05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Broward County Sherriff's Office Solves Problem to Tweet or Not to Tweet?

The Broward Sheriff's Office (BSO) is the 3rd largest sheriff's office in the nation with four divisions including a Department of Law Enforcement, a Fire Rescue division, a Detention/Community Control center and of course an Administration office. In all they employ about 6,000 people and service 1.8 million residents in the county.

As you can imagine communications is a big part of the job.

Sheriffs Go Social

Lynne Martzall is the External Affairs Manager for Public Relations, one of the two divisions in the External Affairs Office, the other being Media Relations. Among other forms of communication, Lynne's division is responsible for the Sheriff's web technologies.

"One of our former IT administrators had the forethought to purchase '' in the mid-nineties which benefits us greatly," said Martzall.

Good snag. With SEO being about half the battle these days, I'm sure having the word "sheriff" in the URL has been a bonus for web traffic. Not that they're selling anything on the website but it does prevent some spammer or worse a porn website from taking the domain name.

Martzall is big proponent of the social web. So when some of the district chiefs (who according to her are the face of law enforcement for the community they serve) requested permission from her office to start using Twitter she was already open to the idea of using social media in communications.

A Sheriff All Atwitter About Social Media

Her first hurdle was an administration led by a thirty-year veteran sheriff who had come up through the ranks and holds a sort of "old style" way of thinking when it comes to communications. (The Sheriff in Broward County is an elected position.)

"I literally cannot use the word 'Twitter' in the office," she told me.

While smaller cities and municipalities in South Florida use Twitter to communicate with the public, it didn't work for her due to the size and scope of her agency.

"With 17 patrol districts plus the sheriff it would have led to 18 twitter accounts," said Martzall. "Leaving me with little control over their distribution lists and content."

The Broward County Sheriff's Office had no desire to return to the Wild West. And social media can sometimes be as loose and unregulated as the outback of the United States in its early days.

Martzall's solution? Create her own version of Twitter.

A Cyber Solution

"With so many municipalities within our agency and us wanting to maintain control over our message I had our webmaster create a program called CyberVisor," she said. "It's our law enforcement version of Twitter."

According to the official documentation, the CyberVisor program enables districts to communicate with their residents and business owners directly via e-mail. Chiefs have the option to send messages directed specifically to homeowners or business owners or to both. The community registers for the program at the Sheriff department's website,

"At first their messages were sent out without my approval," said Martzall.

Grammar issues and misspelling forced her to have all outgoing messages be reviewed and approved for the time being. It takes time for the average user to adapt casual speak to official communications.

While it's not an exact copy of Twitter for Law Enforcement, it was truly inspired by the idea of a service that anyone can opt into for short bursts of communication pushed out at the will of individual users in real time. Put another way, it's half of Twitter, since users can't reply back to messages.

According to Martzall, there are currently 20,000 people signed up for the CyberVisor program, a reflection of her department's commitment to its new technology. They marketed the heck out of it with ads, flyers and postcards distributed by the department's volunteers and deputies.

CyberVisor Comes Into Focus

When Lynne hatched the idea of a Twitter for BSO she asked her department's webmaster, Anthony Petruzzi, to help her make it a reality.

"We wanted to make it easier to get information out to the community," said Petruzzi. "We understood that people can't be going to our website to get important and/or time sensitive information and since everyone now has either a cell phone or an email or both, sending this information to them that way was the next logical step."

The department always sent out alerts but Twitter inspired them to consolidate all of the alert features they offered under one service that was then sent to a community member's email or phone as soon as a message was approved.

"This makes it easier for the community to receive or opt-out of each type of alert that we send out," he said.

Those are the features that Martzall and Petruzzi adopted from Twitter, but besides the fact that people can't respond to the messages they get from BSO, how does it differ?

"When we first were looking to develop CyberVisor, we wanted to use Twitter as the backend powering the system, however this proved very problematic," said Petruzzi.

One of the biggest challenges was that 140 characters turned out to be a little too short for the type of messages they wanted to send.

"In most cases you can't convey an important message within that allotted restriction," he said. "We could have split the message across multiple tweets to get around this, but that could get confusing and the importance of the message could be lost."

Sharing With The Law Enforcement 2.0 Community

"I have received requests from six or so sheriff's departments across the nation requesting assistance to set up a CyberVisor in their communities," Martzall said.

In the spirit of the open source nature of the social web, Petruzzi said he invites other police departments to use CyberVisor's code.

"If other agencies wanted to implement the system on their sites, I'd be happy to share the code with them and do everything I could with getting it up and running," he said.