There's an app for everything these days — and now the Toronto Police Service is using technology to modernize how it serves the public.
Last August, the TPS released Toronto Police Service Mobile, an application that allows smartphone users to find the nearest police station, report crimes, get safety alerts and tips, and connect with neighbourhood and virtual police officers, among other features.
"We're trying to be on the forefront of innovation," says Cst. Jeff Stager, a TPS neighbourhood officer. "It was just a natural step to make everything more accessible."
More than 6,000 people downloaded the app in its first week — an impressive number considering it's tailored solely for the Toronto area, says Ritesh Kotak, the app's project manager. The greater Toronto area is home to roughly six million residents, 10,000 of which have now downloaded the app.
"It allows communities to engage and use the latest technologies that they're on 24-7, especially millennials and residents," says Kotak. "If we hadn't done it, that would be a cause for concern."
The TPS is a pioneer for many police services in Canada, with a well-established online and social media presence. The new mobile app adds to its digital arsenal, which already uses Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to connect officers with the general public.
"It's easy for people to put the app on their phone," says Stager. "It gives a name and a face to reach out to if they have questions."
Stager's job is to patrol the same area, all day, every day. He has his own Twitter and Facebook accounts to connect with residents and make him more accessible to the people he protects. Now, Torontonians can also connect with him through the app.
"Boots on the ground help to deter crime on the streets and it's the same for the Internet and cyberspace," he says. "If people know we're online, they're less likely to commit crimes."
The app can also be helpful for educators and students, with whom Stager works on a daily basis. Abbass Champsi, a guidance counsellor for the Toronto District School Board, says the app has the potential to become a major resource for youth.
"When things are urgent, there are police stations and the Kids Help Phone, but it's nice to know there's an alternate service available to the students," says Champsi. "I think this can help increase familiarity with the law, and it can empower students."
He also stressed the importance of having police available to young people. Neighbourhood officers such as Stager have improved contentious relationships between youth and police in Toronto. The app is a new approach to help break down those barriers even more.
"It's the most effective way of communicating with people today, especially our younger generation," says Champsi. "Everyone is always on their phone, so police need to be there to be accessible and approachable."
Texas-based MobilePD developed the app for the TPS. The company launched its app-making services for police in 2009 with the Santa Cruz Police Department in California.
North of the border, Victoria Police Department in British Columbia was the first Canadian agency to get an app in 2013. Since then, 50 agencies across the U.S. and 10 across Canada have commissioned apps from the company.
App features vary from agency to agency, depending on what an area needs.
"We developed some features specifically for TPS," says Jamieson Johnson, vice-president of business development for MobilePD. "Toronto was unique because they had specific requirements that we had never done before, like a tool to connect with their neighbourhood police officers."
The ultimate goal of the app is to help police officers better fight crime in their municipalities. Some areas have seen a 300 per cent increase in tips to police, and a 100 per cent increase in the number of reports filed, according to MobilePD.
Feedback from Torontonians has been positive so far, says Kotak. The TPS plans to work with MobilePD to update the app on a regular basis — tweaking what's already there and adding some new features.
"If you don't have an informed public they won't help you," says Kotak. "They won't be part of the solution."