Years ago retailers used a “calling tree.” If a suspicious person came into a store, an employee would call to alert other stores in the neighborhood.
Today, the Internet is taking this idea to another level, says Professor Robert McCrie from John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Department of Security, Fire and Emergency Management.
Through blogs, crime mapping sites and other digital tools, residents are communicating and learning about crime in their own neighborhoods. Online they can often find more on local crime than they can from traditional sources, such as news outlets or neighborhood association meetings. And websites and other digital tools are an efficient way to identify and monitor crime patterns—and bring attention to the authorities.
Electronic crime watching, or “e-watch,” as McCrie refers to it, has changed how both community members and law enforcement learn about crime. With watch patrols under scrutiny after the killing of 14-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, these kinds of efforts may gain momentum.
“We are already quite connected now and this connectedness has helped reduce crime,” he says.
For example, says McCrie, he recently heard about a woman who interviewed over the phone for a babysitting job. Afterwards, she received several messages from the person, saying that she was hired, and she would be sent a check in advance. But after the last message, she figured out it was an advanced fee fraud. She then went on her blog and warned people about this scam.
McCrie also says that smartphones have become a great crime-watching tool. “The amount of video information that members of the public can collect with their smartphones now is having a real impact on crime mitigation. Just anyone with a smartphone can be a crime fighter,” he says. And this information can be given to the police.
The New York City Police Deparment has a unit that can take images that are not so good, like ones taken on a smartphone, and make them better, he adds.
The NYPD declined to comment on the value of these digital tools when called, but requested that The Brooklyn Ink send an email. We are waiting for a reply.
Though, like most information online, there’s a possibility that misinformation could occur, says McCrie. “Somebody who has a gripe against another individual could use this means to anonymously get the individual in trouble.”
But law enforcement knows that they can’t take every bit of information they receive on face value, he says. And they know to treat crime reports with both interest and skepticism.
Here are five different digital tools that are used locally and nationally to communicate about crime, and how they are bringing the concept of neighborhood watch online.
Errol Louis, a Crown Heights resident and political anchor at NY1, started Save Brooklyn Now!, a blog, as a way to keep track of emails that DCPI, the Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, sent him.
Around 2006, when he was a crime columnist at the Daily News, he started posting those emails, which give information about crimes, the missing or the wanted, on a blog.
But other people found his blog useful. Today, Save Brooklyn Now! is still mainly DCPI reports, but also has other crime related information, such as an event for a local community group that stands up against violence, Save Our Streets Crown Heights. His posts concentrate in the precincts around where he lives—the 71st and 77th (Crown Heights), 79th and 81st (Bedford-Stuyvesant), 73rd (Brownsville) and 88th (Fort Greene/Clinton Hill).
By putting accurate information online, Louis’ blog is a reliable, convenient place to read about local crime.
The problem with relying on news reports to learn about crime, is that what’s reported isn’t consistent he says. And often there isn’t enough, data, such as specific addresses.
People who may miss neighborhood association or precinct meetings, where more local information about crime is often communicated, can go to his blog for updates.
But online crime reporting can lead to misreported information, and since the information on his blog comes from the DCPI reports, it’s a “form of rumor control,” Louis says.
This local blog and forum is a place where Brooklynites can go to post messages about almost any subject. Posts are divided by neighborhood and topic—and often discuss something crime-related.
For example, a poster in the Prospect Heights section of the Brooklynian forum started a new thread in October: “I’ve been living at Washington Ave & St. Marks since June, and last night this together-looking guy with glasses stopped me between Vanderbilt and Underhill on Prospect Place, and told me his mother had a stroke and crashed her car, and he needed a few bucks. All I had was a 20 and hearing the words ‘mother’ and ‘stroke’ put me in some kind of sympathy trance and I gave it to him!”
The writer then added a link to a video showing this same man being caught on film six years ago, making a similar plea. She added this title to her blog post: “The Prospect Heights con artist is back.”
More recently a person last month posted about a thief who stole their iPhone on Fourth Avenue and 5th Street in Park Slope, warning people to be careful about walking around with their smartphones on the street.
Lawrence Quigley, a Prospect Heights resident, uses Brooklynian and believes it helps people become more aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood. But he admits that it isn’t perfect, and residents need to use it cautiously.
Brooklynian is anecdotal, “It’s a double edged sword, ” says Quigley. Although before sites like Brooklynian, residents would know about things just sporadically, people can get too caught up and develop a sense of fear, he says.
Things can get distorted. Once a cop told me that ‘It’s like two old ladies talking over the fence,’” he adds.
Nation of Neighbors is an online community network that allows neighbors to share crime and other community concerns.
Founder Art Hanson first started with the site Watch Jefferson County. A resident of the West Virginia county, he created it around early 2005 with just 30 people as a crime mapping site. Around the end of 2009, he launched Nation of Neighbors.
Today it has 500 neighborhood groups, about 50,000 users, and about 12 counties that have an involved police presence with the site, and a mobile app is in the works.
“There had been a number of burglaries in my neighborhood and I had talked to the local sheriff about trying to set up a neighborhood watch, and I found out that my community already had a neighborhood watch, officially, but nobody went to meetings, nobody knew who was in charge,” says Hanson.
“The benefit of doing it online is that you don’t necessarily have to have those monthly meetings. You don’t have to work as hard to maintain the personal connections because should something come up you still have your network in place electronically,” he continues.
Once signed up on the site, you can search for an existing group in your neighborhood, or and can create your own. You select on a map where you want the boundary of your group to be, and whether it’s public, open to anyone who lives in the selected area with approval or no approval, or private, where you can only join by invitation.
Individuals, community groups and law enforcements use Nation of Neighbors, and can receive email or text message alerts about crime reported through the site, or from participating law enforcement.
Some communities also use it as news sharing source in place of a neighborhood website. They post things such as local events and minutes from community meetings.
This crime mapping site started in Baltimore in 2007, and now is in most major cities, as well as the United Kingdom and Canada. Today, it’s the most visited crime-mapping site in the United States, says founder Colin Drane.
Drane created the site because he wanted to know where crime was occurring in Baltimore, where he lives, a place that historically has been a high crime city, he says.
There’s a “significant appetite from the public to know what’s going on around them,” he says. And maps can be a more informative way of looking at crime, rather than just reading or hearing about it.
On the site, you enter your address and a Google map of your neighborhood comes up with the pinpointed location of the crimes. Each offense has a different graphic to symbolize it—such as a burglar dressed in black for a robbery, and a closed fist for an assault.
People can also sign up for email alerts. Block captain and neighborhood watch people often sign up for these alerts.
The site gathers the crime data from a number of sources—information released from the police, news media and reports sent in directly to the site from individuals.
Though, Drane points out, the site only receives a small number of reports straight from users. For cities where police regularly release data on specific crimes and location, this is mainly where the information comes from. For example, in Chicago, anyone can go online and look up crimes by location.
New York City, says Drane, is one of the most closed cities when it comes to releasing data on specific crimes. The NYPD releases statistics on types of crimes in each precinct, but not individual reports. SpotCrime often uses local news sources to map crimes in the city.
Still, Brooklyn is one of the top 10 places visitors to the site come from, says Drane, both because of its size and its interest in looking up local crime.
This app, available for iPhone, Blackberry and Android platforms, was developed by the Community Safety Institute, which oversaw the White House-mandated redevelopment of the national Neighborhood Watch program.
Costing $1.99, it allows users to report any non-emergency crime from their smartphone, with or without photos. These reports are linked to a local police department.
It also has neighborhood watch tips and training videos.
“We believe strongly in providing our volunteers with robust, easy-to-use tools to help them report and stay informed. The NW App is our latest tool and is designed for those volunteers who are on-the-go in their communities,” it says on the app’s website.