Although a recent survey indicates people want to be able to communicate with law enforcement via texts and social media, many police departments struggle to find a workable platform and process.
Two-way digital communications between Hawaii residents and local law enforcement agencies could have eliminated 38 minutes of fear on Jan. 13, said Mark Forman, global leader, vice president and general manager of Unisys’ Public Sector.
After an employee chose the wrong option from a drop-down menu during an preparedness drill, Residents had no one to call to find out if the warning of a missile attack was real, which is a lesson "emergency response entities will make a part of their planning assumption now," Foreman said. "It’s made people aware that you have to have a two-way street now, that [one-way communication] creates so much anxiety if you have an error.”
Nearly 60 percent of U.S. respondents to Unisys’ 2017 Safe Cities survey said they want communication with police to be easier, faster and more convenient, survey results show. Two main ways people want to communicate with police are through text-to-911 and the apps on their smartphones, Foreman said. More specifically, 79 percent of U.S. respondents said they would be willing to submit digital photos to law enforcement to use as evidence, and 65 percent would be willing to provide evidence via text messaging.
People have had digital options in communicating with the police for some time. Many cities have tip-submission websites, for example, but one of the best models on which to build out a digital outreach platform is the National Neighborhood Watch program. Formally established in 1972, Neighborhood Watches work directly with local police departments to prevent crimes in their areas.
City managers and leaders must recognize and use the advantages of interacting with citizens via all communication channels, including social media, SMS and digital file transfer, Forman said. Two-way communications, as enabled through digital and social channels, help foster positive community relationships and can be another form of community policing.
One standard that he recommends for cities to implement two-way communication is Next Generation 911, an IP-based 911 system “that allows voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public to the 911 network,” according to 911.gov.
“There are a lot of insights and lessons learned from taking advantage of that standard on the technology side,” Forman said, such as its ability to maintain security and privacy.
Some digital efforts by police departments have brought success. The New York City Police Department’s Crime Stoppers program has led to more than 9,000 solved robberies and 8,790 solved murders and attempted murders. Besides a telephone tip line, NYPD has a website where people can fill out a form, including their cell phone number. They get a computer-generated reference number that they can use to follow up on their tip. Or users can send a text to start a conversation with an investigator; tipsters’ cell phone number will not be displayed or traced.
Other efforts haven’t panned out, however. On May 12, 2017, the Vancouver, Wash., Police Department discontinued its online reporting system after just seven months. “Online reports were entered into the same electronic report system as police reports … and were reviewed by staff prior to final approval,” according to a press statement. But “the end result was a significant increase in workload for department staff responsible for reviewing and approving the online reports." Tipsters often miscategorized crimes and left out important details, which required follow-up and revision by department personnel.
The department hired additional police service technicians – uniformed members of the police department who handle non-emergency services -- to take the same crime reports over the phone that the online system took, including information on graffiti, identity theft, lost property and theft of $750 or less. For lower-priority issues, the department asks residents to call 311.
Last June, the Burbank, Calif., Police Department launched an online reporting system based on the LexisNexis Desk Officer Reporting System. Residents can report misdemeanor crimes, but the form is buried under several layers. To use it, one must know to go to Burbankpd.org, click on the “online services” tab and then the “submit online police report” option.
Filling out an online form is not really digital communication, Foreman said. “Citizens want to use [their] devices and, especially for major crimes, want to be part of getting those solved quickly. I think the public realizes the faster and at a higher probability these crimes get solved, the safer they’ll be.”
The Safe Cities report cites several examples of two-way communication success. The first came after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, when the FBI asked the public to send in images and video from the event. That helped lead police to the suspects. More recently, after a shooter opened fire during a concert in Las Vegas last year, “the Las Vegas Police Department communicated via both Twitter and Facebook to get news and information out to the public. Citizens gain the ease of engaging police how and when they want, whether one-on-one direct or via social media,” the report stated.
Despite all this, calling 911 is not exactly obsolete. “One of the most interesting insights is that where there is a major incident that relates generally to something that’s time-critical or violent and very personal, the citizens still want to be able to call and talk to somebody, so it’s not a total shift to digital,” Forman said. The report found that 63 percent of respondents would rather phone in a crime taking place, compared to 42 percent for road incidents, he said. “There’s still a strong role for being able to talk to that 911 operator or that emergency response person.”