From a Celebrity Tweet to a Mobile App: A Journey into the Digital Age with Toronto Police Service
In August, 2015, The Toronto Police Service launched TPS Mobile, a branded mobile app that allows Torontonians to better connect with TPS through interactive features focusing on Victim/Witness Support. The decision to release a mobile app was not made overnight, as this move was years in the making. Below is the story of how TPS embraced social media and launched their mobile app.
A Celebrity Tweet that Started It All
To understand how the Toronto Police Service got to where they are today with social, cyber, and digital platforms, we have to go back several years. In June of 2009, the Much Music Video Awards were hosted in Toronto. One of the guests was Perez Hilton, a celebrity blogger and early user of Twitter. Late in the night of June 22, 2009, at an after party, an alleged assault took place, and Perez Hilton took to twitter to ask for police help. “in shock. I need the police ASAP. Please come to the SoHo Metropolitan Hotel now. Please” wrote Perez Hilton. Within minutes, Toronto Police dispatchers began to receive calls from fans all over the world, from Boise, Idaho to China. “I’m calling from China and I want to help Perez. He’s been assaulted and needs help at the SoHo Metropolitan Hotel” said one Perez Hilton fan who called from China to speak with a TPS call taker.
This was the first wake up call as to how real-time social media platforms like Twitter could profoundly impact law enforcement and public safety. Citizens were now engaging with TPS as a direct result of social media and other online platforms before TPS had any idea or situation awareness of what was going on.
Partly due to events like this, in 2010 Deputy Chief Peter Sloly took several members of the Toronto Police Service to SmileCon (Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement) in Washington, DC where they heard from other agencies across North America and the UK that were already utilizing social media and other digital platforms. At that time, TPS already had some officers on the streets that were using Twitter to connect with the community they served, but had no policy or procedures in place around the use of social media.
An Unfortunate Year of Shootings
In 2012, there were two major incidents which brought social media to the forefront in Toronto. Two unfortunate shootings took place: the Danzig shooting, where 20+ people were shot on the East end of Toronto, and the Eaton’s Centre shooting, a shooting that took place in the Eaton’s Centre mall in downtown Toronto. These two shootings were unique in that they not only had huge physical crime scenes, but also had huge digital crime scenes as well. Everything from tweets leading up to the incidents, play-by-play tweets while they were going on, and retaliation tweets were captured online. During the Eaton Centre shooting, former MLB Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie was the first to report the shooting over Twitter. “Pretty sure someone just let off a round bullets in eaton center mall .. Wow just sprinted out of the mall ... Through traffic …” he wrote. Once again, community members and members of the media caught on to a critical incident and started calling in to TPS.
This was a wake up call for the Toronto Police Service, as they realized they really needed to embrace online social media and start looking at crime from every possible angle. As a result, TPS started Operation Reboot, a task force for cyber crime. Operation Reboot was created to investigate how looking at social, cyber, and digital platforms could not only help solve crime, but more importantly, prevent crime. One of the main conclusions of Operation Reboot was that if TPS wanted to have skin in the game as it relates to social media, they also needed to include the public (and default to open and collaboration). They realized that without the public's support and willingness to help, they would not get the outcome they were looking for. While traditional methods of communication were great, TPS realized they needed to start looking at new ways of communicating with the public.
Enter: The TPS Mobile App
The Toronto Police put together an internal team to identify how an app could help increase communication with Toronto residents. They spoke with other agencies that were leaders in this field, such as the Victoria Police Department which was the first agency in Canada to release a mobile app. Since they wanted to build an app for the community, they also reached out to the community over social media to ask them what services they wanted in the app using the hashtag #TPSApp. Once their requirements were set, TPS was able to secure funding through a Provincial Grant focused on providing victim/witness support, and an app was the perfect solution. MobilePD was awarded the contract after an RFP process, and the development began.
Over several months, the Toronto Police Service and MobilePD developed the first version of the TPS mobile app, which included features such as real-time community alerts, a Virtual Police Officer, Access to Neighborhood Officers, and the ability to file certain police reports through the app. In August of 2015, the app was launched to much praise from media and members of the community.
Even with the success of the launch and thousands of downloads from their community, TPS did not view this as mission accomplished. They immediately reached out to the community and crowdsourced suggestions and feedback for future versions to come.
In future releases, TPS is looking to develop new innovative solutions that will allow the Toronto community to co-create public safety alongside them. One feature they believe could be eventually released is Next-Gen-911 reporting, where members of the community can use the TPS app to report crime in real-time and connect with dispatch. They will also focus on providing real-time information to residents about their communities, such as an interactive crime map showing neighborhood crime.
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