Have you ever gone for a ride on a Tweet-Along? Every 2 weeks, the Arlington (TX) Police Department (APD) invites its more than 3,000 Twitter followers on a virtual ride-along, giving them a glimpse into police work in real-time. In December 2011 for example, Chief Theron Bowman tweeted from the car of a DWI Task Force, posting text and photos to raise awareness about driving while impaired, and responding to citizen feedback. One virtual ride-along provides a cost effective way for APD to forge relationships and share information with citizens they might not otherwise have met.1
Tweet-Alongs2 were just one of many methods for ‘doing more with less’ illustrated by panelists at the 2012 COPS Conference workshop, Budget-Conscious Alternatives to Police Service Delivery. Moderated by Dr. Gary Cordner of Kutztown University (PA), the workshop featured presentations by Daniel McCasky, Division Chief of the Lakewood (CO) Police Department, Acting Chief Will Johnson of the Arlington (TX) Police Department, and Luther Krueger, Crime Prevention Analyst of the Minneapolis (MN) Police Department.
Arlington Police Department also operates a Live Online Chat with Police Officer service, which is monitored by the department 22 hours a day and offers the dual benefit of reducing calls for service and allowing citizens to communicate with the police department directly. Between January 1 and June 30, 2012, the department logged more than 1,600 chats occurring. When you consider that the cost to send an officer to a citizen is about $100 per contact, the cost savings add up quickly.8 Services such as the online chat open additional lines of communication with citizens who are eager to learn and share information with the department. Other online services, which cost little and save a lot, include online Accident Report retrieval, Real-Time Traffic Calls Online, and Real-Time Jail Inmate List, all of which mitigate the need for police dispatch and staff time to provide the information to individuals, while still providing services in a timely manner.
In his discussion of Differential Police Response,3 McCasky kicked off the workshop by describing the budgetary context that led to Lakewood exploring new ways to deliver services that were historically delivered by sworn police. As McCasky explained it, “The money just wasn’t there to send a cop to every call.” In 2008, Lakewood PD created full-time civilian positions of Community Service Officers (CSO). The CSOs enabled Lakewood PD to offload non-emergency service requests previously handled by sworn personnel, such as taking police reports for car break-ins and other cold property crimes. Lakewood also found untapped resources within their own community by training volunteers to staff the front desk and found-property pickup, work with the motorist assist program, assist the property/evidence unit, assist the cold case unit, participate in the volunteer surveillance team, and help with numerous city events, such as the Colfax Marathon, and the Pro Challenge Cycling Race. With 100 volunteers logging in anywhere from 13,500 to 15,000 hours of service a year, volunteers have become an integral part of the department’s budgetary strategy and key resources for citizens. Lakewood’s response alternatives also include Internet crime reporting, using part-time employees, shifting patrol deployment schedules, and using a policy of verified alarm response. In 2011, Lakewood PD saved an average of 11,552 hours in sworn officer time using differential police response.
Krueger offered another alternative scenario when he pointed out that Minneapolis police need not wait for community leaders, or even the handlers, guardians, or managers of the crime triangle, to appear at their doorstep. Through its E-Crime Alert Subscriber system and GIS mapping capabilities, the Minneapolis Police Department can identify potential citizen partners that reside in areas suffering from chronic crime and disorder problems. By mapping crime hot spots and identifying whether crime alert subscribers exist in those hotspots, police can proactively solicit citizen block leaders to partner on crime prevention efforts. Using this virtual block club system, the MPD expects to have organized and selected block leaders for 3,400 of the 3,700 city blocks in Minneapolis by 2014. In addition, the city’s robust 311 non-emergency call system has diverted more than 50,000 calls for low-level/no-suspect crimes4 from their 911 emergency system since its launch in 2006, reducing the number of police dispatched for non-emergencies and keeping them available for true emergencies.5 Combined with the E-Police Report system, 311 and e-government services provide citizens with calling alternatives to report suspicious activity, report stolen property and other non-emergency crimes, and request crime reports.6
Once mainly used to perform clerical work, volunteers for the Arlington Police Department are given the tools, training, and monitoring needed to conduct preventative patrols in designated areas. Volunteers are further integrated into daily police work by inviting them to attend daily briefings with sworn officers. Through the C.O.P Mobile program, community patrol volunteers are provided with clothing and vehicles that make them easily identifiable within the community, serving to expand the visible presence of the APD. Citizens are aware that these volunteers are trained to contact police if they view suspicious activity or crimes in progress. According to the APD, the use of online services, volunteers, and C.O.P. Mobile saved the APD budget a total of $259, 262 in the first 6 months of 2012!
The panelists emphasized that the key to successfully using these budget conscious alternatives to police service delivery, such as volunteers and online services, was transparency and education. That is, if police educate citizens on how they are changing police responses to calls for service, such as the move toward taking telecrime reports for cold property crimes or instituting a Verified Alarm Response program, police can change the expectations of their citizens on what police service delivery looks like. A change in expectations can increase acceptance and citizen satisfaction of the new approach.
For example, the APD posts their CAD data online in real time as a means of increasing transparency. In addition to educating citizens on the types of calls for service police respond to in a given day, Real-Time CAD Online affords citizens an opportunity to share information with police about crime occurring in a specific location. APD notes that CAD online is their most visited web page, accounting for 40% of all page views.7
In their quest to buttress waning budgets, these agencies, intentionally (and sometimes unintentionally) seem to have expanded services to citizens, rather than limited them. When asked whether it was a risky move to take a proactive approach to social media and post realtime data, such as CAD, online, Assistant Chief Johnson’s reply was “We are in the business of risk. Every time we walk out on the street, we’re taking a risk. This is a risk we think is worth taking.”
2 In July 2012, the 2012 Best of Texas Most Innovative Use of Social Media Award was presented to the Arlington Police Department Office of Communication by the Center for Digital Government recognizing the department’s Tweet-Along program.
3 See “Déjà vu all over again”: Meeting the Challenges of Funding Cuts in Patrol Operations” Subject to Debate, Police Executive Research Forum newsletter. Vol. 2, No. 12. December 2008, at www.policeforum.org/library/subject-to-debate/2008/STD_Dec08_v3.pdf, for a discussion o f Lakewood CO PD’s Differential Police Response strategy.
4 Non-emergency crimes Include Simple Theft or Car-Break-in/Thefts-from-Motor-Vehicle; Damage to Motor Vehicles/Property; and ID/Credit card/ATM Fraud calls among others.
5 In FY03, the COPS Office awarded Minneapolis funding to establish their 311 system under the “311 for Homeland Security and Crisis Management” program. For more about Minneapolis’ 311 system, see Building a 311 System: A Case Study of the City of Minneapolis.
6 From January 1 to June 30, this page had 2,473,722 views. Calls for service same time period: 78,030.
7 The cost to rent the site is approx. $1620 and $135/month to host.
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