Online -- and in the Loop -- With D.C. Police

Kent Boese, 44, is one of many Washington residents who make use of D.C. police e-mail lists to stay in touch with officers and to stay up-to-date on neighborhood crime. Police in other cities across the country are communicating online with the public.
Kent Boese, 44, is one of many Washington residents who make use of D.C. police e-mail lists to stay in touch with officers and to stay up-to-date on neighborhood crime. Police in other cities across the country are communicating online with the public. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Kent Boese was watching television in his Northwest Washington home when he heard a series of popping sounds. So he did what has become natural to thousands of D.C. residents eager for up-to-the-minute information about crime in their neighborhoods.

He sent an e-mail.

"Does anyone have any details about the shooting that just happened on Quebec near Park Place not more than 30-45 minutes ago? Thanks, Kent."

Boese, 44, sent the note to neighbors, to D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and to Inspector Jacob Kishter, commander of the 3rd Police District substation in the neighborhood. Kishter replied 75 minutes later, at 11:11 p.m. on a Monday night, and copied his note to the 809 subscribers of the substation e-mail list. He gave the location of the shooting, the number of victims -- two, a man and a woman -- and said the victims were on the way to a hospital.

"The matter is currently being investigated by Third District Detectives," Kishter wrote.

Police departments that once treated information technology as an internal tool for tracking crime are opening up to the public, inviting them to join online discussion groups, participate in social networking and even help solve crimes.

Residents in Madison, Wis., can sign up for e-mails from their local police districts. In Los Angeles, residents can sign up for a program called e-policing, and officers will send them electronic newsletters about crime trends and other police issues.

"We're evaluating the use of Twitter. That's coming down the line," said Los Angeles police Lt. Rick Banks, who leads the online unit.

U.S. Park Police use a blog to post crime bulletins and ask the public for tips. When a 13-year-old boy went missing on the Mall, Sgt. David Schlosser, a department spokesman responsible for keeping the blog current, posted the boy's photo and asked for help. When the boy was found, Schlosser posted an update at 12:45 a.m.: "Thank you for your help in closing the case."

By using technology to inform the public, police departments are bringing officers closer to the people they serve, in part by demystifying the policing process, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Research Executive Forum.

"There's greater interaction, greater communication, and things can get done in a very timely manner," Wexler said. "The only real downside is managing expectations. Just because someone can send an e-mail doesn't mean that the problem will get fixed."

Police in the District, along with Loudoun, Prince George's and other Washington area counties, offer crime-mapping and other tools on their Web sites. But in the District, online conversations between officers and residents appear to be the way police use technology to reach the most people at one time.

There are eight online police discussion groups in the District, one for each of the districts and a substation. The discussion groups have grown each year since they started in 2004, and more than 7,000 people are signed up. All of them send out a daily crime report and a daily listing of arrests. Some will occasionally provide advice in response to residents' concerns about particular crimes, such as car break-ins or street robberies.

The exchanges, which are mostly about crime but can delve into such topics as trash pickup or rats, often prove useful to "lurkers," including government officials who need to keep up with constituent concerns.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) will often answer a resident's question about an abandoned car or vacant property.

"I try to make sure that the police give them the information they need," Bowser said. "Often they post a question to the police, and I can make sure that all the resources of the government can be brought to the problem."

The format has the support of top leaders in the department, including Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who keeps at least one BlackBerry tethered to her hip, subscribes to all the lists, and sometimes participates in the discussions. Local police commanders often post news about a high-profile arrest or promise to follow up on issues of importance to their neighborhoods, such as a string of burglaries or stolen cars.

Cmdr. David K. Kamperin of the 1st Police District said he constantly monitors traffic on the station's 1,600-subscriber e-mail list and forwards messages to his lieutenants so they can address crime concerns.

On a recent Saturday morning, Kamperin posted a note about an arrest in the shooting death of a 16-year-old boy. He named the homicide detective who "worked the case tirelessly" and secured an arrest warrant one day after the shooting.

Later that day, a resident responded to Kamperin's note. "Good job MPD- 1D!"

"It can be time-consuming," Kamperin said of keeping up with the online discussion groups. "But it's important because we can share information in real time."

On the night he heard gunshots, Boese tried to find out what was going on the old-fashioned way. He went outside and talked to neighbors. But they knew nothing. He walked closer to the scene, but the yellow police crime-scene tape prevented him from seeing anything.

Boese went back home, sent his e-mail and got an answer.

"I think a public statement that soon was excellent," Boese said.

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