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We now have data about police shootings of civilians

The Chron reviews the first year’s worth of data.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Rep. Eric Johnson

Texas police reported shooting 159 people in the first year that the state tracked such cases under a groundbreaking new law. Officers in Houston shot 31 of them – compared to eight in San Antonio and Dallas and five apiece in Fort Worth and Austin.

Houston’s share of officer-involved shootings has been disproportionate – even when considering its size as the state’s largest city – compared to other Texas police departments.

The last year of incidents here involved dozens of tragic scenarios, from shootouts with heavily armed criminals to shootings of unarmed civilians. An unarmed man was shot after he was pushed into an off-duty HPD officer working security at a bar. A man with a gun who his wife later said had gone out to “look for his horse” was shot and killed by two Houston officers. A mentally ill veteran who opened fire on a neighborhood on Memorial Day weekend and shot seven was killed by a Houston SWAT sniper.

Each incident should be examined separately and no conclusions should be drawn from numbers alone, said former Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland, whose former agency was involved in most Houston cases. Police agencies differ in patrol strategies, policies and frequency of violent arrests, and the data should prompt further study of the actions of officers and suspects alike, he said.

“All of us in law enforcement and the media must get this right for the public,” he said. “A department’s entire reputation and relationship with its community may rest on this single issue.”

While many shootings involved armed clashes between civilians and police, some of the most troubling episodes revealed in the new Texas records involved officers shooting juveniles or killing unarmed adults suffering a mental health crisis. Statewide, 20 percent of those shot in the last year were unarmed.

[…]

In 2015, Rep. Eric Johnson, an African-American Democrat from Dallas, was so troubled by the debate over disproportionate use of force against minorities that he championed a reform to gather more information about all officer-involved shootings. Johnson sought to pass a law because of his own experiences “as an African-American male who notices that we have an interesting – statistically speaking – relationship with law enforcement.”

He initially sought to collect more data but later agreed to omit identifying information about officers and to require reports when police are shot by civilians.

“If you’re going to collect data on shootings, then be fair,” said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. “Did the officer believe the person had a gun? Was the officer in a struggle? We didn’t want this to turn into a ‘gotcha’ aimed directly at officers.”

Officers reported killing 71 people and injuring 88 in the first year. And that data already shows that something Johnson suspected is true: 28 percent of those shot were African-American, though African- Americans make up only about 12 percent of Texas’ population. Of the rest, 28 percent were Hispanic and 43 were Anglo, according to reports filed by police.

During the same period, 21 law enforcement officers were reported shot by civilians, and the fatal shootings of two other officers went unreported to the state. Including those two, at least seven were killed – five died in Dallas after an African-American sniper opened fire just after a peaceful Black Lives Matter march in Johnson’s hometown. The shooter, an Afghanistan war veteran, was killed too.

Racial disparities also show up in the state’s in-custody death reports. According to research by Amanda Woog at the University of Texas, 27 percent of the 1,118 people who died in police custody in Texas from 2005-2015 were African-American.

“While this data cannot tell us why these numbers have increased so drastically, it does alert us to the problem of increasing fatalities in police encounters in Texas,” Woog said. “Without such data, the national conversation around people dying in police custody – in particular black people – has been largely anecdotal. This data helps inform the conversation, revealing an alarming trend.”

Thanks in part to Rep. Johnson’s bill and to investigative efforts like those by Amanda Woog and the Texas Tribune, we now know a lot more about civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement than we did before. (We should have known this stuff years ago, but we didn’t. Better late than never.) With this knowledge, one hopes we can gain the understanding to reduce those numbers. Some of this was unavoidable, but some of it was not, and it’s on us to learn which was which so that we can learn what we should be doing and what we should not be. Like with body cameras and recorded interrogations, this is for everyone’s good.

“Unholstered”

Some really good work by the Trib here.

The Texas Tribune spent almost a year attempting to collect information on police shootings from departments in the state’s 36 largest cities, which have a population of 100,000 or more, and was able to confirm 656 fatal and nonfatal shooting incidents involving 738 individuals that occurred between 2010 and 2015. Those 36 cities make up almost half of the state’s population.

It remains impossible to determine exactly how many more times police officers in Texas pulled the trigger, and the data vacuum isn’t just about total shooting incidents. At a time when much public attention — and political debate — is focused on police shootings of minorities, it is also virtually impossible to know how many shootings in Texas involve Hispanics, the state’s largest minority group, because some departments don’t distinguish between race and ethnicity in their records.

Frustration over the lack of readily available, standardized and reliable data on police shootings is widespread among lawmakers, criminologists and the general public, particularly after several deadly shootings — like those in Ferguson, Missouri, Minnesota and Baton Rouge — that have garnered national attention.

With such an information void in Texas, it’s difficult to find a starting point in assessing police interactions with communities — and any possible reforms or solutions, said Durrel Douglas, co-founder of the Houston Justice Coalition. “If we can’t get there, it’s absolutely frustrating,” Douglas said. “We have absolutely nothing to even start with.”

The FBI tries to collect nationwide data, but its statistics are incomplete and riddled with mistakes. Texas lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 requiring statewide reporting, but those efforts won’t capture all police shootings in the state.

Access to comprehensive information rests almost completely in the hands of local police departments. Departments in big cities, such as Houston and Dallas, post information on every police shooting on their websites. But a list from most departments can only be obtained through an open records request — and often after a fight over what information should be made public.

[…]

National record-keeping efforts are also inconsistent. The FBI’s database of police shootings — based on voluntary reporting by departments, which fluctuates from year to year — only includes fatal shootings, and even those are often undercounted.

From 2010 to 2014, the latest year for which FBI data is available, the Tribune confirmed at least 198 fatal shootings by the 36 departments examined. But it appears at least 89 fatal shootings were either not reported to the agency or reported incorrectly.

Additionally, the FBI’s incomplete database only counts fatal shootings, which the Tribune’s analysis shows made up just 36 percent of all shootings in Texas during that time.

Calling the current system a “travesty,” the FBI has said it plans to revamp its system for tracking police shootings in 2017, including expanding reporting to note other injuries caused by police. That would still miss instances in which police shoot but miss. From 2010 to 2015, 142 of those incidents made up more than one-fifth of all shootings in Texas’ biggest cities.

Read the whole thing, and be sure to click on the other stories in the series as well. We can’t understand the situation, let alone make sensible reforms as needed, if we don’t have the basic facts of it. Shootings are also only one piece of the puzzle, as people die in police custody for other reasons as well. That information is supposed to be collected but often isn’t, and the information we do have is not readily available. Grits for Breakfast contributing writer Amanda Woog, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the UT-Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, has been working on this, with the data she has gathered at the Texas Justice Initiative website; here’s a podcast conversation with her about it. We need to know what is actually happening, we need all relevant entities to report their data in a timely and cooperative fashion, and we need to ensure there are consequences for not complying. Then we can move forward.

Abbott pushes for hate crime status for targeted killing of police officers

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants the targeted killing of a police officer to be deemed a hate crime in Texas and urged lawmakers to send him such a bill to sign during next year’s legislative session.

Abbott announced Monday his plan to lobby for adding his Police Protection Act to Texas law. Along with extending hate crime protections to law enforcement, the measure would also increase criminal penalties for any crimes in which the victim is a law enforcement officer and “create a culture of respect for law enforcement by organizing a campaign to educate young Texans on the value law enforcement officers bring to their communities,” according to a statement from Abbott’s office.

[…]

“At a time when law enforcement officers increasingly come under assault simply because of the job they hold, Texas must send a resolute message that the State will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities,” Abbott said Monday in a statement

Abbott’s proposal comes after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced legislation on Wednesday that would make killing a police officer a federal crime.

I don’t have a position on these proposals yet; I’d like to see some analysis by policy experts first. What I do know is that the mostly conservative opposition to hate crime bills in the past has been on the grounds that they are redundant and thus unnecessary. The politics in this case are a lot different than they were in the past, and I fully expect to see people espousing very different views on this than they might have 20 years ago. To the extent that Greg Abbott’s views on such legislation of yore can be ascertained, it would be useful to ask him why and how his opinion on hate crime laws have changed, if indeed they have.

UPDATE: Lisa Falkenberg and Murray Newman have some fully-developed thoughts on the subject.

Who watches the private police departments?

Not good.

A veteran state lawmaker said Monday he is outraged by televised images of Rice University police officers striking a suspected bicycle thief with batons and appalled the university can refuse to release details because it is a private institution.

“We need to make certain we stop police officers from being able to hide behind their private institution status,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “Does stuff like this happen every day and they’re able to withhold it?”

Whitmire saw portions of a video, shot during an August arrest, when the excerpt was televised last week by KPRC-TV. The Houston Chronicle also has seen only the televised excerpt.

Whitmire said the Texas Rangers are investigating the university’s police department at his request and said he intends to seek to strengthen open records laws for more transparency.

[…]

The Rice police agency is under fire after officers hit 37-year-old Ivan Waller with batons while arresting him for stealing a “bait bike” that officers put out as part of a sting. Rice officials said in a statement that an internal review concluded the force was justified, but they did not release the full video or other information related to the arrest.

Texas law requires any government institution to release public information, such as salaries, mug shots of criminal suspects and personnel files. Because Rice is a private university, the police department is not required to release information such as the arrest video.

“Of course it was a beating,” said Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “If (Rice administrators) don’t have zero tolerance for what I saw with my own eyes, I will deal with them in Austin.” He said he wants the officers seen in the video fired.

The KPRC report is here, with a followup here that includes reactions from Sen. Whitmire and State Rep. Garnet Coleman. There are many law enforcement agencies in Texas, including some highly specialized ones, and some that are under the auspices of private entities like Rice University. It should be clear that all law enforcement agencies should be subject to the same level of disclosure and transparency, but they’re not, and as usual we don’t think about it until something like this happens. The same rules should apply to anyone that has the authority to arrest someone and to use force to subdue them. I look forward to the bills Sen. Whitmire will file as a result of this, and I recommend Rice take him at his word.

Fare enforcement for Metro

Dodging the fare on the light rail lines could become more difficult to do.

Provided a key piece of state legislation comes through, Metro officials said the plan is to have new monitors in place when the new North, East and Southeast lines start ferrying passengers along the city’s rail system.

“It is growing a bunch, and this is the first time Houston’s had transit like this,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “I see this as a great opportunity to reach out to new customers who’ll need to know how to ride.”

Garcia said he prefers to consider the new hires “ambassadors” as opposed to officers, but agency officials acknowledge a critical role will be to enforce payment of fares, a key lapse in Metro’s current system.

[…]

A bill by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, to allow Metro to hire nonpolice fare checkers passed the House last week by a wide margin. Fletcher said last month Metro approached him about the bill, and he thought it made sense as the rail system grew.

Fletcher’s bill allows Metro to hire fare enforcement officers who do not have to be deputized law enforcement officers, but who can inspect and verify fare payments on behalf of the transit agency. They would also issue citations.

“We want them to have fare enforcement authority,” Metro interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

But he added that revenue related to fines will not fund them. Lambert said under the current rules, that fine money goes to the county if the person pays the fine in court, and not to recoup Metro’s operating costs.

“This has nothing to do with fines coming back to Metro,” Lambert said.

The bill in question is HB3031. If you had asked me to guess who carried it, or if you had asked me before the session to suggest someone from the Harris County delegation to carry a bill like this for Metro, I would not have come up with Rep. Fletcher. He got the job done, though, so kudos to him. Metro estimates that about 15% of rail riders currently do not pay the fare when they ride. At about 5,700 fare-shirkers a day, that works out to about $2.6 million in annual revenue, not a huge piece of Metro’s budget but not nothing either. It will be very interesting to see what the effect of this bill will be, assuming it makes it through the Senate.

Cancelling constables

Like Grits, I see this as an opportunity, not a loss.

Budget cuts have led two Harris County constables to cancel their security contracts with several area school districts, leaving the districts scrambling for a fix to cover the end of this school year and beyond.

[…]

Cy-Fair is facing the loss of a 38-deputy contract with Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman. Galena Park will lose its existing 11-deputy contract with Precinct 2 Constable Gary Freeman.

In both cases, the districts reimburse the county for 80 percent of the $91,000 cost of a deputy’s salary, benefits and equipment. The full cost of the deputies come out of the constables’ budgets, and the reimbursements from the school districts go into the county coffers.

Hickman’s contract with Cy-Fair, for example, represented a nearly $3.3 million expense on his $29 million budget this year; the district’s cost would have been about $2.7 million.

Harris County Budget Director Dick Raycraft, whose office has worked with constables to implement the county’s deepest spending cuts in years, said the school contracts were the first to go because districts can levy taxes to hire police, unlike, for example, civic clubs.

Or they can say to themselves “That’s a lot of money we could spend on teachers instead”, which would be my preference. Some amount of security is needed, but surely the districts can figure out a way to do it for less. And if along the way that means fewer tickets are written, that’s all to the good.

Should we do away with school police forces?

Grits makes the case.

If public school budgets will be radically cut in Texas, a prospect which for the moment appears all but inevitable, which employees should be eliminated first? Judging from the ongoing debate, maybe campus cops. Jason Embry at the Austin Statesman describes some of the debates surrounding school budgets thusly:

One of the most important dividing lines in the discussion about the state’s budget crisis separates those who think Texas schools need more money and those who think schools just need to make better spending decisions.

Those in the second group have some powerful numbers on their side. In a December report, Comptroller Susan Combs found that per-student spending increased 63 percent over the previous decade. That growth rate was nearly twice as fast as inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, and it points to a Texas school system that isn’t starving for cash.

Another statistic in wide circulation these days says Texas school districts employ about as many nonteachers as teachers. This has led many to suggest that, even as lawmakers consider billions of dollars’ worth of funding cuts to schools, local education officials can balance the books without shedding teachers.

I’ve not seen hard data, but based on anecdotal accounts I’d suggest that the growing number and size of school-based police forces likely account for a big chunk of growth among nonteacher school employees in the last decade. Shouldn’t they be among the first to get the budget axe? They’re the only sizable class of school employees we know for sure they can do without because schools did so for most of their history in Texas and elsewhere. The phenomenon of campus-based police departments is something that’s really only arisen en masse in the last 20 or so years in Texas public schools.

He notes that Sen. John Whitmire has advocated greatly reducing the amount of tickets that school cops write, which would fit well with this idea. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of savings in this – as I reported before, according the HISD Trustee Anna Eastman, HISD budgets $13.5 million for its police force, of which 95% is personnel costs. That ain’t nothing – it’s 270 teachers, assuming $50K per year in salaries – but it’s less than eight percent of the optimistic-case $171 million projected shortfall. Maybe it would be more in some other ISDs, I don’t know. I think there’s merit to the idea, and not just for budgetary reasons, I’m just trying to keep perspective on it. What do you think?

On a side note, I can’t leave this subject without pointing you to Martha’s posts about why schools need more support staff, not less, and why gutting educational service centers are a bad idea. That Jason Embry article linked by Grits also gets down to it:

In 2000, 49 percent of Texas students were considered economically disadvantaged. In 2010, that number reached 59 percent. These students often need extra attention as they move through the system.

As the student population has changed, Texas has continued to pile more demands on schools, and it costs money to meet those demands. Schools began giving the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a much tougher exam than its predecessor, in 2003, and began that year to require students in the third grade to pass the reading section of the test to advance to fourth grade. Today the test is tied to promotion in grades five and eight. In addition, students who used to graduate from Texas high schools with three credits in math and three in science now must have four credits in each. To meet these demands, schools have spent more on student remediation, teacher training and the renovation of science labs.

Schools are preparing to give a new test next year, the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, which the Texas Education Agency has promised “will be significantly more rigorous than previous tests.” And let’s not forget that, led by our last governor, the federal government created an additional set of accountability measures for schools to meet during the past 10 years.

The increasing demands on students have put more demands on teachers and principals, particularly considering the state’s heavy emphasis on standardized testing to judge schools.

Districts across the state have therefore decided to hire instructional coordinators, curriculum specialists and others to give students extra attention and to help teachers make sure their lessons help students meet the escalating expectations.

In other words, yes, schools spend more than they used to. But the people of Texas also ask their schools to do more than they used to.

Funny how that latter part always seems to get overlooked by the “schools have too many administrators” crowd. In addition, as BOR notes, the cost of administering TAKS tests in Texas increased tenfold from 1999 to 2009. There’s been way too much talk in this debate about what schools do or don’t need by people who probably haven’t stepped foot in a public school in forty years, and it’s drowning out those who are there every day trying their best to make it all work. Martha’s a fine example of the latter, so please go see what she has to say.

Walle files bills to address school ticketing

A couple of weeks ago I noted a Texas Appleseed report that discussed an increase in “Class C misdemeanor ticketing and arrest of students for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level”, which it believes is a contributing factor in our state’s high dropout rate, and which called for “Chapter 37 of the Education Code be amended to eliminate Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as penal code offenses for which students can be ticketed, and to clarify that arrest of students be a last resort reserved for behavioral incidents involving weapons and threatening safety”. Now State Rep. Armando Walle has filed a series of bills to address these concerns.

HB 350 would allow juveniles charged with Class C misdemeanors (the mildest category of misdemeanors) to fulfill their sentences through community service or tutoring hours, instead of paying a fine, which can run between $60 and $500. HB 408 creates minimum standards for the training of juvenile case managers, who help students navigate the courts. HB 409 places juvenile case managers under the supervision of a judge.

“Disciplinary problems are a red flag that tell us a child is at risk of dropping out of school,” Walle said in a statement. “Since many of these young people end up in our municipal and [justice of the peace] courts, it’s important for our courts to offer consequences, like community service and tutoring hours, that appropriately address the discipline problems while helping these students to stay in school.”

He’s also filed HB 348, which would require specialized training for school district peace officers, school resource officers, and school security personnel employed by a school district; and HB 349, which would require that school districts keep track of tickets and arrests of students. I think all of them are appropriate and I support their passage. You can see Rep. Walle’s full statement about these bills here.

Too many tickets

From Texas Appleseed, via Grits.

Class C Ticketing, Arrest of Youth at School is Introducing Thousands to Justice System, Says New Appleseed Report

Schools Should Follow Lead of Juvenile Justice Agencies: Restrict Pepper Spray, Taser Use

Austin, TX. – A growing police presence in Texas public schools is coinciding with increased Class C misdemeanor ticketing and arrest of students for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – sending more youth to court and increasing their chances of academic failure and future justice system involvement, according to the third in a series of reports on Texas’ “school-to-prison pipeline” released today by the public interest law center Texas Appleseed. [Link: Report , see Executive Summary for findings/recommendations.]

“We are strongly recommending that Chapter 37 of the Education Code be amended to eliminate Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as penal code offenses for which students can be ticketed, and to clarify that arrest of students be a last resort reserved for behavioral incidents involving weapons and threatening safety. This would go a long way toward helping check the move of student discipline from schools to the courthouse,” said Texas Appleseed Deputy Director Deborah Fowler. The increase in ticketing comes at a time when overall juvenile crime rates are low, she said.

Also of major concern is the broad discretion given to school police officers to use pepper spray, Tasers and other types of force – and the lack of transparency around some schools’ “use of force” policies, Fowler said. “These types of force have been shown to cause physical and psychological harm to adults, and the impact on children can be even more devastating,” she said. While many school districts make their use of force policies publicly available, others have sought and used an Attorney General’s decision to keep such policies from parents and the public. Texas Appleseed filed suit last year against San Antonio ISD and Spring Branch ISD to compel full disclosure.

“School-based policing is one of the fastest growing areas of law enforcement,” Fowler said, “yet school police officers receive little training specific to child development or working in school environments, and there is little to no review of ticketing and arrest practices at the school level to determine their impact and effectiveness in improving student behavior and no required reporting of this data to the Texas Education Agency.” A body of research across the country indicates that Positive Behavioral Support programs in schools are much more effective in improving behavior, school climate and campus safety, she said. Last month, New York City became the latest to require its school police department to provide data on student arrest and ticketing in response to growing concern about using this approach to address low-level student misbehavior.

Based on 2009 data from the Texas Office of Court Administration, it appears that at least 275,000 Class C tickets were issued that year for offenses most commonly associated with school-based misbehavior, but poor record keeping and reporting makes it impossible to point to a definitive number,” Fowler said. In response to Texas Appleseed’s open records request to the 167 Texas school districts with stand-alone police departments, only 22 districts and four court jurisdictions provided 2006-07 ticketing data – representing almost a quarter of Texas’ students. These districts issued close to 32,000 tickets that year, with the greatest number reported in Houston ISD, 4,828; Dallas ISD, 4,402; San Antonio ISD, 3,760; Brownsville ISD, 2,856; and Austin ISD, 2,653. Districts with the highest ticketing rate (per student population) that year were Galveston ISD, 11%; San Antonio, Somerville and Waco ISDs, 7%; and Brownsville and East Central ISD, 6%.

Juvenile justice officials told Texas Appleseed that a large percentage of their referrals result from school-based arrests, Fowler said. In the 17 districts providing 2006-07 arrest data to Texas Appleseed (accounting for 13 percent of the state’s total enrollment that year), 7,100 students were arrested. The state’s two largest districts with stand-alone police departments, Dallas and Houston ISDs, could not provide any requested student arrest data.

The data that Texas Appleseed collected reflects these important trends:

  • Most Class C misdemeanor tickets written by school police officers are for low-level, non-violent misbehavior that do not involve weapons, yet ticketing can have far-reaching financial and legal impacts. Fines and costs associated with Class C tickets, reported to Texas Appleseed by municipal courts, range from less than $60 to more than $500 per ticket. Failure to pay the fine, complete court-ordered community service or comply with a notice to appear in court can result in the youth’s arrest at age 17. African American and Hispanic youth are disproportionately affected by this practice, and the ACLU of Texas recently filed suit against Hidalgo County after discovering hundreds of teens had been jailed for unpaid truancy tickets issued years earlier. While a new state law (SB 1056, 2009) mandates criminal courts (including municipal and justice courts handling Class C tickets) immediately issue a nondisclosure order upon the conviction of a child for a misdemeanor offense punishable by fine only, the large volume of these cases has created a huge backlog, resulting in Class C misdemeanors remaining on a youth’s “criminal record” accessible by future employers and others.
  • Ticketing has increased substantially over a two- to five-year period, and where the child attends school – and not the nature of the offense – is the greater predictor of whether a child will be ticketed at school. Twenty-two of the 26 school districts or jurisdictions supplying ticketing data reported an increase in the number of tickets issued at school.
  • African American and (to a lesser extent) Hispanic students are disproportionately represented in Class C misdemeanor ticketing in Texas schools. Of the 15 districts that could disaggregate ticketing data by race and ethnicity, 11 disproportionately ticketed African American students compared to their percentage of the total student population in 2006-07. In the most recent year for which ticketing data is available, these districts reported ticketing African American students at a rate double their representation in the student body: Austin ISD, Dallas ISD, Humble ISD, Katy ISD, and San Antonio ISD.
  • It is not unusual for elementary school-age children, including students 10 years old and younger, to receive Class C tickets at school—and data indicates students as young as six have been ticketed. More than 1,000 tickets were issued to elementary school children for a six-year period in those districts for which we have data.

The full report is quite long, but the executive summary is enough to give you a good picture of it; this Texas Trib story is also a good summary. I was curious as to how much HISD spent on its police force, so I sent an email to Trustee Anna Eastman to inquire. She responded that the budget allocates $13.5 million to HISD police, of which 95% is personnel. Speaking for myself, I’d prefer that HISD look at cutbacks in this area when forced to do so by the legislative budget before it looks at things that would affect classroom instruction. If nothing else, I’d like to see more scrutiny of their practices, and I hope this report offers a starting point for the discussion.

Tweet it! The cops!

New frontiers in social networking and law enforcement.

Milwaukee’s department is one of a growing number of police and fire agencies turning to social networking Web sites such as Twitter, which lets users send text-message “tweets” to a mass audience in 140 characters or less. The tweets can be read on the Web or on mobile phones within seconds.

Some departments use Twitter to alert people to traffic disruptions, to explain why police are in a certain neighborhood or to offer crime prevention tips. Others encourage leads on more pressing matters: bomb scares, wildfires, school lockdowns and evacuations.

[…]

One risk of Twitter is that anyone can go on the site and claim to be the cops. In March, the Texas attorney general’s office shut down a phony Twitter account called “Austin PD,” which had about 450 followers and used the official city seal.

The culprit has not been arrested, so his or her intent is not yet known. Mainly the tweets were in a joking vein, such as “Warming up my radar gun for SXSW,” a reference to Austin’s South By Southwest music conference.

But the potential for more dangerous misinformation worries Craig Mitnick, founder of Nixle LLC, which offers what it calls a secure “municipal wire” that public agencies can use instead of Twitter to broadcast updates.

Web sites like Twitter or Facebook are “meant for social purposes and not for trusted information,” Mitnick said. “It’s a bombshell waiting to explode.”

[Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E.] Schwartz pointed out that anyone concerned about the validity of the Milwaukee police posts on Twitter can call the department, and she said most of its posts direct readers back to the police Web site as well.

I could be wrong, but I think the fake “Austin PD” example will turn out to be an exception. Twitter is sufficiently easy to use that I think most law enforcement agencies will adopt it sooner rather than later. Plus, how hard is it really to verify that a given account is legit? If nothing else, I’d expect that any new law enforcement-related Twitter sighting will get checked out via traditional media, many of whom have enthusiastically jumped on the Twitter bandwagon or by crowdsourcing pretty quickly. I seriously doubt that any copycat attempts will be nearly as successful as “Austin PD” was. There may be value in a product like Nixle – I’m not familiar with it, so I can’t offer a judgment of it – but I think calling Twitter and Facebook a potential bombshell for law enforcement is a serious overbid.