As the Thunder Bay Police Service prepares to launch its social media strategy, some experienced tweeters have advice on what to look for and what to avoid.

Criminologist Laura Madison has been following the surge in the number of police forces using social media in recent years, and said its well past time for Thunder Bay officers to get involved.

"You have to be where your citizens are, because if you're not, you're not actually messaging to the full potential that you should be," she said.

Spreading the word faster and further

Madison noted that, in some situations, reaching people quickly and spreading a message through retweets and facebook shares can make a big difference.

"Studies show that the sooner you get the message out about people who are missing, the better the chance of a positive outcome."

Hans Larsen, who is in marketing with the Edmonton Police Department, said when a person is missing a description and photo is tweeted through all of the police accounts. In one instance, this actually led to a person being found.

"Because we were on twitter this person was on their cell phone and quickly saw it," he said. "And [that person] happened to see that individual. So, we see that as a success."

'It's making the community get engaged'

In Edmonton, there are 12 officers who tweet, including Constable Michelle Horchuk, a beat cop in downtown Edmonton.  

She uses twitter to challenge misconceptions people may have about policing, and to tell people about what's happening in their community.

"For me that's what Twitter is all about," she said.

"It's making the community get engaged, getting everybody to see that we have more in common than we don't, and to hopefully find a laugh along the way."

‘Train them effectively’

But there are risks inherent in using social media as well, said Larsen, because the officers who tweet are encouraged to show their personality. That makes twitter a powerful tool for recruitment and community engagement, but it also creates an opportunity for police officers to use social media in ways that aren't appropriate.

"You've gotta train them effectively and you've got to trust that they're going to do and say the right thing," he said.

Larsen said there is always a danger that police could slip up and say something that might prejudice a trial.

Madison said tweets about specific events or people can open the door to potentially harmful tweets that "[breach] privacy and due process" because statements about suspects are made "before a person can come in contact with legal [representation] or before they've been before a judge."

"For example, 'I've just took a child away from their bad mother.' … Tweets like that actually have come out of Canada."

'It's a win-win'

Used correctly, Madison said twitter can be a powerful tool in the arsenal of any police force.

"It's a win-win for everybody," she said.

"It increases public safety in terms of amplification. More tips coming...and being able to clear cases... will decrease the amount of resources that need to go into an investigation."

Thunder Bay Police won't say exactly what will be included in their social media strategy, which is expected to be released next week.