Police tech: Guns versus butter-pecan

Technology has had an incredible effect on how public safety is maintained. With closed circuit cameras, ShotSpotter platforms, drones, robots and sophisticated criminal profiling software, police have never had more powerful technology armaments.

However for obvious reasons, the spotlight is now being pointed toward the human relationship between police and the communities they serve. This has created a need for citizen engagement with technology as a backbone but by no means limited to it.

During the last century, technology has seemed to lead to a gradual separation of the police from the community. The expanding role of automobiles replaced the era of friendly foot patrol. Surveillance methods reduced the number of cops needed on the streets.

In recent years, face-to-face community policing strategies have been enhanced in order to build deeper relationships with citizens and neighborhoods, especially in high-crime areas. Many of these strategies are about as low tech as you can get. They involve cops walking the streets, getting to know citizens on a first-name basis; community get-togethers and cookouts; even dancing.

Operation Hoodsie Cup, a new Boston Police outreach program done as a public-private partnership with Hood dairy products, uses a police-sponsored ice cream truck designed specifically to create a more casual interaction with the community using America’s favorite summer treat as a hook. St. Louis recently replicated the program with their Operation Polar Cops truck. This hearkens back to the guns-versus-butter lesson you probably had in Intro to Economics!

Even the friendliest initiatives don’t come without controversy. While both police and community were excited about the outreach in Boston, there were still elements in law enforcement that felt the priorities were backward. A Boston Police Union official didn’t hesitate to use the press to warn that ice cream was coming at the expense of similar donations for bulletproof vests and more law enforcement technology.

As those in law enforcement will tell you, community building is hard work. It only takes one accusation of excessive force or one serious crime to create the perception that the civic engagement strategies didn’t work. So perhaps the most important aspect of digital community policing is in the ability of law enforcement to build a positive brand in communities, with technology as a tool.

Some of the more innovative community policing programs are expanding community conversations through the use of technology as a supplement to face-to-face interactions. New citizen engagement networks have enabled law enforcement to get anonymous messaging related to issues in the community. (These platforms should not be confused with “snitch sites” where citizens report nefarious characters in the neighborhood.)

Community-generated public safety content and alerts have become the digital equivalent of the first responder. These can range from warnings about flooded intersections to Amber Alerts about missing children. Many of the community policing platforms replicate the most popular elements of Facebook, Twitter and SnapChat, while others use the mainstream social platforms as their backbone.

Nextdoor’s free government interface, Nextdoor for Public Agencies, has become a mainstay for community policing around the country. This Facebook-like platform enables citizens and law enforcement to post messages and photos related to incidents (or positive events) in the neighborhood. The platform also has been successfully used to post photos of stolen property that can be cross-referenced with products being fenced on Craigslist.

To further build personal relationship and the “brand,” many police departments are requiring officers to get active on social media. Law enforcement now uses Twitter to communicate with the community, share news both good and bad and publicize neighborhood happenings in a more personalized way. SnapChat has been integrated into many community policing programs for such purposes as BOLO (be on the lookout), “ride or walk-alongs” with police patrols and public service announcements.

It seems the era of “digital policing” has the potential to bridge the gap between technology and relationship-focused policing, an important effort that’s right on time for many communities.

How is your city using tech and social media to enhance its community-based policing efforts?


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