By J.D. Velasco, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Original publication date: May 21, 2011
Glendora, Calif. — From his computer, Richard Irwin can see all the crimes and incidents being reported to the Glendora police.
Irwin, 68, isn’t a police dispatcher and he wasn’t sitting in the police station. He’s a Glendora resident and was using a computer in the city’s library on Friday.
“I figured now and then there was something going on,” he said. “I didn’t realize there was all this.”
Irwin was referring to a newly-launched feature on the Glendora Police Department’s website. Now anyone who has access to a computer can see the calls that come into the police department in almost real time.
Irwin admitted he had never even looked at the police department’s website before Friday, but he said he’ll visit more often now.
“You can kind of see what’s going on – the activities,” he said.
Kristy Snyder, 23, another Glendora resident, hadn’t heard of the feature either, but she said she was interested.
“Oh my gosh,” she said. “I hear sirens all the time, and it’s like `What’s going on?”‘
Glendora police Chief Rob Castro said that’s the question the live-calls feature aims to answer.
“I’m a firm believer in trying to inform and educate the public about what’s going on,” he said.
That attitude is a change for the Glendora police. Castro said he decided something needed to be done after the department received a very negative review a few years ago from Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group.
Castro said keeping the public informed about police activities serves two purposes.
On one hand, he hopes it will reduce the work load for his employees. If people can see why a police helicopter is circling overhead with a few mouse clicks, they’ll be less likely to flood police dispatchers with calls asking `why,’ so the thinking goes.
“I’m just trying to save time,” Castro said. “We’re all trying to do more with less.”
On the other hand, it satisfies people’s growing appetite for non-stop information.
To that end, the department has also created its own online crime-mapping system. Castro said there are also some big changes in store for the website, including an online log that shows whom the department has arrested.
“This is the age that we live in. People really want to know,” he said.
And the Glendora Police Department isn’t the only agency responding to that need. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has taken a huge leap into the Information Age in the past year and a half.
Cpt. Mike Parker of the sheriff’s Headquarters Bureau said the Internet and social media have opened all kinds of new avenues for the sheriff’s department to interact with the public.
He said because different demographic groups get their information in different ways, the department needs to be flexible in how it works. Some people watch TV news, some prefer email, and some get everything on a smart phone. Parker wants to cover all the bases.
One of the department’s more popular features is its Nixle feed. Subscribers to the service can receive alerts and stories via email, and perhaps most importantly, by text message.
“Seventy percent of the U.S. population does not have a smart phone,” he said, adding that text messaging can be invaluable during an emergency or disaster.
To date, about 32,000 people have signed up for the service, the highest number in the country, according to Parker.
Parker, who runs a Twitter feed for the department, said he plans even more of an online presence in the near future. A sheriff’s department Facebook page is in the works, along with a YouTube channel. There’s also been talk of developing an Internet browser tool called Crimeview Community, which would let people search for and sort crimes that may be happening near where they live.
And he’s hoping to develop “hyperlocal” web pages for the individual sheriff’s stations.
Though there are plenty of advantages the online technologies offer to law enforcement agencies, Parker said they can also make the job of policing more complicated.
One of the challenges law enforcement faces, he said, is the advent of people who listen to police activities on a scanner and tweet everything they hear.
“It’s almost like some citizens are self-appointing themselves to be dispatchers,” he said. “They’re putting it out in real time. Some people show up and interfere.”
Another problem is that initial reports are not always accurate, and the people doing the tweeting sometimes get things wrong.
When there was recently a report online of gunshots fired, all sorts of rumors began flying on Twitter, he said.
“We quelled that quickly,” he said.
Police also are having to learn to contend with crimes made possible only because of social media, such as cyber-bullying and cyber-terrorism.
“It is a huge challenge to keep up with the technological advantages,” he said. “It’s much like changing out the engine of an airplane mid-flight.”
But as long as the public demands to be informed, he said, the department will try to meet that need.
“It is extremely important to the sheriff that our agency be open and transparent,” he said. “That is what the public wants and we serve the public.”
“What we are doing is gradually, step by step, speaking to people on the channels they operate on,” he said.
About the Author
Contact J.D. Velasco at firstname.lastname@example.org or 626-962-8811, ext. 2718