NEW YORK (TIP): The New York Times reports that the New York Police Department has faced its share of pushback on social media, most memorably when it solicited photos of police interactions on Twitter under the hashtag #myNYPD. Images of aggression by officers upended that campaign.
Now, the department is seeking to turn New Yorkers’ penchant for online complaints to its gain by crowdsourcing their concerns. It has even consulted another sector troubled by social media gripes – the airline industry – to become more responsive to problems voiced online.
“They’re very good at managing customer complaints,” said Zachary Tumin, deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives and leader of the department’s social media efforts, who visited Delta Air Lines’ Atlanta headquarters this month. “That’s an area we need to explore.”
The department’s fleet of commanding officers has found its footing on Twitter in recent months, using the site to herald arrests, announce transportation delays and spread information about suspects. Now, the officers are planning to use that online visibility to draw ground-level information on crimes and conditions, a potential boost to a department seeking to align its “broken windows” crime-fighting objectives with local communities’ needs.
In a pilot program starting next month in the 109th Precinct in Queens, police officials will use a platform called IdeaScale to solicit tips and concerns from residents. The platform, which some government agencies have used internally as a brainstorming tool, promotes the posts that other users agree deserve attention.
In that way, officials argue, the police will be able to look beyond departmentwide priorities and focus on concerns that resonate in smaller communities.
“If this works,” Mr. Tumin said, “it could be a very important tool for precinct commanders around New York to solicit crowdsourced issues that communities want us to address – graffiti, or bikes that are abandoned or still locked after a cruddy winter.”
Police officials caution that the new tool will be implemented slowly, as the department works to balance easy access for residents with controls on irrelevant or sensitive information. At first, only a few thousand residents in the 109th Precinct – which includes the neighborhoods of College Point, Flushing and Whitestone – who have given their email addresses to community leaders will be invited to join.
As an example of the kind of feedback the police are looking for, Deputy Inspector Thomas Conforti, the precinct’s commanding officer, will ask residents to submit suggestions and concerns about the police academy that recently opened in College Point. He said he has heard people quietly worry about the lack of public transportation and the potential for clogged traffic. IdeaScale, he hopes, will make that conversation more accessible while lifting residents’ most popular ideas to his attention.
“We could establish a platform that allows residents to specifically let us know what their concerns are, and what their problems are, and gives them the opportunity to communicate with us without leaving their rooms,” Inspector Conforti said. “That’s what we anticipate this platform will be able to do.”
He added, “We’re going to tailor our nonemergency police response to it.”
Inspector Conforti was among the inaugural class of the department’s commanding officers to join Twitter, a decision that he credits with making residents less intimidated about bringing him their concerns. Recently, he said, he sent a team of officers to a schoolyard where all-terrain vehicles had been revving their engines, an issue he would not have known about had a resident not written to him on Twitter.
But, he added, while Twitter makes it easy to spread information, “it’s not necessarily a great platform to have an interactive conversation with people,” a deficiency he hopes IdeaScale will address. Residents’ comments will be visible to anyone from the same precinct who has joined, making it a more sheltered platform than Twitter, but still unsuited for personal concerns.
It helps the precinct’s cause that a vocal segment of residents in this largely blue-collar area of Queens already feels comfortable collaborating with the police. Chrissy Voskerichian, the community council president in the precinct, said many people are eager for aggressive enforcement of quality-of-life crimes.
The precinct is also exploring opening an official account on WeChat, a social media application popular among Asian immigrants.
While that project faces steeper technical hurdles, Mr. Tumin said it reinforced the department’s effort to reach people who tend to be more hesitant to contact the police. He said a department survey last year showed that as many as half of women in some Asian immigrant communities who had been the victim of crimes had never reported them.
“That means we’re going to learn about new problems, and be prepared to put resources into fixing them,” Mr. Tumin said.
Geng Hang, 44, who runs Red Apple Employment Agency in Flushing, said she has had mixed feelings about the police. She recalled when officers rebuffed her and a group of friends who were trying to report a woman missing; they discovered days later that the woman had been found deadalong a riverbank.
“This would allow us to have a very convenient way for us to communicate with the police,” Ms. Geng, speaking in Mandarin, said of the new initiatives. “We could then consult them on all sorts of legal issues. And not only that, so many people don’t have time because they are so busy working and they spend a lot of time going back and forth to the precinct for very small matters.”
Even as they said they welcomed new channels for collaboration, residents questioned whether the department was prepared to solve the inevitable technical hiccups on platforms like IdeaScale, and whether it was ultimately a tool for reinforcing police priorities or giving an outlet to those who feel alienated.
But Inspector Conforti said he would seek out criticism, posting questions on IdeaScale about specific enforcement tactics on issues such as overnight commercial parking.
“Everyone likes to think the N.Y.P.D. has all the answers,” he said.
“Sometimes, we might be missing something.”