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Sheriff’s Department Not Ready To Embrace Crime-Fighting Website

Police in San Diego, La Mesa and Carlsbad are using nextdoor.com to connect with citizens

Evening Edition

Aired 8/22/14 on KPBS News.

A website called Nextdoor.com is partnering with San Diego law enforcement agencies — with one notable exception — to allow officers to post information and get private messages from residents.

Ever think about becoming Facebook friends with your local police officer? Probably not, but a website called Nextdoor.com is partnering with San Diego law enforcement agencies to allow officers to post information and get private messages from residents.

The San Diego, La Mesa and Carlsbad police departments have embraced the idea, launching partnerships with the for-profit website, which gives police officers online tools to develop relationships with citizens in exchange for recruiting those citizens to sign up.

But not everyone in law enforcement is on board. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department so far hasn't joined Nextdoor, despite lobbying from some San Marcos residents who want deputies to join their online neighborhood network and share crime news.

Nextdoor takes a strange concept that makes perfect sense in the modern world — use an online social network to meet people who live next door — and extends it even further to meet law enforcement’s needs.

“It’s just a way really to show the human side of the police department,” said San Diego police Officer Matthew Tortorella, who oversees the department’s Nextdoor activity.

HOW IT WORKS

San Diego has 348 neighborhood groups and about 37,000 users, according to the website.

Police officers can use the site to develop relationships with residents but can’t see what users are posting unless they’re in that officer’s own neighborhood, said Kathy Stadler, a Nextdoor field manager in San Diego.

Nextdoor has 42 accounts for San Diego police officers and other staff, which they mostly use to post to one assigned division of neighborhoods. Police posts are also highlighted and grouped so users can access them easily.

The site, founded by a San Francisco-based company in 2010, is similar to Facebook, except people have to prove who they are and where they live, and can only see posts from people who live nearby. Users are grouped by neighborhood and can see only their neighborhood posts, which range from lost pet alerts to business recommendations to used couches for sale to crime reports.

The San Diego Police Department has embraced its Nextdoor partnership, which it launched in April 2013. It announced the pairing with a press release copied from Nextdoor’s website, and set a joint goal with Nextdoor to double the number of users this year, according to a Nextdoor spokeswoman.

Nextdoor recruits new users by word of mouth, sending staff to neighborhood meetings and asking police to encourage residents to sign up, said Kathy Stadler, a Nextdoor field manager in San Diego.

“Here, in San Diego, it’s especially important right now because we hear every day how understaffed the Police Department is, so the more that we can do as residents of San Diego to step up and have our eyes out for what's going on in neighborhoods, the better,” she said.

San Marcos resident Kevin Mecum looks at the Santa Fe Hills neighborhood's Nextdoor.com group, which he established. August 15, 2014.

In San Marcos, some residents are using Nextdoor to stay up on neighborhood happenings, but they haven’t yet been able to convince the Sheriff’s Department to join them there.

Nextdoor.com Posts

Friday, 8/1/14, approx 12:30PM

What is the Helicopter Saying?

What is the helicopter saying? Female wearing flip flop?

All I can understand his flip-flops

Asian male wearing all black w/flip flops call 911

White male all black clothes with flip flops. What I made out anyways. Seems like they should make it louder

Elderly male? Missing?

I got middle-eastern male, flip flops, and I think missing, but my daughter thought she heard armed??? Why is it so hard to understand.

We heard male in all brown, call 911. SIGH

We heard missing person, elderly, flip flops...

Hey at least we heard flip flops lol. My boys saw two suspicious people walking the trail behind my house who where dark skinned and described them as Indian descent like from middle east. They were looking in our backyards

I don't know! All I know is they said call 911!

Posts in the Santa Fe Hills Nextdoor group provided by Kevin Mecum.

Over the past few months, residents in the Santa Fe Hills neighborhood have turned to Nextdoor for information each time their streets are filled with a law enforcement helicopter broadcasting a message — one that’s often indecipherable.

“Whenever that happens, all the neighbors flock to Nextdoor to say, 'Hey, what's the helicopter saying?’ because no one can usually understand what it's saying,” said Kevin Mecum, who set up the Santa Fe Hills Nextdoor group. “In some cases, people have heard ‘armed and dangerous’ when it wasn't someone armed and dangerous.”

Mecum started the group simply to get to know neighbors better, but recently it has become more like a virtual neighborhood watch filled with posts about the helicopters and other crime reports. Group users even helped one of his neighbors find her stolen car.

The posts sometimes rely on hearsay or bad information, Mecum said, so he wanted to get the Sheriff's Department to post on Nextdoor.

He emailed sheriff's spokeswoman Jan Caldwell with the request. She replied that “the system would not serve our purposes well, and I understand that is counter-intuitive to what you've explained to me in your email.”

She said the department uses “the traditional news release,” as well as “Face Book, [sic] Nixle, Pinterest, and Twitter.”

Mecum asked to talk with Caldwell about it by phone or in person and did not hear back.

“As someone that's supposed to interface with the public, she showed no interest in doing so whatsoever,” he said.

Two days after KPBS called and emailed Caldwell about the issue, San Marcos sheriff's Capt. Scott Ybarrondo contacted us.

Ybarrondo said he would look into Nextdoor and could post some information there but not crime alerts or breaking news updates. That’s because the Sheriff’s Department oversees too many different neighborhoods and would struggle to post to all of them, he said. The department is responsible for unincorporated areas of the county and is paid under contract to patrol nine cities.

“The best avenue is at our communications center, which is in Kearny Mesa, to push out real time information, and we already have an engine that does that, Nixle,” Ybarrondo said, referring to the crime alert website that many departments use, including San Diego police. He said neighbors who participate in Nextdoor can then post the crime news on the website.

After KPBS’s inquiry, Ybarrondo also called Mecum to say he'd connect him with someone in the Sheriff's Department who could give him information to post. Mecum said the captain also told him he’d look into making the speakers on the helicopters louder.

In San Diego, the police do sometimes post breaking news to Nextdoor, including during the recent wildfires, Officer Tortorella said.

“It also gives the neighbors and residents in that division a chance to actually reach out to an officer, maybe not literally face to face, but virtually face to face,” he said. “They can have direct communication and ask questions that maybe they wouldn't feel free to come down to the police station just to ask an officer.”

Recently, a resident sent a private message through Nextdoor to a police lieutenant about a suspicious car in the neighborhood.

“It turns out to be a stolen vehicle,” Tortorella said. “In addition, after conducting a more intense investigation, that vehicle had been used in a series of commercial burglaries in that area. So it was really a key piece of evidence into a crime spree.”

Nextdoor is free to use and doesn’t charge or pay police departments to use or promote it. But it is a for-profit company and will eventually need to make money, Stadler said. She said the plan is to sell ads for local businesses, and that the site won’t ever charge people to use it.

San Marcos’ Mecum said he knows efforts to make money off the site might bring unwelcome changes. He said he would switch to another website if that happens.

"Now, we're at least introduced to one another, so if we decide to jump ship at some point and use a different platform or a homemade platform, at least we now know one another and know how to coordinate something like that," he said.

In the meantime, Mecum hopes the Sheriff's Department comes around and agrees to meet him and his neighbors where they already are gathering online.

“This isn't me saying why aren't you guys doing this,” he said. “It's me saying, ‘Hey, look at what we discovered. It's amazing and it's helpful. We'd like you to take a look.’”

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