Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
The neighborhood social network’s new app is aimed at public agencies, and it lets local law enforcement more easily tap into the online community.
In September, a man carrying a machete and a crowbar walked into the Chapel of the Holy Hill in Sedona, Arizona, and started destroying things. He turned out to be a follower of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy group behind the 2016 “Pizzagate” shooting, as The Daily Beast later reported. His vandalism rampage was captured in photos and video by tourists; hours after the incident, the alleged attacker was arrested by police.
How did the cops close in so quickly? Sedona police chief Charles Husted credits Nextdoor, the neighbor-to-neighbor social-media platform. Within 20 minutes of the incident, Husted posted an “urgent alert” with a photo and description of the suspect on Sedona’s Nextdoor account. That post swiftly circulated through the city as neighbors shared it, reposted it on other social media platforms, and sent it to their friends. Soon, a shopkeeper who’d been sent the post by her mom realized she’d seen the man in question—and called 911. “It was perfect,” Husted said.
This wasn’t the first time Husted leaned on Nextdoor in his police work. As an officer at the Sacramento Police Department from 2013 to 2019, he’d used the platform to keep the community informed and build trust. When he moved to Sedona last year, he immediately pushed the department to create a Nextdoor account, he says. And a few months ago, he started beta-testing the company’s newest product: a mobile app tailored for local governments.
That’s how Husted posted his Sedona-wide alert for the machete-wielding QAnon assailant—right through his smartphone.
The new Nextdoor for Public Agencies app, which launched publicly on February 12, enables police and fire departments, public schools, and City Hall agencies to post updates, push out alerts geo-targeted to reach specific neighborhoods, and read their messages on the go. “It allows the public agency folks to be in the field, be engaged in an incident, and share info quickly as needed,” said Husted. He calls the new app a “game changer.”
For Nextdoor, the feature brings another tool to what has proved to be one of the social network’s most compelling use cases: crime monitoring. Launched in 2011 as a Facebook-style social network built on actual physical proximity and real-world relationships, Nextdoor is a variation on neighborhood listservs and homeowners’ groups, offering a digital stage for the holiday celebrations, sidewalk sales, lost-dog alerts, and the random grievances of urban and suburban living. City agencies equipped with public Nextdoor accounts can also publish community event alerts, deliver extreme weather warnings, and launch public education campaigns. But the site is also well known as a clearinghouse for neighborhood drama: Nextdoor’s many eyes-on-the-street fill the site with reports of car break-ins, suspicious characters, and other local-level threats.
Such citizen reports are increasingly being directed to the responsible municipal agencies. Nextdoor’s “Forward to Police” feature, for example, was introduced in 2016, allowing users in participating jurisdictions to send crime and public safety reports directly to law enforcement.
With the launch of this new app, Nextdoor is making its alignment with public institutions more explicit. “Neighbors turn to Nextdoor every day to find trusted, relevant information about what’s happening where they live,” said Tatyana Mamut, Nextdoor’s head of product, in a statement. “Now, our agency partners can send information to their constituents with the tap of a button anywhere and anytime—even when they are away from their desk, after hours, or in the field.”
For years, public agencies using Nextdoor requested such a feature, Mamut told CityLab. The company’s new partnership push also reflects a broader and more controversial trend: Private tech companies are forging stronger relationships with police departments.
Nextdoor is already a valuable social media ally for public agencies, Mamut says. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, agencies don’t have to first collect followers to get their message out, and Nextdoor allows them to target their posts to specific neighborhoods. Site members are prompted to confirm their address via postcard or landline, so agencies have more assurance that they’re sending and receiving relevant info to and from real people who live where they say they do.
Updates about development projects, safety, and preparedness get a lot of engagement on the site, Mamut says, along with missing person alerts, community meeting times, and school closing announcements. But it’s hard to ignore the overall prominence of public safety chatter. Yesterday, for example, the first post on the Crime and Safety page for San Francisco’s Noe Valley described an encounter with a man who rang her doorbell “under the guise of looking for someone named ‘Wendy,’” who she felt was “casing the house.”Another post stoked suspicion about a man strolling up the street, “taking photos of all the license plates of the parked cars.” There’s a blurry picture of a guy with a backpack, and a question: “Any idea what he’s up to?” Some neighbors accompany their posts with photographs of suspects or video clips from Ring doorbells, and pleas to call 911 if the perpetrators are spotted again.
As a recent Atlantic feature by Lauren Smiley detailed, Nextdoor can inspire informal neighborhood watch groups: The story recounts how several San Francisco homeowners banded together via the site to nab an alleged package snatcher. But Nextdoor has played down the role its crime-spotting features play. Sarah Friar, Nextdoor’s CEO, told Smiley that only 5 percent of posts are slotted into the app’s Crime and Safety category. Mamut says Nextdoor’s intent is to facilitate the sharing of “positive, engaging” good news, not just reports of local misdeeds.
Police officers are unable to view any of these posts through their department view of the site, which means they can’t scan the platform for public safety concerns like a mini-blotter (unless they they make personal accounts). But there are other ways of getting in touch. Police departments can receive direct messages from users, and non-emergency numbers and the street address for the local police department are prominently featured on many communities’ Crime and Safety pages. When users post about a crime on the platform, neighbors are usually quick to encourage the poster to formally report it, Mamut says.
With the help of Forward to Police, it’s easier for users to heed those suggestions. In neighborhoods where the feature is activated, any post uploaded onto Nextdoor’s Crime and Safety tab can be sent directly to a local police department’s Nextdoor message inbox—but only by the original poster. The platform’s new Public Agencies app expands the Forward to Police feature by allowing departments to access these messages from mobile devices.
“This feature is just streamlining all of that and allowing, with a very simple ‘click click,’ to forward that post to the police,” Mamut said. “We take the approach that proactive safety and preparedness and positivity is a better way for law enforcement … to engage with local communities than just reactively, when something bad happens.”
Mamut wouldn’t share how many police departments in the 1,000-plus cities and 11 countries worldwide in which Nextdoor operates are currently using Forward to Police. All departments are eligible, and several California jurisdictions, including Ventura, Chico, Glendale, and Los Altos, appear to have activated the feature; so have Mobile, Alabama, and Richmond Heights, Missouri. DCist reports that Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department formalized its relationship with the app in January.
Emily Graves, a community outreach specialist for Ventura’s police department, says that she checks the agency’s Nextdoor inbox frequently and usually receives one to two messages per day. Most concern suspicious activity or loitering, and she rarely sends officers to the scene just off of a Nextdoor complaint. “If someone were to send us a message in reference to loitering or a homelessness issue, we’d give a few tips on how to respond and then encourage them to call the non-emergency number,” she said. “We do follow up on everything people send us.”
The effectiveness of Nextdoor’s use in community policing isn’t clear. In its marketing materials, the company draws a correlation between department platform use and crime reduction. “In just one year, [the Sacramento Police Department] grew their Nextdoor membership from 10,000 to over 20,000 residents, which was accompanied by a 7.7% reduction in crime and a 30% decrease in shootings,” a case study document reads. The stat appears to come from a 2013 article, in which Sacramento’s then-chief of police Sam Somers said that the crime drop “is partly a result of new crime-prevention programs that began this year,” including Nextdoor. Carl Chan, the Sacramento Police Department’s Public Information Officer, said this week that Nextdoor serves a valuable public engagement role. “In general, our crime stats, they’re fluid, and there’s a lot of things that affect them,” he said. “It would be hard to say it’s solely because of Nextdoor.”
Civil rights and privacy advocates have expressed concerns that Nextdoor’s growing integration with law enforcement could fuel more “broken windows”-style policing, spurred by amateur police reports that use the language of a social media post and reflect a skewed vision of a city. Despite efforts to tamp down on racial profiling using algorithmic moderation, Nextdoor is still criticized for facilitating vague, racially coded, or racist posting.
Streamlining the process of crime reporting down to a click can also end up escalating minor complaints that wouldn’t otherwise be deemed worthy of police involvement, says Rachel Thomas, the founding director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco. As routine police checks can turn deadly, the stakes of calling even a “non-emergency” law enforcement hotline can be high. “I’m concerned about the general trend of these murky or opaque private-public partnerships with police or other core government services that were traditionally more publicly managed,” she said.
Chris Gilliard, an English professor at Macomb Community College who researches digital privacy, makes a similar point. “Surveillance often encourages ‘solutions’ that far outstrip the level of the infraction,” he recently wrote in Urban Omnibus. “[T]he existence of footage—the fact that people have potentially actionable evidence they feel compelled to use—turns a minor instance of vandalism into a situation involving law enforcement.”
Such concerns have been fanned by news that Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera service has partnerships with more than 750 police departments across the country. In August 2019, Vice reported that Amazon has been helping officers view Ring footage without warrants. Amazon makes it easy for police to ask Ring owners to send along recordings, GovTech reported, regardless of whether the subjects being filmed have offered their consent.
“When we get into the private world … Fourth Amendment protections might disappear,” said Brian Hofer, the chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission and the executive director of the nonprofit group Secure Justice.
Clips from Ring doorbell devices are a Nextdoor staple, but the company has no plans to develop its own camera hardware, Mamut says. “We take our members’ privacy very, very seriously,” she said. “We are committed to making sure that neighborhoods are strong and resilient and that neighbors get to choose what info they share.”
Husted says that he understands the worry that using Nextdoor might encourage the over-reporting and enforcement of smaller crimes. During his time in Sacramento and now in Sedona, he saw how the platform helped restore confidence in local law enforcement among residents who were “tired of calling dispatch and having officers take a long time to get there, if at all” in response to quality-of-life crimes.
He stresses that Nextdoor is good for more than just calling the police. He’s been able to use it for fostering better community-police relations, and for better inter-community relationships. ”Not all things that get reported as problems in the community have to be a police response: There are other strategies that can be brought to bear,” he said. “It’s really empowering people to take some ownership in their space.”