Hours after a commuter train struck and killed a man on the tracks between the Islington and Norwood Depot stations late last month, Norwood police sent out a tweet about the death.
Authorities didn’t know the man’s name or where he came from, but were able to find out within a day, after the victim’s nephew told police he had seen the tweet and had reason to believe the man was his missing uncle.
“Eventually, we would have found the ID,” said police spokesman Kevin Grasso. “But the nephew of the subject was a follower of our Twitter, and when he saw that we had a body we were trying to identify . . . he came down and spoke with one of our lieutenants.”
The quick identification was just one positive result of many that police in Norwood and other communities in the region have experienced since signing on to the social media trend by using Facebook, Twitter, and smartphone applications to reach residents.
This summer, multiple police departments south of Boston joined or ramped up their presence on one or two of the largest social media sites — Twitter and Facebook. Some towns have even gone so far as getting linked to a smartphone app or responding to editorials via Facebook.
In Norwood, the May 1 arrival of the new chief, William Brooks, brought with it a slew of opportunities for social media. According to Grasso, Brooks had been using Twitter and Facebook frequently when he was deputy chief of the Wellesley Police Department, which regularly posts videos and photos taken by officers.
With the help of one particularly tech-savvy officer, Andrew Jurewich, the Norwood department took it a step further and signed up for the smartphone and tablet application, “MyPD,” which allows residents to submit tips, concerns, and feedback. It also is a one-stop shop for updates to the department’s website and Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Jurewich regularly updates the Twitter and Facebook sites, using his iPhone or a computer at the office. If police are looking for a suspect or seeking information, he will post a video or photo on the site and monitor comments and feedback.
Brooks also will get involved, as he did in late July, when he responded on Facebook to an editorial in the Norwood Record that questioned the department’s decision not to release the name of a defendant who turned himself in to police.
In his post, Brooks cited the Massachusetts Criminal Offender Record Information law and explained that the man was not arrested and therefore the department was not required to release his name.
Several residents responded, thanking the chief for taking the time to write a detailed response.
After a recent post about a heroin arrest, several former drug users commented on the department’s Facebook page about how they have changed their lives.
Grasso said Brooks has met with at least one of those commenters and is hoping to form a working realtionship as part of the department’s drug-fighting strategy, which includes engaging the community through social media.
Norwood police hope that through exchanging information with the public about everything from drug strategy to options for treatment and resources for residents who need to dispose of drugs, overall drug abuse will decline.
“We released the strategy about tackling heroin use, and by the end of the day it had been viewed 300 times,” Grasso said. “We’ve had comments, and people are happy to see that we believe this is our neighborhood and we want to stay involved.”
It is mostly up to the departments to start their own sites using officers like Jurewich to keep them updated, and while Norwood and Wellesley seem to be the most proactive locally, plenty of other departments are also increasing activity.
Police Chief Richard Wells said he started tweeting after realizing how many people in Milton carry smartphones and would regularly check and comment on the department’s Facebook page.
“I think if you look at just the way people and society use Facebook, it’s only natural that through it we could reach an unbelievable amount of people,” he said.
“At least for the people who live in Milton, they are all carrying a iPhone or iPad, and you realize that it’s a way for the community to have almost daily contact and disseminate information quickly.”
In Braintree, Deputy Chief Russell Jenkins reawakened the department’s Twitter page a couple months ago and regularly publishes tweets about housebreaks or reminders to drivers to slow down. Sometimes he will post commendations about officers who have worked exceptionally well or hard.
“We’ll put out blasts to raise public awareness of issues we’re involved in,” Jenkins said. “It’s a no-brainer really if you want to get the word out to your residents.”
However, Jenkins said he didn’t know about the department’s Facebook page until asked about it by a reporter. The Braintree page is less interactive than the Milton and Norwood pages.
Braintree, like nearby Quincy, uses a business page that Facebook users “like,” but can’t comment on or message or interact with.
However, it’s that interaction that David Gerzof Richard, professor of social media and marketing at Emerson College and founder of a marketing agency in Brookline, said is crucial if police departments want their social media efforts to be successful.
“A savvy police communications department would look into leveraging the different channels. It’s free to set up a Facebook page, and it really just needs to have someone there engaging the community,” he said. “The worst thing the departments could do is set up a page and forget about it. That’s like crying wolf, because then when you want to use it, nobody is following it.”
Gerzof Richard said that between Boston and Philadelphia, police departments have had great success on the social media front. Emergency responders have posted videos on YouTube of attempted kidnappings that led to related arrests. During the recent Back Bay blackout, the Boston Fire Department kept the public up to date via Twitter.
“It’s a really good real-time platform that allows various police and emergency response organizations to connect with the community,” Gerzof Richard said.
He added that even though some communities south of Boston may have taken longer to jump on the social media bandwagon, it isn’t too late.
“A couple of years ago, there were lots of young people on Twitter, but maybe not so many from south of the city. However, there are certainly more and more people jumping on now, so it makes sense for police departments to be there,” he said.
At least one department has said it will continue looking for new ways to reach the community through phone apps, possibly videos, and more interaction on the pages that already exist.
“It didn’t dawn on me that people would try to reach out and contact us through the sites, but they do,” Wells said.
“Unfortunately we usually only go to it when we want to put something out, not if someone’s trying to reach us, so we’ll have to be more diligent about that.”
Natalie Feulner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.