The electronic handshake: reaching out to citizens.
Law enforcement agencies have discovered that they can use personal computers to enhance their ability to serve their communities. Many departments use computers for writing reports and accessing wanted and warrant information. Some departments can process and store fingerprints, mug shots, and other offender profile data. And, increasingly, law enforcement agencies use computers to nurture their relationships with citizens.
While some agencies have chosen to maintain sites on the World Wide Web, others have elected to reach out to their communities using computer bulletin boards. This article details the history of computer bulletin boards and explains how law enforcement agencies can start their own bulletin boards and use them as public relations tools.
ELECTRONIC BULLETIN BOARD HISTORY
During the adolescence of personal computers, a group of computer users emerged who made a hobby of seeing exactly what their computers could do. Known as "hackers," they quickly learned that by using a device known as a modem, their computers could "talk" to one another over the telephone lines. Occasionally, the other computers belonged to private corporations or government agencies.
While some of these early hackers lived for the thrill of gaining access to supposedly secure computer systems or top secret files, most were content to explore, with permission, computers belonging to other hackers. Finally, they decided to designate one computer as a central collection point for all of their messages. That computer became known as a bulletin board system, or BBS.
Business owners quickly saw the advantage of using a computer to provide information about their products and to allow customers to correspond quickly with sales and repair representatives. No longer just for hobbyists, the computer bulletin board earned a legitimate place in business and, eventually, in government.
In the beginning, the federal government used computers mainly to correspond with other government agencies, not with the public. Soon, however, many agencies began using computers to provide information to the public. Some of the government agencies with their own computer bulletin boards include the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Defense, State, and Justice.
Local police and sheriff's departments soon realized that they could use their office computers to call some of these national bulletin boards. Then, a few enterprising local law enforcement agencies started their own bulletin board systems. Unlike the nationwide systems, they did not expect thousands of computers across the country to start calling their computers to see what was happening in their small towns. Rather, they hoped that community residents might call to exchange information with their local police departments, an electronic community policing program, so to speak.
Today, several law enforcement agencies throughout the country operate bulletin board systems. They offer a variety of services, both for their communities and for their own officers.
STARTING AN ELECTRONIC BULLETIN BOARD
Police officials interested in reaching out to community members through electronic bulletin boards need not feel intimidated. Establishing and maintaining a BBS require neither great technical know-how nor major investments of time or money. In fact, only three basic pieces of hardware - a personal computer, a modem, and a telephone line - and bulletin board software are needed to operate a BBS.
An electronic bulletin board can run on any type of personal computer; however, most use IBM-compatibles. Although a BBS computer can communicate with different types of computers, mismatched systems may not be able to realize the full benefit of the bulletin board's features. The computer should have a hard drive, and all computers sold today do. For an agency starting a new BBS, even a hard drive as small as 100 megabytes will suffice, although storing files for users to download requires a larger drive.
The modem represents the lifeline of any BBS. It allow users to insert a telephone line into the computer to communicate with other computers. Some computers have built-in modems; others require an external modem, which plugs into the computer's serial port. A relatively fast modem (28,800 bits per second, also known as "baud rate") costs under $100.
Although the BBS feasibly could share a phone line with an office telephone, this might confuse callers and would require running the BBS only after business hours. To get the most mileage from a BBS, a separate analog(1) phone line works best. It allows computer users to call 24 hours a day without interfering with other incoming calls.
Bulletin board software makes the modem work and runs the BBS. This software can be purchased commercially or obtained from other bulletin boards through a system known as "shareware."
Shareware allows users to obtain the software free for a trial period. If they like the software, they must register it, which requires paying a nominal fee to the person who developed it. Though much less expensive than commercial software, shareware often works as well or better.
The best way to select BBS software is to talk to other people who run bulletin boards in the area. To find these system operators, or SysOps as they are called, agency personnel can check the technology section of the local newspaper and talk to managers of computer stores. Often, the best way to find a system operator is through an existing computer bulletin board. Of course, one of the department's officers might be able to provide assistance.
System operators love to talk about computers and probably will offer a great deal of free advice. They even might be willing to help set up the BBS for the department. While these computer experts may prefer a particular type of BBS software because of its power or enhanced features, novice users should ask which program is easiest to set up and run.
Once a department has decided on a particular software program, the next step is putting it on the computer, a process known as installation. Instructions that come with the software enable even the most inexperienced user to accomplish this procedure in only a few simple steps. Once installed, the software allows the system operator to name the bulletin board; divide it into separate areas for messages, bulletins, and files; and control access.
In short, the BBS software creates a basic bulletin board that can start taking users' calls almost immediately. Later, the system operator can reconfigure the software to change the parameters of the BBS, thus adding additional features.
MAINTAINING THE BULLETIN BOARD
BBS software is designed to do most of the maintenance functions, including setting and monitoring user access requirements, purging old messages, updating file lists and bulletins, and deleting users who have not called the BBS within a specified period of time. Still, all bulletin boards require some maintenance and monitoring, and each department should select an employee to serve as the system operator. This person should track activity on the BBS, welcome new users, answer messages when necessary, and generally make sure that the system runs smoothly. Overall, a basic BBS should require very little of the system operator's time; a more complex BBS will require more maintenance.
Law enforcement agencies should start simply and upgrade gradually. A BBS that demands too much time can be scaled back, but the system operator should explain any changes to users by posting a bulletin on the BBS. Most users will understand and remain loyal as long as they are kept informed.
PUBLICIZING THE BULLETIN BOARD
To meet its goal of improving community relations using its new BBS, the department must let the public know that the system exists. Two of the best places to advertise are newspapers, web sites, and other bulletin boards. Police computer bulletin boards remain novel enough to attract the attention of the editorial staff of most newspapers. A press release or a phone call to the features editor might result in free publicity for the BBS.
In general, the department should seek free sources of publicity that target members of their communities. Large circulation newspapers usually contain an area in the classifieds where bulletin boards are listed once a week at no cost to the agency. Or, the editor of the local paper might be persuaded to start this type of service.
Community newsletters represent another free advertising source. Perhaps the department could provide fliers for the local computer store to use as bag stuffers. Finally, additional helpful resources are other bulletin boards; most maintain a listing of local bulletin boards as a service to their users.
THE "DREAM BBS"
A basic bulletin board system might contain an announcement area, one message conference area, and a few text files for users to read or download, that is, transfer to their own computers. With some practice and experience, department system operators can enhance their bulletin boards with additional features, until they have what they consider a "dream BBS."
Some of the options that departments can provide through their bulletin boards include:
* Bulletins and announcements
* File areas
* Questionnaires/survey areas
* Online police reports
* Local message areas
* Nationwide network conference areas
* Internet access
Bulletins and Announcements
This is an ideal area to let the public know about crime warnings, upcoming events, or new services offered by the agency. The local neighborhood watch group also might post bulletins in this area.
The BBS can be arranged so that each caller must view the bulletins before going on to other areas. Graphics can enhance this area and entice more users to read the information.
Here, users can access files to read online or download. A department can make available two basic kinds of files: Those that do something (programs) and those that provide information (text files). Program files might include various shareware utilities, such as communication programs and offline message readers.(2)
Text files can include everything from the department's annual report to security recommendations to the neighborhood watch newsletter. Press releases also can be entered as text files, enabling reporters to access and print them whenever they want.
As public agencies try to emulate the success of their business counterparts by target-marketing their services, citizen satisfaction surveys are becoming more popular. A BBS with a questionnaire or survey area gives departments the opportunity to ask community members to rate the department, provide input on what new services they would like to see, or give feedback on a special project the department is considering.
In short, this area offers a unique opportunity for members of the public to offer suggestions to their police department. The departments receive invaluable feedback, and residents appreciate being asked for their opinions.
Online Police Reports
A modified questionnaire can enable victims of minor incidents to file their own police reports by simply answering a series of questions. This even may encourage victims who otherwise might not have come forward, thereby giving the department a more accurate crime picture. At the very least, a computerized reporting system has the potential to boost public relations.
Local Message Areas
In local message areas, members of the community can contact employees of the police department to ask questions, register gripes, or just talk. Ideally, the BBS should have at least one local message area, with one of the department's officers acting as "conference host" to answer the public's questions.
Another section might feature a jurist from the community, who would preside over a "tell it to the judge" section. Some agencies divide message areas along the same organizational lines as the department, with separate conferences for patrol, traffic, investigation, training, etc.
The dream BBS also might have two "police only" message areas, one for all police officers who live in the area to exchange information and one for the department's officers to use as an electronic mailbox and message service. Finally, the neighborhood watch group could maintain another local message area, using it to relay administrative information to block captains throughout the community.
Nationwide Network Conference Areas
Some BBS networks relay messages from a host BBS to hundreds of other bulletin boards nationwide. Several criminal justice-related conferences within these networks have hundreds of users, both law enforcement and civilian, participating on a regular basis. The turnaround time for a message in a nationwide network is less than 48 hours.(3)
To participate in a nationwide network, a system operator must apply directly to the network to become a "node." If approved, the operator receives network software and the name of another BBS that acts as the local hub for the network. After the system operator adds some or all of the network's available conferences to the department's BBS and notifies users, they can begin to read and leave messages.
To maintain this enhanced network, the system operator must briefly shut down the department BBS once or twice a day in order to exchange messages between the local hub and the department BBS. Given the additional work involved, an inexperienced system operator should not attempt to run a nationwide network. Still, it can be a worthwhile enhancement for the experienced BBS operator.
The popularity of the Internet can help attract more users to a BBS that offers access to it. A BBS can contract with a commercial service provider to supply most of the Internet's features to the BBS and its users. Though costs vary greatly, they can run thousands of dollars per month.(4)
On a smaller scale, a department can offer its BBS users Internet e-mail capabilities in several ways. First, some BBS software packages provide e-mail services. In addition, for departments serving as nodes for nationwide networks, e-mail is included in the yearly subscription fee.
The commercial services that provide full Internet access also can make e-mail available. Though less expensive than full access, it still can cost several hundred dollars per month.(5) Finally, a nearby university may give the department e-mail capabilities at little or no cost.
Whether modest or elaborate, bulletin boards can provide callers with two types of access, limited or full. In general, each depends on whether users identify themselves.
When new users call for the first time, they can reveal their identities or remain anonymous. Some bulletin boards refuse to admit anonymous callers, while others limit access to certain areas. For police department bulletin boards, these limited-access areas could include information bulletins and a "We-Tip" area. As its name implies, in the We-Tip area, users can provide information in confidence about crimes or other matters of interest to the police. As a bonus, it allows the police to document the tip.
Users who want full access to the BBS should be required to register online by answering questions about themselves (i.e., name, address, date of birth, etc.). The BBS then can perform what is known as "call-back verification," where the host computer calls the user's computer and asks the user to reenter a password. In this way, the department can identify users who tamper with the BBS.
Though not all-inclusive, the dream BBS described in this article should stimulate ideas for other enhancements that police departments can add to their bulletin boards. Inexperienced BBS operators should start small. But with the right computer equipment, a few shareware programs, and a phone line, police departments can create bulletin board systems that allow them to reach out to the citizens they serve. And that, after all, is the goal of community policing.
To be included in a directory of law enforcement-related bulletin board systems to be published in an upcoming issue of the Bulletin, send your agency name, BBS name, and connect number to BBS, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Madison Building, Room 209, FBI Academy, Quantico, VA 22135.
1 Although most phone lines are analog, some sophisticated systems are digital. Computer modems can convert analog signals into digital signals that the computer can understand; however, modems cannot convert from one type of digital signal to another.
2 Offline message readers allow users to download messages all at once, exit the system, and reply at their leisure. As a result, they save users online time and also may reduce financial costs for users calling long distance.
3 Tony Summy, system operator for The Main Shop, a BBS that serves as a regional hub for a nationwide network.