Live tweeting by Kansas City police catches on
In Kansas City, a family gathering devolves into violence fueled by alcohol and PCP.
A few miles away in a vacant house, a woman with mental health problems tells police her father is Al Capone and she is scared.
In another neighborhood, a man hides beneath a car repeating “I love Jesus.”
As with everything on Twitter, the updates come fast and without much context. Behind each one is a story.
Thousands of people in Kansas City and elsewhere followed it all — the good, the bad and the ugly — as it unfolded, 140 characters at a time, during one of the Kansas City Police Department’s recent tweetalongs.
For four years, the department has been live-tweeting occasional patrol shifts, giving the public a play-by-play account of life in the city as seen from a police squad car. Kansas City police were among the first in the country to adopt the tweetalong, and theirs remains one of the most popular in part because of the gritty and unvarnished vignettes it delivers.
The Twitter account — @kcpolice — ranks fifth among big-city police departments, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, with about 116,000 followers. It gains about another thousand followers with each tweet-along, which occurs a handful of times a year. Kansas City’s next tweetalong is planned for Aug. 26.
Among other things, the tweetalong documents a reality of modern policing in America that was highlighted recently by Dallas Police Chief David Brown: Police officers are now tasked not only with fighting crime but with responding to every societal failure, including a national mental health crisis.
The tweetalong is meant to show people exactly what patrol officers do all day — or all night, said Sarah Boyd, a police spokeswoman and the department’s designated tweeter.
“To do that, I really need to say what’s going on — that means every part of it,” Boyd said. “This is, basically, where your tax dollars are going.”
As anyone who follows along knows, the results are less action-packed than tragic. The tweetalong often finds police dealing not with hardened criminals but rather desperate people who need help. A major portion of the police calls involve people struggling with drugs or mental illness.
Some of what the officers see is unavoidably funny. Much of it is sad.
The department, and Police Chief Darryl Forté, also use Twitter for a variety of other purposes but the tweetalong — using the hashtag #kctweetalong — reaches the biggest audience with its staccato delivery of updates both mundane and bizarre.
In recent years, many other police agencies across the country, from Seattle to Chicago and Baltimore, have followed suit with their own tweetalongs. In some cases, those outings have been hijacked by police critics who jumped on the hashtag to flood the Twitter feed with complaints.
“Hey @BaltimorePolice Do you criminalize the homeless like @Chicago_Police does? DOJ says it’s unconstitutional but doesn’t stop CPD” asked user UptownTentCity last year when the two departments hosted a joint tweetalong.
In Kansas City, the more common reaction was summed up by Kansas City middle school teacher Shawn Daugherty. “Mercy, @kcpolice had a night and I’m out of popcorn.”
Several local police departments including Raytown, Olathe and Lenexa have hosted tweetalongs. But few can match Kansas City for its variety of wild 911 calls, said Lenexa police Capt. Diana Mendoza.
“They get some really crazy ones,” Mendoza said.
Part of what makes the Kansas City tweetalong distinctive is its voice, which is not precisely that of a police officer, but close. The tweeter is present but usually not involved; amiable but also frank.
The tweeter has been doing this for a long time.
In fact the tweeter is, and always has been, Boyd, who is not a uniformed officer but works in the public information unit. She started the tweetalongs and has only ever missed one. Writing in real-time, for the world to see, about such a variety of incidents and using the appropriate tone is something Boyd gives a lot of thought to, she said.
“Some of it’s ugly, some of it’s funny,” Boyd said. “I want to be sensitive to what’s going on, because police show up on the worst day of people’s lives. To get through those days, you have to see the humor in things.”
Sometimes, that’s easy.
On one occasion, in the old Northeast neighborhood, a woman arrived at her boyfriend’s house to find the front door swinging open. She tried calling him, but he didn’t answer. Afraid burglars might be inside, she called police.
“Officers announced themselves. No answer. Searched house. Found him in bed upstairs. No crime but maybe girlfriend problems,” Boyd tweeted.
Along the way, Boyd has made mistakes and learned lessons. She once attempted a tweetalong from a police helicopter, but it was a bust. “I couldn’t get a very good signal, and I got nauseous.”
In 2014, when Boyd used the wrong language to describe a transgender person, her tweet made national news and she apologized. She had described officers talking with a person they thought was a sex worker on Independence Avenue.
“Not doing anything against the law at present so they let him/her go,” Boyd tweeted.
It was a mistake born of ignorance, she says now. She tried to educate herself better, and learned that many people, whatever their gender identity, would not want to be called “him/her.”
“Oh God, I cried for days after that one,” she said.
Each tweetalong finds Boyd traveling with different officers, including some who have been trained in mental health crisis intervention.
Many of the police calls involve PCP. At least half involve drugs or mental illness, Boyd estimated.
The saddest mental health-related call Boyd can remember, preserved on Twitter, involved a woman found squatting in a vacant house.
Boyd recalled the incident in a recent interview. “It was so gut-wrenching,” she said. “Oh God, the system had just failed her so badly.”
In that case, police took the woman to a mental health hospital. But in the time Boyd has been live-tweeting, she has seen that option removed for many people in need, as when Truman Medical Center closed its behavioral health emergency room last year.
These days, police often have no other choice than to drop off extremely mentally ill people at regular emergency rooms. Soon they will have another option when a 16-bed mental health crisis center opens at 12th Street and Prospect Avenue.
But the available services still won’t be enough to manage the number of mentally ill people on the streets, and police will continue to be swamped with calls about them, said Lisa St. Aubyn, who is CEO of Research Psychiatric Center and a member of the board of the new crisis center.
“Over the last 10 years, so many facilities have ceased to be functioning — outpatient clinics, state hospitals. They hardly exist. And so that means the police wind up housing the mentally ill in the jails,” St. Aubyn said. “It’s our new normal right now. But I think being resigned to it is a mistake.”
Some things, Boyd won’t tweet. That includes almost anything having to do with children, and anything that could identify the people involved or interfere with an investigation.
One outing last year wasn’t an official tweetalong, but did use the platform to show followers how a group of homeless people were living in a camp in a wooded area in Kansas City. Police went there not to roust the inhabitants, but to accompany social workers offering help.
A tweet showed a photo of a worker from the reStart homeless shelter visiting a man’s tent.
The tweets from that visit inspired the St. Louis Riverfront Times to write an article titled “This KC Police #Tweetalong Makes Us Want One in St. Louis.”