Updated Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 06:29 AM
When a 6-foot-long snake was spotted in a Ravenna park in August, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) took to Twitter to warn the city's residents.
First, the department announced the report in a tweet that included a call to actor Samuel L. Jackson of "Snakes on a Plane" fame.
Then @SeattlePD started directing public messages to @RavennaPkPython, a parody account set up by a user outside the department to mock the snake.
"Turn yourself in and we will let the #scalesofjustice decide the rest," one SPD tweet read.
"When you turn yourself in you MAY be charged with one count of Disssturbing the Peace," another read.
Finally, the department account tweeted an Internet photograph of a squirrel that appeared to be in distress.
"You're scaring our friends. See? Time to go home. #fangsforunderstanding."
The amusing tweets were the talk of the Seattle social-media world for an afternoon, but the SPD now says they were part of something bigger: a deliberate, ongoing effort to simultaneously improve public safety and the department's reputation.
The still-evolving effort — SPD does not yet have a written policy concerning Twitter usage — includes infusing humor into some public-safety announcements as well as more frequently tweeting serious messages and directly responding to residents. It is formally part of the department's 20/20 plan, a set of 20 initiatives to improve policing and address problems uncovered by a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
@SeattlePD has tweeted more than 4,400 times, and more than 25,000 people have signed up to receive its tweets — the fourth-most followers of any police department in the country, behind Boston, New York City and Baltimore, according to The International Association of Chiefs of Police. But it's unclear if all those updates about shootings, car crashes and robberies — and feces, goats and Krampus — are actually helping anything.
SPD officials and social-media experts said Twitter offers a new avenue for cops to communicate with the city, build trust among residents and establish relationships that will pay off in an emergency.
Even the humor serves a purpose, argued Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, SPD's chief spokesman.
"If we can provide day-to-day updates that are interesting, funny and engaging, people will visit us," Whitcomb said. "And then when we've got some guy like Ian Stawicki, who shoots up (the Café Racer) coffee shop, and we need information to go to as many people as quickly as possible to keep them safe and to help us get that guy in custody, we will have a wider audience."
But the joking has sometimes triggered mixed reactions from other Twitter users.
The #fangsforunderstanding tweet, for example, led @Sean_Maginnis and @ClaireBickel to praise SPD's wit. But @Lisa_Doggett wasn't amused.
"Humor? Is that new police reform in action?" she tweeted.
Some SPD critics say the department needs to do much more to show it is taking its problems seriously.
Dorry Elías-Garcia, of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County, said she doesn't see the renewed Twitter strategy as "measurable policy and/or systems reform."
Elías-Garcia added the tweets are probably not reaching "those in our community we are most concerned about."
Some also expressed concern about how much it costs the department to craft the 4.8 tweets per day it has sent over the past six months.
Whitcomb, the SPD spokesman, said he can't put a cost on the tweeting because it is integrated into the day of the communications shop's five employees.
One of the main tweeters — and the acknowledged comedian of the group — is a contract employee, Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, who is making $40,000 on his second six-month contract, Whitcomb said.
The department has had a Twitter account since spring 2009.
Whitcomb said it has had high points, like being featured in The New York Times last October, and low points, like receiving some negative feedback from the community.
But the department does not appear deterred.
A couple of weeks ago, when SPD received a stuffed animal as a holiday gift from a local blogger, the department tweeted a photograph of it.
"We found the Ravenna Python!" @SeattlePD said. "(Sssssyke)."
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Seattle Police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb