On 8/15/14, KPBS interviewed two local Santa Fe Hills, San Marcos residents regarding a recent string of crime and safety incidents, how Nextdoor™ was used to help, and how it has exposed communication deficiencies and opportunities between the police and the public. In an effort to resolve or eliminate some of these communication deficiencies, Santa Fe Hills residents have urged the San Diego County Sheriff to take closer look at each incident as it was played out on Nextdoor, and to begin using (or at least try) the Nextdoor City Program.
To better understand the story and the background of the story, below is a summary of Nextdoor™, the Nextdoor City Program, and examples of how it has been used during recent crime and safety incidents.
Nextdoor™ is a private social network for specific neighborhoods, apartment buildings or groups of streets. It’s similar to Facebook, but the information discussed is only visible to verified residents of each neighborhood. (All members must use their real names and verify that they indeed live in the neighborhood in order to join). Because this platform offers the ability to easily communicate to hundreds of actual, verified neighbors, it opens the door to a myriad of opportunities that no other platforms offer. Nextdoor™ has been used to organize neighborhood potlucks, 15-home garage sales, security events, business recommendations, free items, locate lost pets… and most importantly, it’s helped us stay safe and fight crime. Nextdoor is available by web, iPhone and Android devices.
Nextdoor City Program
The Nextdoor City Program is an add-on to Nextdoor that allows the local police to send messages to specific Nextdoor neighborhoods, and for residents of those neighborhoods to communicate back. This program is free for the police, free for the public, and is already being leveraged by Police departments across the country, including the San Diego Police Department.
A Few Examples of How Santa Fe Hills Has Used Nextdoor During Crime & Safety Incidents
Over the past couple of months there have been several crime and safety incidents in Santa Fe Hills that have prompted the police helicopter, ASTREA, to circle the neighborhood while making announcements over the PA. Because so many active neighbors have joined the Santa Fe Hills Nextdoor™ network, it is the first place that many of us go to whenever we hear ASTREA overhead. Neighbors all across our large 1,850 home neighborhood are able to discuss everything that is happening in real time. This type of active, real-time, neighborhood-exclusive network is relatively new, so the insights learned during these incidents are somewhat eye opening. It’s exposed major areas of improvement and new opportunities regarding communication between the police and the public, that if improved, could keep us safer and help us better fight crime.
For example, during these recent incidents…
- A lot (most?) of us could not make out what the police were actually saying over the ASTREA helicopter PA.
- No other alerts were sent out about these indents (no reverse 911, no Nixle, no Social Media….), except in one case in which additional alerts were made over two hours late.
- Real-time information and assistance from neighbors who are already spread throughout all corners of Santa Fe Hills could have be leveraged by the police to assist in their search.
- Potentially harmful misinformation was spread, which could have been avoided with better communication from the police.
(Note: The police are already using tools that could be better leveraged, or enhanced, to reduce some of these communication issues. For example, a more consistent and speedy use of Nixle, a louder PA, and shorter non-emergency line hold times. However, if they took advantage of the free Nextdoor City Program, these communication problems could not only be eliminated, but new opportunities could present themselves.)
Below are three recent incidents to showcase examples of how Nextdoor was used and how it could potentially be used (via the Nextdoor City Program) to improve communication and to keep us safer:
- 8/1/14 – Missing man with dementia during extremely hot weather: Sometime in the morning a man with dementia roamed away from his house and could not be located by his family. After the police were notified by the family, they sent the ASTREA helicopter to look for him. The police announced over the PA a description of the missing man, but it was extremely difficult for us to understand. Some of us heard.. “female wearing flip flops”, “asian male with flip flops”,”middle eastern male… armed”, “elderly with flip-flops”, “call 911”, “black”, “brown”…. It was confusing for most and stressful for some. Eventually, because some neighbors were listening to the police scanner, we were able to piece together an accurate description. Several neighbors immediately began looking around their yards, streets and parks. Some neighbors spent hours looking throughout the entire neighborhood and open spaces. Because of Nextdoor™, we were able to coordinate with one another, narrow our searches and avoid overlap. If the police were observing our conversations, and possibly even engaging in the conversation, they could have learned and/or shared information that could have helped locate the missing man much sooner. All of this is possible with the Nextdoor City program. The image below is a screenshot of the Nixle alert that was sent out over two-hours after the confusing helicopter PA.
- 7/26/14 – Stolen car (1): Everybody on Santa Fe Hills Nextdoor was alerted about a stolen car on 7/26. The next day, 7/27, ASTREA flew around our neighborhood saying something on the PA. Most of us could not understand what it was saying. Some heard “stay indoors, black male, call 911”. Some heard “call 911”. One heard “Looking for white male, spikey hair, black clothing with face piercing suspect in stolen car. White female, tall and thin with black clothing and young juvenile with curly hair. If seen call 911”. Piecing together this information, along with the info heard on the police scanner, along with somebody getting through to the non-emergency line, and best of all, somebody sharing an actual photo of the suspects, we finally realized what was going on. If the police were able to communicate the actual ASTREA message to us on Nextdoor, there would have been less panic and confusion. Additionally, Nextdoor makes sharing important photos like this much more likely and efficient.
- 7/2/14, Missing (or wanted?) 16-year old girl: During the evening of 7/2/14, ASTREA flew around Santa Fe Hills looking for a missing, or wanted, girl, but nobody could tell for sure what it was saying. Most of us could make out that they were searching for a girl, but none of us knew whether she was “missing” or “wanted”… or dangerous? Eventually, through Nextdoor™, a neighbor shared her name and photo. A few people claimed to know the family. Somebody created flyers with her photo saying “missing”, and provided more info about the family. The flyer began to physically spread around the community and digitally on Facebook. Being that she was a minor, and nobody had any official information.. this could have all just been a hoax. Was it really the girl in the photo? Was she missing or wanted? Was she dangerous? Was it appropriate to post signs about a minor? At least one neighbor called the police non-emergency line to inquire about the situation and to explain the dilemma of whether or not sharing this hearsay information was appropriate. The police could not answer any of the questions, but promised a call back with more information… but they never did. If the police would have been on Nextdoor, this situation would have been resolved immediately. Who knows what damage was or could have been caused with all of the confusion and potential mis-information going on… all due to the indistinguishable police helicopter and lack of information/guidance provided from the police.
With the new insights learned from Nextdoor™ during these incidents, several residents have suggested that the San Diego County Sheriff and the local San Marcos station give the Nextdoor City Program a try, at least with Santa Fe Hills as a pilot neighborhood. We believe that if used consistently, it will greatly improve communication between the police and the community. So far San Diego County Public Affairs Director, Jan Caldwell, already said NO. However, she refuses to meet, talk on the phone, or even address any of the examples mentioned above. It is unclear how she reached the NO decision.
However, San Marcos Captain, Scott Ybarrondo, has offered to take a closer look, and to continue a conversation regarding the improvement of public communication in general. To be continued…