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Case study: A PD’s social media solution to community relations

The Redwood City Police Department has added Nixle to an already-robust social media strategy which already includes Facebook, Twitter, and CodeRED


A Redwood City (Calif.) police officer watches as smoke billows from a fire in May 2011. Now that the department has deployed Nixle, city officials wishing to issue a “shelter in place” order for an affected area such as this one can do it simultaneously via text, email, and online.

AP Photo File Photo

Redwood City (Calif.) is a suburban jewel which lies almost exactly halfway between San Francisco and San Jose — the two cities at either end of Silicon Valley — where residents are more technologically savvy than most people you might find in a city of similar size elsewhere in the country. Many of the people who live there are somehow involved in one high-technology industry or another, and as a consequence, the police force is always looking for ways to harness technology in its interaction with the 76,000 people they serve.

For several years, the PD has been fairly successful at leveraging social media tools to distribute information which presents their 90 or so sworn police officers in a positive light — something the TV stations in San Francisco and San Jose are not likely to go out of their way to do. In addition to all the good work the department has done so far in the area of social media community relations and communications, they’ve taken another step forward with the official unveiling of its new Nixle offering.

“We first started using Facebook and Twitter back in 2010,” said Redwood City Police Captain Chris Cesena when we spoke via phone late last week. “We built that all up and we always knew that Nixle was out there, but we weren’t quite as familiar with that system as we were with Facebook and Twitter and posting press releases on our website.”

Constantly Striving for More
Even as the department was doing a wealth of great work on those existing social media sites, they were taking advantage of the CodeRED system from Emergency Communications Network. Throughout, though, they were also quietly looking into all the ways in which Nixle could take their efforts to a totally new level.

“What we found Nixle could do for us is that it could reach large quantities of people within our community — and even outside of our community — very easily, and also automatically post our messages onto Facebook and Twitter. It also is able to send out information to specific groups, based on the content of the information.”

Currently, almost 5,000 government agencies nationwide have adopted Nixle for real-time communications with residents, and more than 700,000 citizens have signed up to take advantage of the service. Because the Nixle system is ‘opt-in’ on the part of the citizen user, agencies can be assured that when they issue information, it is going to the specific people who want — and/or need — to get it. For example, Cesena explained that for their upcoming Independence Day parade and fireworks celebration the PD will be using Nixle to send out real-time information via text messaging to community members and visitors who have previously signed up to subscribe to updates on that event.

“If during the parade, we have a missing child,” Cesena said, “we can send that information out. If we have a crowd problem where we have to let an ambulance through, we can get that information out. All of a sudden we’re using a group text messaging system that’s very convenient to reach large quantities of people for a specific event.”

That One Terrible Day
Just about any parent will tell you that the phrases “missing child” and “terrible day” are pretty much interchangeable, but here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the specter of a major earthquake is always looming in the background. Every public safety entity with a 250-mile radius has built that one terrible day into just about every element of ongoing operational policies and procedures. It’s no surprise, then that Redwood City Police have folded into their disaster planning the use of Nixle to help keep their citizens informed in the event of a major catastrophe.

“I think this will integrate really well. I think that once things have settled down [following an initial earthquake event], everybody is going to have a million questions like ‘What roads are closed?’ We want to be able to push out information like, ‘Don’t go here, don’t go there, turn off your gas.’ Those basic, safety-related reminders related to earthquakes — anything related to us being able to better do our jobs. We also want to be able to ask people questions. While Nixel itself is not a two-way communications tool, we want to be able to push out the fact that, if there’s something out there that’s going on, let us know. Let us know by calling 911. Let us know by hitting us on Twitter.”

Just circling back to the issue of protecting our children for a moment, I asked Cesena about another issue about which I am particularly passionate — active shooters in America’s schools.

“Regarding a Columbine-type incident,” Cesena replied, “I think it’s the same thing. It’s about pushing out information to keep people away from the scene. But also if all of a sudden you have a school that’s locked down — those teachers are taught to dive into an office or a room and barricade it to protect the children — we need to be able to monitor information coming from inside the school... It might be, ‘I’m in this room and I’m trapped and I hear gunshots.’ They may be doing that via text messaging, and we have to be able to monitor all that so we can then use that information to deal with the situation.”

All Policing is Local
Turning bad days to good — or at least somewhat better — days is part of what police work is all about. People don’t call the cops when they’re having a good day, after all. They call 911 when something is very much not right in their world, and they’re pretty much expecting the officers who show up to “fix things” right?

Those people who call in are in what you might correctly consider a “hyper-local” focus of attention. The burglary on their home. The assault across the street. The prowler in the neighborhood. At the moment they dial 911, those callers are not particularly concerned about what’s happening 30 miles to the north or south.

As has been mentioned, Redwood City is almost exactly in between San Francisco and San Jose. When Redwood City PD does something to address one of those hyper-local events, the TV stations in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose won’t cover it. But that doesn’t mean those citizens can’t get an update via Nixle. With Nixle, individuals can sign up to get whatever information they want.

“That’s a great tool for us,” Cesena said, “because when we go to community meetings and take phone calls and see people on the street, they’re concerned about what’s happening in Redwood City, in their neighborhoods.”

While the department has been dabbling with the system for the better part of a year, the PD just “announced” its use of Nixle last week. Soon thereafter, Cesena and his small team pushed out a number of updates on a wide array of issues which would be of interest to the community. They’ve given citizens some excellent tips and tools they can use to prevent themselves from becoming the victim of a burglary, for example. They issued a notice of then-upcoming increases in DUI checkpoints to take place on March 17th (gee, I wonder why they chose THAT night for such an effort!). They furnished interested citizens with information on the latest events being put on by the Police Activities League.

The Future is Now
Obviously, social media is huge — a lot of people are using it in their personal lives as well as in their professional lives — and will only get bigger.

One day — no one can really predict when — there will come a ‘tipping point’ at which people communicate far more via social networking tools than they do via telephone. Any objective observer would agree that in some communities, among some individuals, and in some parts of the world, this threshold has already been crossed — see only the “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy” protests for ample evidence to support that argument.

“All agencies will need to realize that people are going to start to communicate [with public safety] via the tools that they’re most familiar with at that time. If you start having phone lines going down, if there’s a way to do it through social media, they’re going to use that. All police departments need to start realizing that it’s not going to just be business as usual. We need to have somebody monitor these things because otherwise we might be missing a lot of good information or cries for help through a medium that we’ve never had to deal with before,” Cesena concluded.

I’ve attended the annual APCO Conference for the past several years, and in each instance there has been and increasingly-noisy discussion about how call centers, dispatchers, and public safety agencies in general will deal with this coming transformation. So far, I have yet to hear a suggested solution which can be easily implemented across the board for all agencies, but it seems to me that Nixle is a significant step in a direction that makes serious strategic sense.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.