Don't Dial http:// For Murder

Police departments across the country are beginning to use the World Wide Web to interact with the public.

by / November 30, 1995
Several police departments across the U.S. are beginning to use Web sites to educate citizens about important police programs.


PROBLEM/SITUATION: The law enforcement community finds it valuable to increase public access to crime statistics and safety information, and wants to engage the public in assisting in crime prevention.
SOLUTION: Develop a World Wide Web page on the Internet.
JURISDICTIONS: Spokane, Wash.; Roseville, Calif.; Wilmington, Mass., Nashville, Tenn., Chicago, Phoenix, Ariz., Laramie, Wyo.
VENDORS: Netscape Communications Corp; Internet Onramp; Sacramento Network Access; America Online.
USER CONTACT: John Moore, Spokane Police Department,; Tim O'Neill, Roseville Police Department (916/774-5145); Joe Harris, Wilmington Police Department (508/657-8082).


James Evans
Contributing Writer

After more than a year of hosting a publicly accessible World Wide Web page, Officer Tim O'Neill doesn't expect the Roseville Police Department's presence on the Internet to change the way he fights crime -- not yet, anyway. The concept of citizens interacting electronically with law enforcement authorities is too new to realize its potential. Yet O'Neill says he has high hopes for the digital frontier.

And he's not alone. Over the past few years, hundreds of police departments have put up Web pages to interact with area residents.

Located near Sacramento, Calif., Roseville was one of the first police departments in the country to embrace the Web as a means of providing information to -- and receiving tips from -- the public. The connection is also used to communicate with wired departments across the state, nation, and even around the world. The site offers comments from the police chief, address and telephone numbers for the divisions within the department, information about the community policing program, patrol, traffic, investigation, animal control and child services, and the opportunity to send e-mail directly to the department. It also provides links to other state, federal and international police Web pages, including several central depositories of police Web sites like CopNet and Police Agencies on the Web .

But Roseville takes its commitment to public information a step further than most police departments by offering legal materials, such as U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. code and access to the World Wide Web Virtual Law Library.

There are about 200 visits a week to the page, which has drawn comments and questions from police officials around the globe. Yet, O'Neill lamented, the department only gets about five messages a week from local residents, and they are typically questions about the law. "One person asked about having a garage sale, which laws were involved, and if burglaries increased in a neighborhood after a garage sale," he recalled. "I responded that most theft problems occur prior to the sale as the person is setting up. Most of our e-mail is from outside Roseville."

Like most law enforcement officials who maintain Web pages, O'Neill cautions people about expecting the Internet, in its current state, to reduce crime or allow police to respond to trends more rapidly. Ultimately, communities have the responsibility for policing themselves, and while the Internet may make some police work more efficient, the telephone still is the technology to use in emergencies. "I'd like to get some forms online so the public can communicate with us without having to send an officer to the location," O'Neill said. "I don't want people to think an officer won't respond if they send e-mail, but I don't want them to think that sending e-mail will get an officer right there. It won't."

O'Neill created and maintains the Web page himself and, except for his own time, there
is no cost to the police department. As part of his job, he introduced himself to Sacramento Network Access, an Internet access provider. "I met the owner, and we got into a discussion about the Web, and he offered to donate space for our page," O'Neill said.

The Spokane, Wash., Police Department also benefits from free computer space for its Web page from Internet Onramp, an Internet access provider in Washington. Patrolman John Moore and fellow Officer Rick Albin maintain the page, one of the most attractive police sites yet. Along with comments from the chief and direct e-mail access to the department, it offers community policing program information, crime data, newsletter and news releases, job openings and links to other law enforcement Web pages.

"Our goal is to provide local information, that's our target group," said Moore. "But we hear from people all over the world. There's an extensive interest in law enforcement. We've already discussed having photos of criminals and listing unsolved crimes. The boss wants to put the bad guys out front," Moore said. "People have been reporting traffic problems via e-mail, and I want to build a section so readers can see what other readers are saying, like a community bulletin board. But I don't want people reporting emergencies."

Moore, who uses Netscape Communications Corp.'s Web browsing software, along with the Web browser provided by America Online, and Mosaic from the National Center of Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, spends about four hours a week maintaining the site.

He is like most of his police Web colleagues in that he has expanded an interest in computers into a formal police project. "I'm still a rookie at this," he said. "If not for my son, I wouldn't know what the Internet was. Now the chief wants to put our Web address on all the police stationary. I recommend that other departments get a Web page."

From New England to Oregon, to Asia, Africa and Europe, law enforcement is taking that advice to heart. In this country, federal, state, local, military and university campus police officials are posting their own Web sites with a variety of information. The Nashville, Tenn., Police Department offers a multimedia violence reduction game, self-protection tips, unsolved crimes and a list with photos of the city's most wanted criminals.

The Chicago Police Department primarily provides general information about its programs, including a map to let citizens know which police district they live in and a guide to important telephone numbers and how to use them.

The Phoenix, Ariz., Police Department has already taken its Web page in the direction others wish to go by giving residents the ability to report crimes via e-mail. The department also offers information about gangs, drug abuse, crime prevention, graffiti and hate crimes.

There are so many departments that have embraced the Internet it takes a site like CopNet, started by Laramie, Wyo., Police Department Officer Flint Waters to keep track of them. Most of the CopNet traffic comes from fellow officers, an experience shared by the majority of departments on the Web. "There was a smaller use by citizens that wandered upon it and found information about law enforcement that they never knew," said Waters. "It also helped them in locating agencies in their area that had resources or information available."

But as the Internet rises in the public consciousness, the police believe it will become a logical and pervasive extension of their efforts to reach out to local communities. "You can send files and documents through the Web," said Officer Joe Harris, the community policing coordinator at the Wilmington, Mass., Police Department who designed and maintains the department's site. "Programs like missing children can be promoted through a Web page. Citizen complaints can be posted there, as well as crime statistics for the public to see. It's a great resource not only for the police."

That optimism, however, is tempered with a caution. "One danger is that by having this technology, it needs to be available to everybody, not just to people in their homes who can afford it," O'Neill said. "We must make an effort to make sure the public libraries offer access to the Internet."