Twitter and Facebook increase police transparency

Cops in the Bay Area are blogging and Tweeting information that would have cops from previous generations 'rolling around in their graves'

By Phil Bronstein
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — BART Police Commander Dan Hartwig stood in a Walnut Creek gas station as discreetly as he could for a man as tall as Mount Diablo. Square-jawed, buffed, he seemed the icon of the old-school super cop.

He watched stoically as competing rallies across the street argued over the professional soul of his former colleague Johannes Mehserle. The two groups screamed at each other in 90-plus-degree heat, with some nasty insults aimed at the very authority Hartwig represents.

"We're here for the right reason," he said, acknowledging that he shouldn't be talking about it. "We're here to support the city of Walnut Creek and anyone else who needs our help."
Including officers in and out of uniform who were rallying for Mehserle or were on crowd-control duty. "At the same time, it's very emotional. Until you walk in a police officer's shoes and experience what it's like ... All the things you think are easy ... are difficult."

San Rafael police Lts. Dan Fink and Ralph Pata get that. They showed up as reinforcements in Oakland during the riot after Mehserle was convicted on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter for shooting Oscar Grant to death at a BART station. They also have a prescription for getting people to walk in their shoes: They're deeply immersed in community interaction through social media.

The two officers are the tweeting, blogging Abbott and Costello of their profession.

Pata's blog is full of hilarious observations about his job and himself: "The suspect perforates him, oh, about three, maybe four times in the back. Thankfully, the victim had a Mediterranean-type body, much like mine. ... The knife never made it through the nice protective layer of fat. See? Another reason to eat all your dinner."

Fink, a Facebook junkie who started all this at the department, runs the force's Twitter, wishing people nice days, offering help to sex-abuse victims and generally letting people talk back to their police force. "We use it to connect to the community," he says. "It's supposed to be interactive. We're approachable."

It is Marin, after all, and when we visited them last week, the officers treated us to cooled water with lime and lemon slices. They also served up an emerging sensibility of transparency that Pata says would have TV's "Joe Friday and the guys that came before us ... rolling around in their graves. We're giving up trade secrets."

Fink has been to Tweetups, in-person social events organized on Twitter. "It's a quasi-community meeting." Meanwhile, Pata's blog reveals his lack of success at marriage, his musical tastes, affection for Tylenol PM, hazing new officers by getting them to puke at autopsies and some irreverent comments about perps. "This guy gave me the creeps. Seriously freaky."

They are "modern cops," according to Fink. Transparency is the key to success and more natural for emerging generations of police. Officers "younger than us grew up with video games and social media. This is normal for them ... being open like this. 'Move on, nothing to see here' - that's old school. Not letting down your guard ... worked maybe back then. It doesn't anymore."

But "when it comes down to it," he says, "we are cops. We're here to protect the public and do our job." The Mehserle-Grant shooting was "a tragedy all around," the two police digerati
agree. "It sucks."

How less likely are confrontations like that when you can "friend" your local police officers? Less likely, for sure.

Copyright 2010 San Francisco Chronicle

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