SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) -- Riding side by side as a police officer answers a call for help or investigates a brutal crime during a ridealong gives citizens an up close look at the gritty and sometimes dangerous situations officers can experience on the job.
But a new approach to informing the public about what officers do is taking hold at police departments across the United States and Canada -- one that is far less dangerous for citizens but, police say, just as informative.
With virtual ridealongs on Twitter, or tweetalongs, curious citizens just need a computer or smartphone for a glimpse into law enforcement officers' daily routines.
Tweetalongs typically are scheduled for a set number of hours, with an officer -- or a designated tweeter like the department's public information officer-- posting regular updates to Twitter about what they are seeing as they perform their normal on-duty routine. The tweets, which also include photos and links to videos of the officers, can encompass an array of activities -- everything from an officer responding to a homicide to a noise complaint.
Police departments say virtual ridealongs reach a wider range of people at once and help add transparency to the job.
"People spend hard-earned money on taxes to allow the government to provide services. That's police, fire, water, streets, the whole works, and there should be a way for those government agencies to let the public know what they're getting for their money," said Steve Allender, chief of the Rapid City Police Department in South Dakota, which started offering tweetalongs several months ago after watching departments like those in Seattle, Kansas City, Mo., and Las Vegas do so.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Tarah Heupel, the public information officer for the Rapid City Police Department, rode alongside Street Crimes Officer Ron Terviel as he patrolled Rapid City. Heupel posted regular updates every few minutes about what Terviel was doing, including the officer citing a woman for public intoxication, responding to a call of three teenagers attempting to steal cough syrup and body spray from a store and locating a man who ran from the scene of an accident. Photos were included in some of the tweets.
Michael Taddesse, a 34-year-old university career specialist in Arlington, Texas, has done several ridealongs with police and regularly follows multiple departments that conduct tweetalongs.
"I think the only way to effectively combat crime is to have a community that is engaged and understands what's going on," he said.
Ridealongs where "you're out in the elements" are very different than sitting behind a computer during a tweetalong and the level of danger is "dramatically decreased," he said. But in both instances, the passenger gains new information about the call, what laws may or may not have been broken and what transpires, he added.
For police departments, tweetalongs are just one more way to connect directly with a community through social media.
More than 92 percent of police departments use social media, according to a survey of 600 agencies in 48 states conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police's Center for Social Media. And Nancy Kolb, senior program manager for IACP, called tweetalongs a "growing trend" among departments of all sizes.
There is no set protocol and departments are free to conduct the tweetalong how they see fit, she said.
In Ontario, Canada, the Niagara Regional Police Service conducted their first virtual ridealong in August over a busy eight-hour Friday night shift. The police department's followers were able to see a tweet whenever the police unit was dispatched to one of the more than 140,000 calls received that night.
Richard Gadreau, the social media officer for the police department, said officers routinely take people out on real ridealongs, but there is a waiting list and preference is given to people interested in becoming an officer.
With tweetalongs, many calls also mean many tweets. Kolb said departments are cognizant of cluttering peoples' Twitter feeds.
That's why the Rapid City Police Department decided to create a separate account for the tweetalong, Allender said.
Kolb also said officers are careful not to tweet personal or sensitive information. Officers typically do not tweet child abuse or domestic abuse cases, and they usually only tweet about a call after they leave the scene to protect officers and callers.
But Allender, the chief of police in Rapid City, said tweetalongs also show some of the more outrageous calls police deal with on a regular basis -- like the kid who breaks out the window of a police car while the officer is standing on the sidewalk.
"Real life is funnier than any comedy show out there and not to make fun of people, embarrass them or humiliate them, but people do funny things," Allender said. "... I mean, that guy deserves a little bit of ridicule, and everyone who would be watching would agree. That's just good clean fun to me."
Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kristieaton