Today the city counts roughly 48,238 members in about 800 neighborhoods, according to the Dallas Police Department.
(Tribune News Service) -- The first thing filmmaker Cynthia Hall heard when she awoke about 6 a.m. in her White Rock Lake home was heavy breathing. Then the sound of someone rummaging.
“Joe?” she called out. Hall lives alone, but that day she was expecting a houseguest.
“Die,” a man shouted with an expletive, from the room next to hers.
Panicked, Hall hid in her closet and dialed 911. The intruder ran out her front door, taking a suitcase, a purse and other property.
The police came and searched unsucessfully for the burglar. They told Hall they probably wouldn’t be able to solve the case, as there was little evidence. The man had entered through a broken garage door and a door that had mistakenly been left unlocked.
After the cops left, Hall logged on to Nextdoor, a social media forum for neighbors that’s growing in Dallas. She posted about her break-in. Messages poured in from people she had never met who lived nearby.
“What you just went thru really gives me the heebie jeebies,” one woman wrote.
Hall’s Feb. 10 home invasion was among a slew of crimes that residents in her area, called Eastwood, reported last month to police — and to each other online. Hall’s use of Nextdoor illustrates how new social media connections can benefit victims and communities. For instance, Hall was able to recover some of her stolen things from a neighbor who found them a block away.
“I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of good things I heard from my neighbors, the majority of whom I did not know,” Hall said.
Nextdoor’s Dallas groups started four years ago. Since then, the free site, which requires address verification and is only visible to residents of a specific area, has ballooned in popularity. Today the city counts roughly 48,238 members in about 800 neighborhoods, according to the Dallas Police Department.
Dallas police promote the network as a digital neighborhood watch. Officers can write messages to an entire neighborhood but they can’t see residents’ posts.
But authorites also caution that the heightened buzz can drive a false fear that crime is on the rise in an area when it’s not. And they urge residents to report every incident to the department, not just post about it online, as some do.
In Hall’s case, neighbors soon drew connections between her intrusion and a few car burglaries and instances of suspicious behavior that residents wrote also occurred that night.
About an hour before Hall was awakened by the intruder, Michael Parkey, 62, a landscape architect who lives three blocks from Hall, woke up to his dog barking.
He went to see what Buddy was barking at and stopped in the doorway of a spare bedroom. There, he could see a man standing outside, shining a flashlight through the window into the room. The man was moving it slowly around in a circle, and it landed on Parkey.
“Oh [expletive],” the man shouted before running away.
Parkey posted about his scare on Nextdoor. A woman within a few blocks said she had surveillance footage of a man peering into her husband’s car window with a flashlight but not trying to break in.
Another Eastwood neighbor wrote that his car was broken into, and his child’s sippy cup was among the stuff missing. Then Hall logged on.
The neighbors surmised that the same man was responsible for all the criminal activity. But Hall and Parkey said the police wouldn’t know it because some of the incidents hadn’t been reported to the department, or because different officers came out at different times. “Because of the information on Nextdoor, we could . . . see a pattern that the police do not see,” Parkey said.
Some on Nextdoor questioned whether the police were taking their crime issues seriously enough. “I think 4 cars, 1 home invasion and a man in a window in one night constitutes a crime spree,” wrote one user.
Deputy Chief Andrew Acord, who oversees the Northeast Patrol Division, said that Eastwood and the surrounding area is not experiencing any more crime than usual.
Crime in the northeast part of the city is down 11 percent compared with the same period last year, and in the neighborhoods around Hall and Parkey’s homes, burglaries and robberies have dropped this year, too, Acord said.
Acord described Nextdoor as a helpful tool to communicate with the community but cautioned that residents may not be getting the most accurate picture of crime in their area.
Burglaries, robberies and thefts rarely make the news, in part because they are relatively common. So a reader who doesn’t know about the frequency of those crimes could easily be scared by the steady stream of posts about property crimes, gunshots and suspicious people near their homes, Acord said.
In addition, residents often confuse police terminology, Acord said, which can add to the “unnecessary duress.”
“People are robbed and places are burglarized,” he said. “People confuse those two terms all the time.”
He gave an example of a man who comes home from work and sees his house was burglarized while he was gone, but then writes on Nextdoor that he suffered a home invasion and a robbery. “The homeowner is still upset, but putting it out there as a robbery gives a whole different mental picture to people,” Acord said.
Hall said the issue of crime incidents possibly being blown out of proportion came up at a recent homeowners’ association meeting.
“For the very first time, there was a little bit of discussion about this feeding frenzy on Nextdoor about criminal activity,” Hall said. “There was a lot of suspicion: Is the crime really different, or is it just getting attention and we’re not used to seeing everybody else’s crime?”
©2015 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC