SAN FRANCISCO -- Minutes after a shooting near the Oakland Airport this year, the gunman was on the loose. And police Sgt. Chris Bolton quickly fired off a flurry of text alerts to thousands of nearby residents through a social media tool for law enforcement agencies.
"Stay out of area," said one alert. "Multiple shooting victims reported. Medical on-scene. Police are evacuating a nearby, affected business."
Officers would eventually discover a grisly scene inside a tiny Christian college on that spring day. Seven people were killed, three others wounded and dozens terrified in the deadliest mass shooting in the city's history.
Bolton later gave those on edge an update: "Possible suspect in custody. No imminent public safety threat appears to exist in immediate area."
Across the country, law officers are adding a new form of social media to their arsenal of crime fighting tools.
Almost 6,000 law enforcement agencies are now using Nixle to provide residents with real-time alerts on crimes in progress, traffic messes and missing children.
With the San Francisco-based service approaching 1 million subscribers, with police departments participating in major cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Dallas, it is part of what one expert calls a new "blue wave" of electronic community policing that lets cops reach out directly to the public.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police recently found in a
Many of those agencies have boosted their social media presence significantly within the last two to three years, said Nancy Kolb, a senior program manager for the IACP.
While many law enforcement agencies use Twitter and Facebook, and there are other public safety notification systems such as CodeRED, Nixle has become increasingly popular with law enforcement, said Lauri Stevens, a Massachusetts-based law enforcement social media strategist.
Police officials say they particularly like Nixle security features that make it less susceptible to hacking than some social media. Also, the company has a partnership with the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS), which allows local, state, federal and international public safety agencies to exchange sensitive information.
A private messaging system Nixle created has allowed authorities to use it at major events including the G-20 Summit, May Day immigration protests and even the Academy Awards.
However, Nixle is not as interactive as some of the other social media networks, Stevens said.
"The company has taken off like crazy and it helps law enforcement send information out, but it can't get any answers back, so I don't consider them social media in the true sense," she said. "What Nixle has done right, though, is that they've got good buzz and are still building a huge customer base."