Some community policing initiatives have been started by the citizens they serve. For instance, when software company owners Keli and Robert Wilson lost track of their children at a large California amusement park for 45 minutes, the experience spurred an idea.

“I realized I didn’t have an updated photo of them, so I couldn’t go up to security and say, ‘Here they are. Please go and look for them,’” said Keli Wilson. The Wilsons developed My Family, an online repository of information about children that contains a recent photo, their height and weight and other information. If a child is lost, law enforcement can get immediate online access to current information even if the family is far from home. From that evolved AlertID, a comprehensive public safety service that launched in Washoe County, Nev., in 2010.

“We were approached by Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley,” Keli Wilson said. “So we’ve become a sort of neighborhood watch on steroids.”

According to Keli Wilson, residents of a participating jurisdiction sign up and provide an address. The AlertID application shows crimes that occur within a three-mile radius of their location as icons on a map. “They also get text and email alerts when something happens,” she said. “For example, if there’s a residential burglary or a sex offender moves into their neighborhood.

“Another part of it is a social networking component we call Community Watch, where the public can use social networking to communicate with one another — for example, about a suspicious vehicle in their neighborhood, a solicitor or an attempted abduction. We also give law enforcement the ability to broadcast, for example, a missing elderly person, a school lockdown, a shooting, etc.”

AlertID includes a mobile phone app, so that users can access data and receive alerts and other information when they’re on the move or away from home.

Washoe County Commissioner Bonnie Weber said AlertID started as a pilot with about 700 people, and it’s grown to about 15,000 people/residences subscribed in Washoe and Clark counties, as well as the cities of Henderson and North Las Vegas, with more in the planning stages.

“It’s relatively easy to be able to get online,” said Keli Wilson. “It’s free to the public, it’s free to law enforcement, and thus far we have been self-funding it. But we expect family friendly companies to sponsor areas.”

Getting Connected

Social media helped the newly created Dunwoody Police Department build ties to the community shortly after the city incorporated in 2008. “We wanted to find a way to reach out,” Grogan said, adding that there already were several community blogs in the area and many people online. “We started out from day one using Twitter, and then shortly thereafter we added Facebook and YouTube.”

Social media also can help police departments distribute positive stories that may be ignored by mainstream news outlets. “We know that our staffs do an amazing job each and every day operating under difficult and stressful conditions. Yet little of what they do ever gets published,” said Grogan in a recent article on the IACP website. “They make big arrests, they provide great customer service, they go the extra mile, they win an award, they save a life, and the list goes on and on. Social media can and should be used to educate the public about what your department does, how they do it and build confidence and trust in your agency.”

Some departments, especially larger ones, shy away from using social media, fearing they’ll be overwhelmed by citizen comments. But Minnesota’s Owens said there are techniques to manage citizen interaction, and that the positives of social media will outweigh the negatives.

“It’s a free way to get your message out,” Owens said. “Think of it as your own news channel. If you have a story you need to get out there, get it out there.”

She said the traditional media now monitor DPS social media and have picked up a number of the department’s posts. “We use Twitter when there’s a bad crash. For example, there was a big backup because of a rollover on Sunday. We tweeted a rollover on 35 just north of the Burnsville Split, no serious injuries but a big backup. In the winter when we have a big snowstorm, we tweet how many crashes and cars are off the road, that sort of thing.”

Wayne Hanson  | 

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.