Sheriff’s Department Uses Periscope App to Open Doors to Community

Last month the Pima County Sheriff’s Department became one of the first public safety offices in the country to use Periscope, a live stream video application developed by Twitter that allows people to watch and comment on videos from other users in real time. The software was released to the public at the end of March, and within a week, Deputy Tom Peine of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department was using it in the office.

Two weeks ago, Deputy Peine filmed a live video tour of the department’s property and evidence unit for an audience of more than 1,000 online viewers, many of whom commented with questions they wanted him to pose to Ms. Valencia, the department’s lead evidence technician.

In the CSI corridor, Deputy Peine passed by a handgun from the 1960s, cabinets full of crime scene blood samples and drawers stuffed with confiscated cash. While walking from the blood chamber to the DNA freezer to the “Indiana Jones Room,” he angled his phone in the direction of Ms. Valencia and read a list of comments on his cellphone.

“What’s the strangest part of evidence?” Deputy Peine said.

“I guess the strangest would be the ram’s head,” Ms. Valencia responded, citing a leftover relic of an old animal cruelty case.

Experts say that Deputy Peine’s effort is part of a larger campaign by law enforcement agencies across the nation to embrace social media as tools — to open the doors of their departments to citizens, to field queries from true-crime buffs and to ease tensions at a time when the sometimes fraught relationship between the public and law enforcement officers is under increased scrutiny.

The use of social media is not a new development for law enforcement offices, which sometimes use Twitter and Facebook to crowdsource investigations. But Periscope is noteworthy given the immediate and largely unfiltered glimpse it offers community members into the officers’ work lives.

“We are seeing an explosion of visual experiences today,” said Karen North, the director of digital social media at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who pointed to Periscope and its competitors Meerkat and GoPro. “It’s interesting to see that an early mover with the technology is the police. There’s a really prosocial opportunity to allow people inside the experience of an officer.”

Because Periscope is a new app, it is difficult to determine precisely how many law enforcement agencies are using it. Deputy Peine said he knew of 27 law enforcement agencies using Periscope nationwide, including the Boca Raton Police Department in Florida and the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office. He said many had sought him out for advice because his unit was one of the app’s earliest adopters.

“As law enforcement, we like to hold our cards right to our chests, but at the same time, we rely on the trust of the public,” Deputy Peine said. “I think we can prevent a lot of the suspicion simply by opening up.”

In the wake of the fatal shootings by the police in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, and the related protests, polls show that the public has become increasingly distrustful of public safety officials. According to a January poll by Reuters, 30.9 percent of Americans believe police officers “routinely lie to serve their own interests,” and 27.6 percent disagree with the notion that officers are “fair and just.”

In response, experts said some public safety offices are turning to social media tools like Periscope in an effort to improve their image.

“Growing community trust is sacrosanct, and technology is very important in doing that,” said Lauri-Ellen Smith, a special assistant to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in Florida.

As authorities familiarize themselves with the various functions of Periscope, potential applications multiply for law enforcement. User-generated footage could prove helpful in responding to traffic violations, burglaries and other public safety issues.

Although Deputy Peine has been among the most active officers on the platform, he said that his implementation is just scraping the surface. He is proud to have shown viewers locations that they might not have seen otherwise, such as the fabled “Indiana Jones Room,” nicknamed for the area where the department’s oldest pieces of evidence, which dates back a half century, are stored. But Deputy Peine is planning future live videos from a training flight with the department’s air unit and exercises by the SWAT team.

However, before he can film anything related to the sheriff’s office, Deputy Peine must receive clearance from the department’s legal team.

“It’s very limited where we can use it, because it’s live,” he said.

In one recent video, Deputy Peine took nearly 2,000 online users on a tour of a county jail. As he passed a hallway of unconvicted cellmates, Deputy Peine tilted his phone down, to protect their privacy.

Although some of Deputy Peine’s videos present the inner workings of the sheriff’s department, others introduce community members to the people and places that are central to the department’s operations.

Natalie Grunewald, a 32-year-old account director from South Africa, was browsing Periscope last month when she came across Deputy Peine giving a virtual tour of an air hangar. “I found it to be more interesting and informative than other uses like random people videoing the sunset,” she said.

Two weeks ago, more than 300 viewers watched a live stream of Deputy Peine running the Law Enforcement Torch Run. He held his phone out in selfie position as he sprinted up the street. His eyes darted back and forth between the road and his phone, which was flooded with questions and encouraging comments.

“We want to show people there are humans in these uniforms,” he said.