Police in Washington set up just such a program in November and already 9,000 people, most of them business owners, have signed up to receive the messages. I think it's a great idea in that it both helps the cops get suspect information out quickly and keeps citizens informed about what's going on.
I hear constant complaints from people who didn't know until weeks later that the person who lives down the block had her house burglarized, or that someone had been shot on the corner, or even that a rapist was attacking women in Mount Vernon and Charles Village.
People want real-time crime information and with the city police already on Twitter and Facebook, and crime maps available on-line, it's a logical next step for department to alert residents about crime almost as soon as it occurs. Already, you can text in tips to Metro Crime Stoppers and many universities send out text alerts about crime.
Washington got help with a $800,000 federal homeland security grant that helps pay for its text-messaging program and ones in other jurisdictions in Virginia. It obviously costs money and would need to be fine-tuned for Baltimore. I'm told the mayor's office is exploring the idea that came up in a resolution filed earlier this week by Baltimore City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
The Washington Post wrote a story on the DC's Metropolitan Police Department's initiative and here is some more information provided to me from DC Police and their program heads, Doug Jones and Patrick Le Foch:
While apprehending criminal suspects is certainly one of the goals of the program it is not the sole purpose or “final” metric by which the program is evaluated. To date there have been no apprehensions as a result of the program, however, there is no doubt that apprehensions will occur because the program is using the same proven procedure that the police currently use to apprehend suspects.
When MPD issues a lookout for a robbery suspect, this information is relayed not only to MPD members but is now being passed on through DC Police Alert to members of the public in the Police Service Area (PSA) where the event occurred. This effectively expands the lookout audience and adds a multiplier effect based on how many users are registered for the program in the area where the event occurred. Members of the public that have relevant information to share are asked not to take action but to call 911. DC Police Alert is currently focused on the success factors listed below and on increasing public involvement because the probability of someone providing useful information to the police increases with the number of program participants.
The major goals of the program include: Safety of business and community members; knowledge of events in their community through active engagement with MPD; deterring crime - The more eyes on the street, the less likely a criminal is to attempt something illegal; assisting MPD with suspect apprehensions; increasing registrations on Alert DC Mass Notification System (e-mail, text, pager).
This program engages the community and prompts community members to change their involvement from “passive” only receiving summary reports and watching local news to “active,” signing up to receive alerts and participate in lookouts for their areas. Using police acronyms and sending the lookout detail in real time raises the community members’ sense of involvement in the policing of their own business district and neighborhood.
There are multiple success factors that have been targeted the three primary factors are:
Time - this separates the Police Alert message from all other information flowing to the users. Our goal is to get the alert out in sixty minutes or less. The more timely the message the more relevant the message is to users and police. MPD launches the alerts within 10-20 minutes of the event, alert is delivered seconds later.
Description Quality - it is vital to users and police to have a high quality description of the suspect(s) and/or vehicle. Lookouts with poor description quality should not be sent as the likelihood of an arrest declines and they contribute to user message fatigue.
Geography - the alerts should be sent to a focused geographic area, the closer the users are to the incident the more they will feel “involved” and be more likely to pay attention and participate in the program. Alerts that do not apply to a users immediate geography also contribute to message fatigue.
There has been a very positive response to date, thousands of fliers and decals have been distributed through Business Improvement Districts, Main Streets Initiative and other Business Organizations. Last week one of the businesses noted a robbery in their block by way of the alert and a community outreach officer. The officer explained what the incident was and that business took precautions by advising their customers. It was a robbery in which an individual was withdrawing money from an ATM. There were no injuries.
Businesses are displaying the police alert decals in their store fronts. MPD patrol officers are now armed with marketing materials to help drive the participation in the areas they patrol. There is a city-wide initiative among all Police Districts to push this information into their Police Service Areas.