SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Riding side by side as a police officer answers a call for help or investigates a brutal crime during a ridealong gives citizens an up-close look at the gritty and sometimes dangerous situations officers can experience on the job.
But a new social media approach to informing the public about what officers do is taking hold at police departments across the United States and Canada – one that is far less dangerous for citizens but, police say, just as informative.
With virtual ridealongs on Twitter, or tweetalongs, curious citizens just need a computer or smartphone for a glimpse into law enforcement officers' daily routines.
Tweetalongs typically are scheduled for a set number of hours, with an officer – or a designated tweeter such as the department's public information officer – posting regular updates to Twitter about what they see and do while on duty. The tweets, which also include photos and links to videos of the officers, can encompass an array of activities – everything from an officer responding to a homicide to a noise complaint.
Police departments say virtual ridealongs reach more people at once and add transparency to the job.
People spend hard-earned money on taxes to allow the government to provide services. That's police, fire, water, streets, the whole works, and there should be a way for those government agencies to let the public know what they're getting for their money, said Chief Steve Allender of the Rapid City Police Department in South Dakota, which started offering tweetalongs several months ago – https://twitter.com/rcpdtweetalong – after watching departments do so in Seattle, Kansas City, Mo., and Las Vegas.
On the day before Thanksgiving, Tarah Heupel, the Rapid City Police Department's public information officer, rode alongside Street Crimes Officer Ron Terviel. Heupel posted regular updates every few minutes about what Terviel was doing, including the officer citing a woman for public intoxication, responding to a call of three teenagers attempting to steal cough syrup and body spray from a store and locating a man who ran from the scene of an accident. Photos were included in some of the tweets.
Michael Taddesse, a 34-year-old university career specialist in Arlington, Texas, has done several ridealongs with police and regularly follows multiple departments that conduct tweetalongs.
I think the only way to effectively combat crime is to have a community that is engaged and understands what's going on, he said.
Ridealongs where you're out in the elements are very different than sitting behind a computer during a tweetalong and the level of danger is dramatically decreased, he said. But in both instances, the passenger gains new information about the call, what laws might or might not have been broken and what transpires, he added.