Capt. Joel Dales may not have a Facebook page, but he’s now one of Twitter’s half a billion users.
Though hardly a social-media diehard, the 14th District’s top cop volunteered to tweet as part of a department-wide initiative to strengthen the bond between residents and the officers who serve them.
He started tapping out 140-character messages in June.
“I wanted to find a different way of reaching out to the community,” Dales said recently inside his district headquarters in Germantown.
Old vs. new
Dales, a 22-year department veteran, is quite familiar with what he referred to as the “old fashioned” avenues for pushing out important crime-related information to the public — community meetings and email chains, mostly.
He said he doesn’t see Twitter as a replacement for those mainstays, just another tool neighbors can use to learn more about what’s unfolding around them and potentially help officers in the process.
Dales has a tough job ahead of him.
The 14th District is one of the largest in the city, running roughly along Germantown Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia from Chestnut Hill to lower Germantown and out to West Oak Lane.
Aims for a daily Tweet
It’s also among the most crime-ridden in the city, making Dales a busy captain and his Twitter posts, for now, somewhat infrequent.
As of last Friday morning, 96 tweets appeared under his handle @PPDJoelDales.
“Whatever information I feel as though is important to get out, I’ll put out as soon as I can,” said Dales, noting that he’d ideally tweet at least once a day.
During the course of a week, Dales will offer up incident information, arrests and crime prevention tips, his personal favorite.
“Yesterday, Maurice Connelly (20) was arrested and charged with multiple robberies,” reads a tweet from Sept. 15.
“THEFT FROM AUTO PREVENTION TIPS: Don’t leave valuables in your vehicle. Lock your doors, and close all windows,” reads another from early July.
Officers who tweet for the department — currently a total of six — are largely free to tweet what they please, said Director of Communications Karima Zedan.
Sensitive information about victims, for example, is off-limits. So, too, are pictures of crime scenes and press releases. An account holder can solicit tips from the public as long as the request doesn’t violate a victim’s rights.
“It really just echoes the policy of the entire department,” said Zedan.
The jury is still out on how effective a piece of Dales’ community policing puzzle Twitter will be.
While he has some followers, 129 to date, the majority are tied to local media outlets.
West Mt. Airy resident Heather Pierce is one of the exceptions. Pierce heads the Carpenter’s Woods Town Watch, a long-active volunteer group.
“It’s a useful tool to have because they can get immediate stuff that’s going on,” said Pierce, “but I don’t think it’s really kicked off as of yet.”
For his part, Dales doesn’t disagree with that assessment but will keep handing out his Twitter handle at public meetings and typing up posts in the meantime.
“We still have a long way to go as far as people catching on and using Twitter,” he said. “I’m still learning. It’s basically trial by fire.”