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Redwood City’s Social Media–Savvy Police Force

Chatting up a cop in real time.

 

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Not long ago, a developer complained to Redwood City legislators about all the money and time that he was wasting by sending employees to City Hall—in person—to pull permits. Police chief J.R. Gamez overheard him, and the words resonated. Even customers of Land’s End, he thought, can interact with a company representative via video chat. Why not bring that to government?

So he did. In 2012, with the help of the Danish communication company Netop, Gamez created the nation’s first video chat–a–cop program—and officers, generally those nursing an injury and on desk duty, began interfacing directly with the public. From a community-relations standpoint, the program is a success, but Gamez points out that its impact has been more substantive than simple PR: Thanks to the work of a handful of cops who wouldn’t have been on the street in any case, he has noticed a 30 to 35 percent reduction in in-person service calls. When minor matters like neighborhood disputes or follow-up calls are shunted to video chats, full-duty officers are freed up to handle emergencies and 911 calls. “It allows you to use your officers in a more effective way,” Gamez says.

Now Gamez is moving ahead with plans for a “Videochat 2.0” program, in which citizens’ queries will be piped directly into patrol car onboard computers. He is also an evangelist for Nixle, a Twitter-like San Francisco–based service that allows government agencies to deliver phone and Internet messages directly to subscribers. Nearly 3,000 users subscribe to the Redwood City Police Department’s Nixle stream: In one instance, a disoriented older person was located by a subscriber who received a Nixle message within 13 minutes of the initial alert. According to Gamez, social media is “the wave of the future” for law enforcement. His department even has a Pinterest site on which photos of recovered merchandise are displayed. Images of a distinctive bracelet recovered from a suspect’s trunk in 2014 led to multiple tips and the eventual return of the item to its rightful owner, who had lost it during a San Jose break-in—in 1983. “The traditional way of doing things, where a detective gathers information on his own or through collaboration with other agencies, is a thing of the past,” says the chief. “Social media allows us to reach people we would never have thought about reaching. This is what smart policing is all about.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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