How do you intelligently rebuild an organization after several years of budget and staffing reductions? How do you effectively and efficiently mobilize communities to keep their neighbourhoods safe and reduce crime? How do you foster the connection between police officers and neighbours?
The answer to these questions for The Sacramento Police Department (SPD) was geographic policing, a revamped neighbourhood watch program and Nextdoor, a free and private social networking service for neighbourhoods in the United States.
In 2013, the SPD faced these challenging questions and began the process of rebuilding with a new strategic vision. The cornerstone of this rebuilding effort was the operational transition from a standard team policing model to a geographic policing model.
From 2008 to 2012, the Sacramento Police Department budget was reduced by 30 per cent. This resulted in the reduction of more than 200 civilian support positions as well as elimination of 180 police officer positions by attrition and two years of layoffs. These reductions significantly hampered the SPD's ability to provide the same level of service and engagement with the community.
In February 2013, the chief of the Sacramento Police Department, Deputy Chief Sam Somers Jr., embarked on the journey of rebuilding the organization. The first major initiative he adopted in an effort to move towards the newly developed departmental vision to make Sacramento the safest big city in California was geographic policing.
Geographic policing is the embodiment of the department's core principles of partnership, prevention and intervention, professionalism and community protection and ownership. At its simplest, geographic policing involves long-term assignments of officers to well-defined regions of the city to enable them to build relationships with residents and community organizations.
The geographic policing model breaks the city into smaller, more manageable pieces and flattens the organization. Previously, patrol command captains were responsible for operational decisions and community engagement efforts for large areas that encompassed a multitude of neighbourhoods.
Under the geographic policing model, lieutenants at each patrol command have been given responsibility for specific districts within their service area. In other words, the geographically assigned lieutenant has become the "chief" of his or her designated areas.
Empowering lieutenants, sergeants and officers to implement problem-solving strategies and take ownership in their areas are key components of the model. Another critical piece of the geographic policing model includes a purposeful and genuine effort by all involved to create meaningful community connections with residents, schools and businesses in their neighbourhoods.
In support of and conjunction with the geographic policing transition, the SPD sought out technology solutions that would enable the organization to greatly expand its ability to communicate online with community members.
After extensive research the department decided that Nextdoor was the perfect social media network to advance community engagement and geographic policing. Nextdoor allows neighbours to talk to each other about the topics that are important in their own communities.
Early on in the development of Nextdoor, crime and safety emerged as common themes among many neighbourhood posts. This led the company to begin partnering with law enforcement agencies and cities and counties.
The Nextdoor platform for government users allows public safety agencies to target communication to geographically distinct areas within their jurisdictions. This ability has perfectly supported the SPD's geographic policing efforts.
Moreover, Nextdoor connects neighbours to each other, which fosters a sense of community and empowers residents to have responsibility for the safety of their neighbourhoods. In the "new normal" of limited resources, it is important for residents to take an active role in keeping their neighbourhoods safe — and connected neighbourhoods are simply safer.
In a little more than the two years since the SPD adopted Nextdoor, the number of users in the department has increased to more than 100.
Geographic sergeants, lieutenants and captains can post a message, event or urgent alert to any one or combination of neighbourhoods in their assigned areas. Nextdoor lets an agency get the message out, in a concise post that will reach far more residents than more conventional community meetings.
When pairing Nextdoor with traditional neighbourhood watch meetings as part of a robust community program, an agency can engage the community on a higher level. The relationships that begin on Nextdoor continue in person and allow the community to get to know each other and their SPD officers personally. This engagement helps the community feel connected to the SPD and helps keep Sacramento communities safer.
SPD officers on Nextdoor can and do share a variety of information with the community on a daily basis. The posts can range from highlighting a crime series in one area with tips on how to avoid being a victim, promoting a Cops and Coffee event being held in a neighbourhood, or announcing a major arrest on a serious crime that impacts the whole community.
Nextdoor can be used in emergency management as well. During critical incidents, urgent alerts can be sent to update the community on suspect information, weather conditions or shelter and evacuation information. This information can be shared by law enforcement, or at a higher level by the individual city or county division responsible for that information.
One of the common misconceptions regarding Nextdoor — and most social media for law enforcement — is that it increases work load. But in reality, the opposite is true. It allows agencies to multiply their community reach in one concise and consistent message.
There is far less monitoring necessary than many other forms of social media. Since Nextdoor is a private social network, law enforcement does not have the ability to see daily neighbourhood postings made by users. Instead, agencies can post information to their communities and neighbours can respond to those posts or send that departmental user a direct private message.
Social media focus
Today, law enforcement agencies that are not on social media are missing a critical opportunity to engage their communities online. It is incumbent upon agencies to make their presence known on social media, to create a following and to condition the community to monitor their postings.
The unique aspect of Nextdoor is that all of the users are verified Sacramento residents with whom officers are communicating. It allows agencies to not only engage communities but to tell their own stories — something that doesn't always happen in mainstream media.
Much of what is done today in social media is dictated by the speed with which online reporting and even citizen reporting develops during a critical incident. Law enforcement is often placed in a position on social media to post information to counteract and correct misinformation or partial information. Today, issuing a holding statement on social media that acknowledges an incident is occurring is every bit as essential during critical incidents as press conferences.
As a public safety agency, the social media following you build today allows you to reach more people with routine public safety information than ever before. And by fostering that following, you develop and maintain online relationships that will help support the agency in times of crisis.
After five rough years of budget cuts, service reductions and layoffs, restoring the SPD to 2007 staffing levels will be a long and tedious process. The SPD will look much different than it did five years ago, and it will be a leaner and more nimble organization.
The SPD's commitment to geographic policing and community engagement is paying dividends. The ability to reach out and communicate directly with residents has increased dramatically. In June 2013, there were 1,500 Nextdoor existing users in Sacramento and today there are nearly 44,000.
Whether sending a message to all 44,000 users or one impacted neighbourhood, this targeted messaging allows the SPD to not only engage daily with the community but to open up a line of communication whenever it's needed. This new line of communication has directly led to crimes being solved and suspects being arrested.
The SPD firmly believes that connected communities are safer communities and the use of Nextdoor as an additional communication medium has helped market and expand the agency's neighbourhood watch groups and boost its community engagement.