Dramatic reconstructions have become the bedrock of BBC One show Crimewatch, but now Surrey Police has adapted the idea for use on social media becoming the first force to launch a 'Tweconstruction', when a crime is retold via Twitter in the hope it might spark a memory in a witness.
Surrey Police first used a Tweconstruction in January, after a driver delivering cash to the Co-operative Store at Tattenham Corner in Epsom was robbed at gun point.
The Tweconstruction, which was posted on Surrey Police's official Twitter account, @SurreyPolice, provided a step-by-step account in a series of tweets of fewer than 140 characters. Images and CCTV stills were also incorporated into the tweets, as well as maps of the area where the crime occurred.
Kat Holland, online and production manager at Surrey Police, explains: 'The Tweconstruction could reach a wider audience outside the county through online interest and re-tweets. '(It) was something we had never done before in Surrey and as such was promoted to local newspapers and radio to reassure the local community and demonstrate Surrey Police's commitment to solving this crime.'
The idea for a Tweconstruction emerged from discussions between Surrey Police's investigation team and the corporate communications team, who were inspired after seeing reconstructions on television programmes.
Holland admits: 'We wanted to do it ourselves and we felt that we could do it. We want to be more like a news agency rather than a corporate communications team, instead of relying on other authorities to post (the incidents). This needs to be focused on more going forward.' Named Operate Jadeite, the first Tweconstruction took place one month after the incident had occurred. Thirteen tweets were sent to coincide with the events leading up to and including the incident, although the police had to estimate timings. Each tweet also contained the hashtags #opjadeite and #tweconstruction.
For example, a tweet sent at 10.29am, said The Chevrolet passenger jumps out and robs the cash delivery officer at gunpoint. Were you a witness? #OpJadeite #Tweconstruction.
Other tweets, including images from nearby CCTV cameras, asked Is this you or someone you know? They may be a vital witness #OpJadeite #Tweconstruction and Could this be you and your car? You may be able to help #OpJadeite #Tweconstruction.
Holland adds: 'Images taken were released in real-time one month after the incident in the hope they would reach people who did not regularly engage with traditional media or lived outside the Force's area and had not previously contacted us with information.' The Tweconstruction also helped Surrey Police in its objective to engage more with the public. It was retweeted by many of @SurreyPolice's 30,000 followers, reaching more than 53,000 Twitter accounts. The Tweconstruction was also viewed more than 2,000 times on Facebook, while Surrey Police's Storify page, which collated all the tweets and pictures, received 600 views.
The Tweetreach report created by Surrey Police found the first Tweconstruction had 47
main supporters, who retweeted @SurreyPolice's posts and tweeted comments such as @SurreyPolice #Tweconstruction is amazing! #OpJadeite ... Showing other forces how it's done! #withyoumakingsurreysafer #supersurrey.
'It doesn't take that long to plan a Tweconstruction,' admits Holland. 'First, a series of tweets need to be compiled, and then they should be checked and verified and finally sent at the right time on Twitter.' Tweconstructions are usually promoted a few days before the launch, to gain as much interest from the public as possible, in the form of articles and radio clips. Tweets are also posted to followers, for example On Friday, 1 March, we will be holding a real time #Tweconstruction from 10:15am as part of the #OpJadeite investigation. Can you help?
The team is made up of two to three tweeters who post manually instead of relying on an automated system. As the tweets are part of the investigation, there are no privacy issues. The general investigator will keep those involved with the Tweconstruction updated on the goings on.
Unfortunately, the Tweconstruction didn't gain any significant information despite an increased number of calls from members of the public. 'Subsequent enquiries by the investigation team have led to the arrest of six individuals in connection with the offence,' admits Holland.
But the feedback that Surrey Police received from the local community and on social media was described by Holland as 'overwhelmingly positive'. Other police forces have also sought Surrey's advice in replicating Tweconstructions in their jurisdictions.
On average, @SurreyPolice, which tweets updates on investigations, descriptions of victims or wanted criminals and safety advice, adds more than 1,000 new followers every month. But the force has found that tweets concerning missing young people are usually those which 'receive a good level of retweets', says Holland.
So when local teenager Esme Smith went missing last month, Surrey Police repeated the Tweconstruction exercise.
Media press officer James Baker explains: 'As it was the one week anniversary of Esme's disappearance, it was a good time to do this.'
Incorporating the Twitter hash tags of #FindEsme and #Tweconstruction, the tweets began at 08:23 when the force tweeted a description of Esme's appearance, followed by an image of her, which was retweeted by more than 240 @SurreyPolice followers.
Tweets were posted until the time Esme would have been at school, and resumed after the final bell rang. Holland adds: 'We sent 19 #Tweconstruction tweets on the week anniversary which were retweeted a combined total of 1,343 times.'
South-East traffic Twitter account, @Traffic_SouthE, and South West Trains Twitter account, @SW_Trains, also helped to spread the word by retweeting the posts which reached more than 113,000 followers combined.
Baker explains: 'We wanted to target Esme's age group and collate all of the information into one place; social media is one of the more obvious ways to do this.
'We received a lot of calls and retweets and people also shared the tweets via Facebook. This was the key thing that we wanted to push.'
Esme turned up safe and well at a north London police station 11 days after going missing. Her family was quick to thank Surrey Police Force and the 'power of social media being used in its correct format'.
Holland concludes: 'The Tweconstructions are a very successful use of social media. However, it wouldn't work for every crime. Distinct things have to happen over a period of time in order for it to work. So far there has only been two Tweconstructions, but we are looking forward to doing it again in the future.'