened in the area. The post was quickly followed by thanks from other Nextdoor users, who said they appreciated knowing what had happened.
"Nextdoor -- you can put a lot more on there and be very specific with neighborhoods," he said.
Toribio also uses the citywide Nixle network and is active on Twitter, tweeting under the name @area2opd. Although he sent his first tweet only last summer, now he tweets daily -- not only information about community meetings and arrests made, but also compliments about the work his officers have done and even observations about the weather.
"It is important to strengthen community relations and build the trust the police department needs from the community," Toribio said.
Bolton's interest in social media goes a little farther back than his presence in North Oakland. As chief of staff for the Chief of Police from 2011 to 2013, he noticed the department had some existing but defunct Twitter accounts. He thought he shouldn't let them go to waste, but taking the first steps to start using them felt strange, going against the traditional police habit of limiting the information that goes out to the public.
"It made me feel more vulnerable," he admitted.
He was also worried it would open the floodgates to criticism of the department.
"I was almost entirely focused on potential negative consequences of use," Bolton said.
At the same time, the department was introducing Nixle alerts, which go out over e-mail or phone to anyone who has signed up.The alerts are a more traditional kind of police communication, letting the public know about a car spotted at a burglary or sending out the photo of a murder suspect. There is also an anonymous tipping system.
Nixle may be a less elegant form of social media, but it has been responsible for one of Area 2's most obvious social media crime-fighting successes, when the suspects in a February shooting at a McDonald's on Telegraph Avenue were quickly found after someone recognized the car description from a Nixle alert.
Despite the many successes of using social media, Bolton understands it's hard for police officers to get used to opening up, and he doesn't always meet with enthusiasm when he suggests it.
"They get this look of, 'Oh my gosh!' " he said.
That's why he takes the time to talk to other members of the police department to explain just why it's a good thing. And he's showing it in a concrete way, too -- he's set up a bulletin board in the hallway where posts notes with some of the good feedback he's received from the community. He hopes that will show other officers that not only is social media a two-way street, it can be positive, too.
And he's making progress. For the Oakland Police Department, opening up to social media may have been hard to start -- but once started, it's catching on.
"Each of the five areas is now represented on Twitter," Bolton said.
All this creates extra work for police, but North Oakland's converts think it's worth it.
"It is (more work), but it is essential for the police department and me to utilize social media to strengthen community relations and reduce crime," Toribio said.
As for Bolton, he's continuing to evangelize within the department, and also keeping an eye on the future of communications with the community.
"The challenge is really keeping up with what's new and what's next," Bolton said.