Instant messaging helped police respond to recent emergencies on opposite sides of the country, and law-enforcement agencies are figuring out how to embrace the popular real-time communication tool.
Earlier this month, a couple and their teenage son were home in Bangor, Maine, when three men forced their way inside. The intruders locked the mother and son in a bedroom and assaulted the father in an attempt to steal prescription drugs, said Sgt. Paul Kenison, a 13-year veteran detective of the Bangor Police Department.
The bedroom did not have a telephone, Sgt. Kenison said, but the teenager used the computer to send a four-line instant message to his girlfriend.
In it, he explained the situation and asked her to call police. Officers arrived about 10 minutes later.
“We haven’t seen it here before and hadn’t heard of it,” Sgt. Kenison said.
The three men were in the house for about five minutes before they fled and are still at large, he said.
A direct call from the home would have resulted in a response time of about one minute, but the call inspired by instant messaging was better than none at all, Sgt. Kenison said.
“For the first time now, the use of [instant messaging] is specifically crossing into law enforcement,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations in Washington. “It’s one more step along the road of effectively communicating with the government and police.”
A case in Fremont, Calif., has a happier ending.
A police sergeant who was trained in hostage negotiations used instant messaging to help prevent a 16-year-old boy from committing suicide in January, Detective Bill Veteran of the Fremont police said.
The youth had been talking to his girlfriend about wanting to kill himself. She called police, but the teenager refused to leave his home to speak with the sergeant on the scene.
“Through instant messages [the sergeant] convinced the young man to come to the door to talk to officers,” Detective Veteran said. “He got the help he needed.”
It takes a unusual set of circumstances for instant messaging to be used effectively in an emergency situation, Detective Veteran especially with the ubiquitous nature of cellular phones.
“Of course it can be a wonderful tool, as it was for us,” the 20-year police veteran said.
Representatives from several D.C.-area police departments said their agencies had not responded to cases involving instant messaging, but were intrigued by the idea.
“That’s pretty ingenious,” Maryland State Police Sgt. Rob Moroney said of the Bangor case. “When you’re in distress, any way to call for help is a good way.”
Sgt. Terry Licklider, a Virginia State Police spokesman, said instant messaging “would certainly be something interesting to look into,” but “we don’t have the technology to do it today.”
That could change soon.
“The technology is not a big deal,” said Sara Radicati, president and chief executive officer of Radicati Group Inc., a technology market-research firm in Palo Alto, Calif. “The real issue with doing that is making sure the [instant message] is real and not bogus.”
Nearly 14 billion instant messages were sent daily this year, and that number is expected to grow to 46.5 billion in 2009, Ms. Radicati said.
“We’re seeing a lot of government agencies deploying [instant messaging] just because of its immediacy,” she said.
Mr. Johnson said real-time messaging could be useful, especially for non-emergencies and for departments with the staff and resources to manage it.
“But for some things,” he said, “you can’t substitute the human being on the other end of the line.”