When a hit-and-run driver mowed down a pedestrian at the intersection of Market and O’Farrell streets in San Francisco on February 25, the police department sent out a call for witnesses on its Facebook page, which has about 3,000 fans.

When a woman wearing nurses’ scrubs stole a wallet and used a pilfered credit card soon after, the Boynton Beach police department posted a photo on its Facebook page – and then tweeted the news release.

Police agencies around the country are turning to social media to get the word out about crime and collect tips from local residents. So why doesn’t Berkeley, a city that has made a practice of democratizing its processes as much as possible, use Facebook, Twitter or other forms of social media?

Because the city is still wrestling to formulate a social media policy.

While it might sound simple to throw up a Facebook page, upload a surveillance video to YouTube, or start tweeting about a recent burglary or city council meeting, it’s not, according to Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, the city’s spokeswoman and its point person on social media.

“Social media opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for communicating with the public which is incredibly exciting,” said Clunies-Ross. “But it does present certain challenges.”

Some of those challenges include making communications open so they comply with public records requirements; making sure that disabled people – including the blind – have equal access to Berkeley’s public pages; and ensuring that the pages are secure and can’t get hacked, she said.

In addition, Facebook and Twitter need to be moderated, which requires significant staff time. While San Francisco has thousands of employees, providing a pool of talent with which to tweet or post, Berkeley is already short-staffed and may soon lay off additional employees, said Clunies-Ross. In short, there’s no one to tweet.

“There are definite resource questions,” she said. “We have to be careful and if, and when we do it, do it right.”

Police Chief Michael Meehan would like his department to start using some form of social media, but he cannot until the City Manager’s office formulates a formal policy. He recently sent Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, the police department spokesperson, to southern California to a conference on police and social media to learn what agencies around the country are doing.

“One of my long term goals is to put out more information,” said Chief Meehan. “Social media seems one way to do it.”

Picture of suspected car thief from Berkeley PD’s website.

While Berkeley is not yet using Facebook, it has worked hard to provide extensive information on its website, which is continually being tweaked, said Clunies-Ross. Residents can view city council agendas, get contact information for city employees,  pay parking tickets online, apply for jobs, report potholes and graffiti, look up City Council minutes dating back to 1912,  view Berkeley’s “Most Wanted” criminals on the police department’s web site, and help identify people on the  “Who Are These Suspects? page.”

To ensure privacy, a third-party vendor manages page subscriptions, she said. In addition, many individual city council members, including Susan WengrafLaurie Capitelli, Gordon Wozniak,and Kriss Worthington, as well as Mayor Tom Bates, have their own Facebook pages.

Here is a rundown of how some police departments are using social media:

  • Police in Boca Rotan, Florida have a media manager who writes news articles about crime and posts them on the department’s Facebook page.
  • The police department in Greater Manchester in the UK held a #GMP24 Twitter day where police officers tweeted all the calls for help they received. Individual officers have also tweeted messages, like telling young women how they can protect themselves from a rapist on the prowl.
  • The Vancouver police department held a “Tweet-along” where a patrol officer tweeted throughout one of her night patrol shifts. It also tweets traffic advisories and other breaking news to its 4,000 followers. Vancouver has a YouTube channel and a blog.
  • In late February, Dallas hired a full-time social media coordinator for the police department. The department’s Facebook page has more than 5,500 fans and it has 3,400 followers on Twitter.
  • In December, the Philadelphia police department posted a surveillance video of a man robbing a store on YouTube. Someone left a tip on the department’s Facebook page leading to information on the suspect’s whereabouts.
  • The Bellevue, Nebraska police department has a twitter feed and individual police officers’ tweets feed into it. They also have a Facebook page and a separate page for its K9 unit.
Mayor Bates has 1,632 Facebook friends.

Of course, police agencies have been using social media for years to investigate crimes. Police from Berkeley and other cities have monitored individual Facebook pages of people suspected of being a member of a gang; searched keywords in Twitter, and even “friended” suspects or talked to them in chat rooms, said Sgt Kusmiss.

A recent survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police of 728 police departments around the country showed that 81% of them used social media for investigations.

And, lest we forget, Berkeley’s mayor does have a Facebook page which is relatively lively with 1,632 friends. Mayor Bates also has a Twitter account. But he has yet to post a single tweet.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...