Detroit Police Partners with Nextdoor on “Virtual Neighborhood Watch”

The San Francisco-based social media platform for neighbors, Nextdoor, held a press conference in Detroit yesterday to announce a new partnership with the Detroit Police Department. According to Chief James Craig, Nextdoor will serve as another tool to connect Detroit residents with the police department.

“I like to think of it as a virtual neighborhood watch,” Craig said when describing Nextdoor. “The safest neighborhoods in Detroit are those that are connected and active. We launched our neighborhood policing unit last year, and Nextdoor ensures the department has a way to communicate with people in the neighborhoods.”

Similar to Facebook, Nextdoor is a free social networking platform where neighbors can talk to one another about nearly anything. Nextdoor’s co-founder, Sarah Leary, said popular topics include yard sale announcements, calls for contractor referrals, lost pets, babysitting requests, and crime and safety tips.

Nextdoor has had a presence in Detroit for about four years, Leary said, and 120 of the 180 neighborhoods in the city are already participating, representing “tens of thousands” of users. In total, Nextdoor reports there are 85,000 neighborhoods across all 50 U.S. states on the network. The relationship with the Detroit Police Department took root after the Nextdoor team met Chief Craig at an International Association of Chiefs of Police conference. Other cities using the website to increase communication between law enforcement and residents include Oakland, San Diego, and Charlotte, NC.

“Detroit residents want to be part of the solution, and want to be part of building thoughtful communities,” Leary said.

Nextdoor launched in 2011, and Leary said she hit upon the idea after realizing there was no specific place online where neighbors could socialize. “We had Facebook for friends and family, LinkedIn for work, but no easy way to talk to your neighbor—and that’s a really important community in our lives,” she explained. “I saw the opportunity to use technology to help bring us back in touch with our neighbors. People have good intentions, but it’s difficult to make time in our busy lives—we just needed an easier way to connect. Nextdoor acts as an ice breaker, and I like to call it the modern-day front porch.”

Leary said Nextdoor is organized online into private networks by neighborhood, and only neighborhood residents are permitted access to the site. Nextdoor vets potential members a few different ways: after they sign up, it sends activation codes by snail mail; it does reverse look-ups on the phone numbers of potential members; and it cross-checks addresses on the credit card statements of potential members. Nextdoor also restricts access to households belonging to sex offenders.

“We find that neighbors know who’s supposed to be there and who’s not,” Leary said. “It’s a community effort.”

Information shared on Nextdoor is password-protected and cannot be accessed by Google or other search engines. Leary said police won’t be able to see conversations between neighbors unless they’re invited, a layer of security she called essential to creating trust.

“We protect the privacy of our members,” she added. “Law enforcement officials need to go through the normal legal channels if they want to access that information.”

When asked if neighborhood police officers would be required to make profiles and post on Nextdoor, the Detroit Police Department responded over e-mail: “Our neighborhood police officers address quality of life concerns within the communities in the city of Detroit. … NPO’s will have an opportunity to post information about events, crime prevention, and safety tips.”

The department already uses Facebook and Twitter to increase community engagement and, sometimes, track suspects. When asked more specific questions about the kinds of technology tools the department uses in its crime-fighting arsenal—drones and targeted data, for instance—the department declined to comment, saying it didn’t want suspects to be privy to that kind of information.

Latisha Johnson, who lives in the East English Village neighborhood and is an active member of Nextdoor, shared a story at the press conference that highlighted how the website can be used to help fight crime.

“I am extremely proud of how far we’ve come with Nextdoor,” she said. “Three weeks ago, a teenager from the neighborhood went missing. We posted the information on Nextdoor and he was found within hours. I look forward to getting more residents to join us in strengthening our relationship with neighborhood police officers.”

Chief Craig said that’s exactly the kind of interaction he likes to hear about, though he stressed that Nextdoor should not replace 911 or Crime Stoppers as a means of reporting crimes.

Nextdoor, which has 119 employees, is a venture-backed company that has raised roughly $200 million to date; investors include Kleiner Perkins, Redpoint Ventures, and Benchmark Capital.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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