#FlagstaffFire. #TheaterShooting. #JessicaRidgeway. #BostonMarathon.

Social media has changed the way people follow breaking news in times of emergency and disaster. And as the role of social media is expanding, law enforcement agencies in Boulder County and across Colorado are trying to find new ways to use it for everything from keeping evacuees informed to finding suspects in open cases.

"People are now starting to gain their information through social media, instead of going through news sites," said Trevor Materasso, spokesman for the Westminster Police Department and president of the Emergency Services Public Information Officers of Colorado. "People are getting the information pushed straight to them. It's a direct relationship with the community."


That direct communication is one of the reasons Boulder police Chief Mark Beckner has a Twitter account in addition to the Boulder police Twitter account.

"I think it's important to be contemporary with whatever the standards of communication are," Beckner said. "As our cultures and community change, the police department and city government have to evolve as well. We didn't have email when I started, and that has evolved. Now it's Twitter and text messaging.

"You have to change with the times. People aren't going to get all their news from newspapers anymore or watching the news channels. They expect use of social media by us."

In times of crisis

The early moments after an emergency are often the most hectic, and that is when law enforcement agencies have found social media to be the most helpful.

"Twitter is extremely valuable to me, especially during an emergency," said Kim Kobel, spokeswoman for the Boulder Police Department. "It's a way to push information out very quickly both to the public and to the media."

Last summer, Kobel found out just how valuable Twitter was. In late June, the Flagstaff Fire consumed 300 acres in the Boulder foothills and prompted almost 30 evacuations.

In the early days of the fire, Kobel said she spent much of her time at the emergency operations center with her iPad updating the Boulder police Twitter account.

"When you're not on the ground, not out with the first responders, it can be challenging to get information," Kobel said. "But with Twitter, the minute I found out new information and confirmed that, I could send it out on a tweet. We were able to push out information that directly impacted people."

Kobel said the account saw a large spike in followers during the fire as people tuned in to monitor the progress of the firefighters and possible evacuations.

"I was really surprised at the end of the Flagstaff Fire we had so many hundreds of new followers," Kobel said. "I think we'll be using (Twitter) more and more during emergencies."

But Materasso added that agencies have to be careful during emergencies because of the speed and constant nature of Twitter and other social media platforms.

"The information is instant, so we have to be sure that we validate and verify before we hit the send button," Materasso said. "We need to have a perspective and understanding on what that nugget of information is going to grow into. What are the follow-up questions going to be?

"It opens the door for a 24-hour communication cycle. You have to have staffing in place monitoring it on a fairly regular basis."

Materasso pointed to the early moments of the Boston Marathon bombings as an example of the risk-reward of using social media.

"In an incident like that, it has potential to be dangerous, and some of the information that was being shared early on was bad information, and it has the ability to spread substantially faster.

"But it can also serve a benefit because a good message can be shared with that same number of people just as quickly."

Putting a name to a face

University of Colorado police recently arrested a student who was suspected in a series of thefts after social media postings led to tips, the third such time CU police say social media played a crucial role in leading to an arrest.

On April 16, an employee at the Center for Community reported someone used her credit card at the Weather Tech Cafe in the building after stealing her purse out of an unlocked employee locker, according to CU police spokesman Ryan Huff.

Police posted surveillance videos of the suspect making the purchase, and within three hours received tips that led to the arrest of Javier Alexis Silva-Acosta, 23, a CU sophomore.

Police also say they think Silva-Acosta is responsible for the theft of a wallet and a calculator in two other cases at the Engineering Center. He was booked into the Boulder County Jail on suspicion of two counts of criminal possession of a financial device, three counts of unauthorized use of a financial transaction device, two counts of theft and one count of second-degree criminal trespassing.

Huff said within hours of posting the video on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, tips that helped detectives both identify and locate Silva-Acosta started coming in.

"Within three hours, more than 1,000 people saw that post on Facebook, and that led to several tips that came in to detectives all with the same name of the suspect," Huff said. "And one person called and said they were having lunch in the (Center for Community) and saw the suspect there, so we responded and were able to make the arrest."

In another case, a suspect in a laptop theft turned himself in to police after seeing a post on Facebook. In a third case, a suspect was identified from posted photos after he was deemed a person of interest in a series of thefts at CU and other Front Range colleges.

Huff said as more and more people use social media, the department has embraced it as a way to get quick word out about suspects.

"Years ago, if you had surveillance video of a suspect, you would put that picture up in the briefing room, tell your officers to be on the lookout and hope they run into them," Huff said. "Now we have such a targeted audience with the campus community that we can put out very specific messages and ask for their help.

"It can be a real aid for investigators because we can ask for the public's help very quickly, and thus far in these three cases it proved quite effective."

Huff said it helps that the campus police department serves a population already fluent in social media.

"We have a very smart, tech-savvy, social media-savvy audience, so they pick up on these things very quickly," Huff said. "I think the 18- to 30-year-old demographic is very connected to Twitter and Facebook, and it definitely helps us as a university police department to have those people as our eyes and ears."

Social media was crucial in helping authorities pinpoint the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. But while it helped ID the suspects, some innocent people's names ended up on the news as suspects, and Huff said social media posts looking for suspects require monitoring.

"It is a bit of a double-edged sword," Huff said. "It's more effective in putting out our message, but there is a lot of noise, a lot of rumors."

Daily social media use

Materasso said as more and more people turn to social media for their news, law enforcement agencies -- even those reluctant to use it -- will find it a necessity.

"I think it's growing and expanding at such a rapid rate, even though there is hesitation by some agencies in the social media transition," he said.

Beckner said he had heard of Twitter but never used it before he started the account several months ago. He and Kobel saw other police chiefs across the country using it and decided to give it a try. Of his 44 tweets, many of them were regarding the recent news surrounding two former Boulder police officers facing charges for shooting an elk, but his more recent tweets have been safety tips and updates on other cases.

"I probably don't use it as much as I should, but I think part of that is just becoming more familiar with it, using it more on a daily basis," Beckner said.

One of the questions facing law enforcement is what role social media should play when there aren't emergencies to be posting updates about. Kobel said she has posted daily police blotters that have been popular, and she also wants to use it to post community safety tips.

"I want to use Twitter on a daily basis," Kobel said. "I see us expanding our use of Twitter to putting out tips people can use in their everyday lives."

Huff said CU police want to start posting trends in more minor crimes like bike thefts that on their own might not warrant much attention.

"It's not something we would put out a press release out on, and it may not be a story for the traditional media, but it's still important," Huff said.

Huff said CU police have conducted giveaways in the past to try to get more people on campus to follow the department on Twitter or Facebook. Huff said in an age when social media is the go-to method for informing the public, he wants people already to know where to look.

"When there is an emergency, we really want their attention," Huff said. "We want them to already be following us."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Mitchell Byars at 303-473-1329 or byarsm@dailycamera.com.