The social-networking site is helping Seattle’s cops dive deeper into the communities they serve—but the platform can stoke neighborhood paranoia and social stigma.
It was the ideal proof-of-concept and a PR coup: a New York Times article that described how the Seattle Police Department used Nextdoor, a community-based social-networking site—a mini-Facebook just for your neighborhood—to find the owner of a stolen camera that officers had recovered. One officer posted a photo of the camera on Nextdoor, and a local user realized it was the same one in a Craigslist lost-and-found post he’d recently clicked on. Soon, the camera and its owner, a photographer from Louisiana, were reunited.
Sean Whitcomb, the department’s public-affairs director, says the camera’s owner sent the department a king cake—the traditional Mardi Gras delicacy from New Orleans—as a thank you.
Launched in 2011, Nextdoor allows neighborhood residents to connect with one another online, sharing classified ads, notices about nearby events, and observations and warnings about crime trends. The platform has the potential to bring out the best and worst in communities—it brings neighbors closer together, but can amplify their worst fears—and its focus on neighborhoods makes it a particularly valuable tool for law-enforcement agencies that want to understand the concerns of particular areas in a city.
The Seattle Police Department’s foray into Nextdoor is a product of its broader attempt to reconnect with the community it serves after being placed under a Justice Department consent decree in 2012. A federal investigation the year before had uncovered a pattern of excessive violence among officers, and the resulting report expressed “serious concerns about biased policing.”
To be more transparent, the department took to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to push out information about crimes, events, and the agency itself. Twitter is the department’s primary communication tool, Whitcomb says—and indeed, its account has a disproportionate number of followers for Seattle’s relatively small population, trailing only Boston’s and New York City’s much bigger police departments.
But Nextdoor is more private and decentralized than Facebook or Twitter, and so when Nextdoor approached Seattle Police in 2014, the department saw an opportunity to engage with Seattleites in a different way. The department waited until there was a critical mass of Seattle residents on the platform—about 20,000—before diving in. “It’s not our place to promote platforms,” Whitcomb says. “It’s our place to go where people are having conversations.”
Public-agency accounts like the Seattle Police Department’s work a little differently than individual Nextdoor user accounts: Public employees can post to community pages, see replies to their posts, and message privately with individuals—but they can’t see the rest of the chatter on a community page, or read private messages that users have sent to one another. Seattle Police is one of the larger of the 1,400 public agencies—mostly police departments—on Nextdoor.
Seattle’s department encourages precinct officers to maintain a presence on the community pages for the neighborhoods they serve. The initiative is an example of what the department calls “micro-community policing”: an attempt to use hyper-local data to customize its approach to law enforcement. Officers can alert residents to crime trends, ask for feedback on policing initiatives, or simply introduce themselves and encourage neighbors to say hi to patrolling officers.
After a honeymoon period, however, Seattle’s relationship with Nextdoor hit a few bumps in the road.
This February, Nextdoor hosted Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole for the first-ever online “town hall” on the platform: Residents asked the police chief questions and had a chance to hear directly from her. But when local journalist Erica Barnett reported on the event, Nextdoor booted her from the site for violating its terms of service for publicly posting users’ questions. It wasn’t until after she wrote about the incident on her website that her account was reinstated.
Barnett’s reporting was fiercely critical of the echo-chamber effect of the local, private community pages, many of which have hyperactive “crime and safety” sections. Indeed, in a recent interview with Barnett, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray derided an atmosphere of “paranoid hysteria” he’d witnessed on the message boards of some of Seattle’s more upscale neighborhoods.
That hysteria, Barnett reports, tends to focus on complaints about property crimes and homelessness. That’s because some of the most active communities on Nextdoor are in Seattle’s wealthier areas. “The neighborhoods where most of the social-media complaints are coming out of are not even the neighborhoods that have significant crime problems, which tend to be our communities of color in the south part of the city,” Murray told KUOW, the local NPR affiliate, in February. “If it’s simply about creating a sense of paranoia or if it’s about stigmatizing folks in our city that are struggling, then I have to think about why we’re in that kind of partnership.”
(Nextdoor says that nearly one in five Seattle households have signed up for the site, and that 98 percent of neighborhoods are represented. According to the company’s estimates, 70 percent of Seattle’s Nextdoor users are white and 7 percent are African American, stats which mirror Seattle’s demographic makeup quite closely.)
This isn’t just a Nextdoor problem: Any private forum has the potential to become a hotspot for exclusion and marginalization. It happened in Oakland, where white residents routinely posted warnings on Nextdoor about suspicious people for no apparent reason other than that they were black, according to a feature published last year in the East Bay Express. And it happened in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where business owners profiled black shoppers, sending descriptions and secretly snapped photos of “suspicious” individuals to a private GroupMe thread. And before platforms like GroupMe and Nextdoor, the same sort of things happened on Facebook or neighborhood email listservs or just meetings behind closed doors.
Nextdoor’s co-founder and CEO, Nirav Tolia, said in an emailed statement that divisive and discriminatory conversations are “counter to our mission, and we will continue to evolve the product to make sure that members use Nextdoor in constructive ways.”
But even if Nextdoor does give megaphones to a certain kind of resident to make a particular type of complaint, Whitcomb says the police department treats it as just one of many platforms for communicating with Seattle residents. He emphasizes that the information that his department publishes on Nextdoor isn’t exclusive to the platform, and that it balances the feedback it receives on the site with the responses it gets from Twitter, Facebook, and in other venues.
“It’s no different than us attending a community meeting and providing public-safety information,” Whitcomb said. If community meetings have been replaced by Nextdoor conversations, he says, “we have a responsibility to use it.”
That said, there probably won’t be another Nextdoor town hall anytime soon. “We gave it a shot with the best of intentions, but clearly our platform was not designed to facilitate this kind of event,” Tolia said.
Jacqueline Helfgott, the chair of the criminal-justice department at Seattle University, has been leading an independent audit of the Seattle Police Department’s micro-communities policing program. Over the phone, she raved about the program, which she called the first of its kind in terms of both how it’s implemented and the way it’s being evaluated.
She said that one of the program’s central goals—the dissemination of a city-wide public-safety survey—was executed in a way that was conscientious of the biases on Nextdoor. Although that platform was the survey’s main launchpad, research assistants armed with tablets descended on homeless camps, food banks, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center to elicit a broader set of responses. Helfgott says preliminary results are due in the coming weeks, and a final report will come out next January.
But now that the police department’s Nextdoor debut is nearly a year and a half old, Whitcomb is looking for the next platform to jump on. Instagram is in the works, he said. But first: an AMA on Reddit.
This article originally appeared on The Atlantic.