Berkeley student Brandon Coleman, shown here during an interview in January with a local TV station, helped find a missing Berkeley man after the Oakland Police Department used alert service Nixle to inform community members about the case. Berkeley Police do not use Nixle. Photo: Mark Coplan
Berkeley boy Brandon Coleman, shown here during a TV interview in January, helped find a missing man after the Oakland Police Department used alert service Nixle to tell the community about the case. Berkeley Police do not use Nixle, or any other social media tools. Photo: Mark Coplan

Nearly three years after Berkeley city staff said the municipality was working on a social media policy to allow for greater transparency and communication, the city still has virtually no online presence apart from its official website.

In the meantime, surrounding cities have taken up the challenge, particularly in the area of crime fighting, with Oakland, Emeryville and Albany using sites like Twitter, Facebook and alert network Nixle to increase the public trust and share information.

Many other Bay Area law enforcement agencies, including the Alameda County district attorney’s office and the San Francisco office of the FBI, are also using social media to various degrees. That’s because social media is widely considered one of the best ways to reach the public, whether the goal is to share breaking news, crime tips or agency successes.

According to a 2013 survey by the International Association of Police Chiefs, 96% of 500 participating law enforcement agencies, across 48 states, said they use social media. Of those, 80% said it has helped solve crimes and 73% said it has improved community relations. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the most commonly used platforms, with Nixle following close behind. Most agencies report that social media takes 1-5 hours per week to manage.

Berkeley, however, is not one of those agencies. An analysis of the Berkeley Police Department, which was completed by Cornerstone Communications in January 2013 — after being hired by the city to study the department’s media practices — concluded that the department has failed to embrace social media despite broad consensus from employees that it should.

“Prohibited from using social media of any kind, so information doesn’t go out as wide/well as it could,” noted one respondent, identified only as a Berkeley Police manager. “Seems like almost every day or two there’s some good police work/interesting story that we could be putting out. Why aren’t we doing that?”

North Oakland shines with public outreach via social media

Locally, the Oakland Police Department in particular has made great strides in recent years, and is using several different social media sites — including Facebook, Twitter, private social network Nextdoor, and alert service Nixle — to make sure residents have timely information about crime, as well as many other resources and direct access to top officials. (Nixle is a free service that allows community members to sign up to receive alerts from authorities by phone and email. It can also be used to submit tips anonymously to law enforcement.)

A community tip alerted the Oakland Police to a skull  found near Grizzly Peak Boulevard in January. Photo: Ray Myint
A community tip alerted police to a skull found near Grizzly Peak in January (stock photo). Photo: Ray Myint

North Oakland’s police leaders, in Area 2, have spearheaded the effort, which they say can be time consuming but is well worth it.

Area 2 Lt. Chris Bolton said the last few years have seen a “culture shift” within the department, resulting in a wide range of timely public information sharing that would not have happened in the past.

He said he could count at least six instances where “actionable, good intelligence” has come from local residents. It was a community tip via Nixle that alerted police to the discovery of a human skull up on Grizzly Peak, he said. (That incident is still under investigation.)

And when an at-risk man went missing from Berkeley in January, Berkeley officers got in touch with Oakland police to help spread the word, which they did via Nixle and Twitter, Bolton said. Almost immediately, a Nixle subscriber spotted the man in Oakland — with the help of her 10-year-old son — and called local authorities to report it.

“He was found in Oakland safely entirely due to social media broadcasting,” said Bolton.

Trust, credibility key to police-community relations

Bolton also recalled a recent alert about a bank robbery on Grand Avenue in Oakland that was posted on Nixle and Twitter, along with a surveillance photograph, within two hours of the crime.

“Five years ago, that never would have been released,” he said. “Someone would say, ‘You’re screwing up the investigation.’ That’s not the case now. You get a big bang for your buck by putting out timely, accurate information so people feel engaged.”

And the traditional method of holding back information can backfire when trying to build relationships, Bolton said.

“The absence of communication doesn’t make people feel safer,” he said. “In some cases, they feel even more distrustful. Do people view the absence of information as something needed to protect an investigation, or is it seen as a lack of empathy, trust or dedication? I would err on sharing more information than none at all for that reason.”

Oakland Police Capt. Anthony Toribio regularly releases crime-related information to the public via Twitter. (Click the image to reach his Twitter feed.)
Oakland Police Capt. Anthony Toribio regularly releases information to the public on Twitter. (Click the image to reach his Twitter feed.)

In January, Area 2’s Capt. Anthony Toribio put out more than 20 notices on Nextdoor, a private social media network that’s increasingly used by neighborhoods to share a variety of information.

Toribio’s posts included crime statistics, news about crime suspects — including mugshots, pictures of vehicles believed to have been involved in crimes, details about shootings, invitations to meet with police, requests for feedback about law enforcement practices and tips about crime-related resources.

Toribio also posts similar information regularly on Twitter to ensure it’s readily accessible.

“I don’t believe you can be effective as a law enforcement agency in the 21st century, in terms of reaching out, without using social media,” he said. “Everyone is using it.”

Toribio said the department began outreach efforts in recent years by using Nixle to spread the word about local crime. Last summer, Toribio added Twitter to his arsenal, which Bolton also uses. Most recently, he and Bolton began posting directly to neighborhood groups using Nextdoor.

Capt. Anthony Toribio, via OPD
Capt. Anthony Toribio, via OPD

“One of the goals of every police department is to be credible to the community, to be seen as legitimate by the community we serve,” Toribio said. “To do that, we have to build trust. One of the best ways to do that is to provide timely, accurate information frequently in an honest manner. That really engages the community. It’s a great way to be transparent and to provide an understanding of what is going down in Oakland beyond what’s available from the media.”

Toribio posts extensively online, and two of his watch commanders also regularly put out information. He said, in time, problem solving officers will likely be using the tools as well. Others in the department are slated to roll out similar efforts, though perhaps to a lesser degree. (The captain for Area 3, which includes Lake Merritt, Fruitvale and other parts of Oakland, recently launched his own Twitter account.)

Toribio said Oakland Police Department Chief Sean Whent has been supportive of the Area 2 social media efforts, which helped push the endeavor forward.

Dialogue from social media outreach brings more tips to officers

Community members have responded positively, as well, added Toribio.

“We’re getting more tips and information about what’s going on,” he said. “We receive a lot of information from the community that we otherwise would not hear about. Social media is really not a one-way street. We provide information and we also receive information, and that’s very important.”

Lt. Bolton said there have been vast improvements in outreach and with community-driven tips since social media efforts began. In addition to tips about the missing at-risk Berkeley man and the human skull on Grizzly Peak, noted above, information about narcotics, drug dealing, prostitution, crime-related vehicle descriptions and specific addresses related to suspicious activity has also been reported. Much of it comes in anonymously, he added, which he described as “the magic of the Nixle tips.”

Being on social media has other benefits, too, Bolton said, such as humanizing the police force.

“People not only know who their commanders are, and what we look like, they know we’re engaged in what we’re working on,” he said. “And having a personal relationship, built only through social media in some cases, makes it more likely that people will share information.”

Bolton said having a social media presence also serves to decrease demand on the department’s limited media outreach team, and gives the public another way to get information and find answers to their questions.

The Oakland Police Department shares a variety of information via its Twitter accounts. (Click the image to reach Lt. Chris Bolton's account.)
Oakland Police officers share a range of information via Twitter. (Click the image to reach Lt. Chris Bolton’s account.)
Oakland Police officers share a range of information via Twitter. (Click the image to reach Lt. Chris Bolton’s account.)

Bolton said the department has looked into creating a social media policy but, currently, has found existing rules and standards that govern how to communicate with the public more than sufficient.

In addition to online efforts, Area 2 police officials also meet regularly each month with community members during informal chats over coffee and in more formal crime-related meetings organized by different Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils, which is the structure that governs grassroots public safety efforts throughout the city. (In the past, some Berkeley residents have lobbied for a similar system in Berkeley, but the effort didn’t take off. Berkeley does, however, have the Berkeley Neighborhoods Council — which includes more than 40 smaller neighborhood groups — to help residents organize in response to crime, as well as a wide range of other local issues.)

City staff say Berkeley is going slow to ensure “thoughtful approach”

The Berkeley Police Department does make its four area commanders available to the public at some community meetings and, occasionally, during informal chats over coffee that are promoted via neighborhood email lists managed by police officers. Though appreciated by residents, the coffee events are held somewhat irregularly, are not widely publicized, and are somewhat poorly attended, generally drawing just a handful of attendees.

Police Chief Michael Meehan
Police Chief Michael Meehan

Police Chief Michael Meehan told Berkeleyside in March 2011 that he would like his department to start using some form of social media, but was unable to do so until the city manager’s office created a formal policy. In preparation, multiple Berkeley Police officers who deal with the media have attended social media trainings to learn how to proceed. But, so far, the department has not acted.

Meehan said earlier this month that city spokesman Matthai Chakko is in the process of drafting Berkeley’s social media policy.

“It’s possible to do it wrong so we are trying to take a thoughtful approach designed to provide the most helpful service,” Meehan said, via email. He said any additional questions would best be answered by Chakko.

Chakko said, also via email, that Berkeley, which does not yet have a Facebook page, is still developing a policy for general city-wide use. The Berkeley Public Library and city Rent Board do have Facebook pages, he said. (The library has an active page with more than 2,200 fans. The rent board, on the other hand, has just three fans, and hasn’t posted an updated since Dec. 14, 2012, when the page was first created.)

“We’re developing a social media policy, including an analysis of the resources necessary to properly support the use of social media as a part of our overall communication strategy,” Chakko wrote. “We want to deliver information to the community in the most effective ways, and social media is one tool that we’re interested in.”

He noted that different departments have various publications that are “already popular.” In the Police Department, he said, those include a newsletter and the email lists of each area coordinator. (Find local area coordinator contact information here to join the relevant lists.)

The newsletter is supposed to come out monthly but is not sent on a regular schedule, and the email lists are used relatively infrequently, however.

Chakko said the city aims to choose tools that are efficient and effective, and wants to make sure those tools are assigned in “an equitable manner.”

He said the goal would be to make sure that “every area/district of the City receives the same level of service. We would not want to rely on staff using this communication tool voluntarily, or only as they have available time, only to see that some areas of the City receive the service, but others do not. Additionally, we want to have our policies in place first so that all staff are aware of the rules and expectations about how the tool will be used.”

The majority of Berkeley Police Department employees who took a survey in 2012 said the department should be using social media. Image: Berkeleyside/
The majority of Berkeley Police Department employees who took a survey in 2012 said the department should be using social media, according to Cornerstone Communications. Image: Berkeleyside/

According to the 2013 Cornerstone analysis of the Berkeley Police Department, “the department needs to participate in social media” to help “fight crime, protect citizens and engage the public.” The report noted that, at that time, more than 2,000 police departments were using Facebook “to communicate directly — and consistently — with community members,” with many others using Twitter and Nixle: “The public has embraced social media. It’s time for the police department to do the same.”

The report concludes that, though taking these steps will require time, money and staff resources, “the result can be a highly effective way to engage those the Department serves, while underscoring its legacy of transparency, respect and service.”

Berkeley Police Association: “We have to embrace it”

The Berkeley Police Association, which is separate from the city, launched its own Facebook and Twitter pages about a year ago. Association president Sgt. Christian Stines said those resources, while still in development, have been beneficial in terms of connecting to the public and getting different types of information out.

“It helps the public know what’s going on and allows them to help us with things,” he said. “We have to embrace it. That’s the bottom line. We have to find ways to harness that technology to communicate with a community that’s growing up using it.”

Geneva Bosques, spokeswoman for the Fremont Police Department, runs a regional organization of more than 50 Northern California law enforcement agencies that are exploring how to use social media in different ways. The Bay Area Law Enforcement Social Media Group arose from strategy conversations between the Fremont and the Redwood City police department in late 2011, Bosques said.

She said many departments and agencies are using social media creatively and effectively, and pointed to the Mountain View Police Department, the Palo Alto Police Department and the Alameda County Fire Department as among the best.

Initially, Bosques said, investigators were somewhat hesitant to share information. But as they’ve seen the successes that can result from community tips, the perspective has shifted.

“We have detectives and officers coming in with photos and videos, and they’re saying, ‘Will you put this out?’” she said. “I no longer have to solicit stories or information. I’m getting phone calls now from officers out in the street saying, ‘I just took a third report about the same scam. Can we put something out?’ If there were two of me, I think we’d be putting even more out.”

Bosques recalled one case during which she posted a surveillance video after a crime. Within 45 minutes, she said, tips were coming in. Within another couple hours, a suspect was in custody.

“It takes a little bit of trust but, once you start to have some victories,” said Bosques, “it really solidifies the potential of the tool.”

Why doesn’t the city of Berkeley have a Facebook page? (03.14.11)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...