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Community policing online.

America--and most of the world--is in the midst of a revolution. As the industrial-based societies of the 20th century give way to the information-based societies of the 21st, the age of instant communication offers both promise and peril to law enforcement administrators and their agencies. Those agencies that embrace the changes being ushered in by the information revolution should thrive in the new environment. Those agencies that resist change may find themselves isolated, their effectiveness severely impaired, as the rest of the world interconnects around them.

The Searcy, Arkansas, Police Department has implemented a program to use the state's first police department-operated computer bulletin board system (BBS) as an information gateway to the public. By doing so, it hopes to strengthen the ties between the department and the community it serves by increasing citizens' access to information regarding the police and enhancing interaction between officers and citizens.

Background

Searcy, a community of approximately 17,500 residents, has emerged as the third-fastest-growing community in the state.

The police department has grown accordingly and now fields 40 sworn officers. For the past several years, it has operated from a community-oriented policing framework.

Like most small to medium-sized law enforcement agencies, the Searcy Police Department embarked on the road to computerization somewhat hesitantly. However, since obtaining its first personal computer in 1992, the department has increased the number of computers exponentially. Today, a personal computer is available to every one of its officers. A network system connects the individual workstations and allows instant communication and information access throughout the agency.

In early 1995, after learning about courts in several western states that use BBSs to communicate with each other, department administrators decided to implement a similar system to communicate with the public. The chief charged the department's information systems manager with reviewing existing bulletin board applications to determine the best system for Searcy' s needs.

During the next several months, the information systems manager researched available hardware configurations and software packages, critiquing their ease of use, expandability, and cost-effectiveness. By late June, the individual components had been chosen, and the system's hardware configuration had undergone rigorous testing. In July 1995, the Searcy Police Department's BBS became operational.

Features and Capabilities

The system operates from a personal computer with 8 megabytes of random access memory (RAM) and a 540 megabyte hard drive. The computer is equipped with a 28.8 bits per second (bps) external modem that connects to a standard analog telephone line.

Currently, the system can accept two users simultaneously; one through the dial-in modem and one through the local area network (LAN). The system can be expanded to support up to 16 channels at once. The department plans to make use of this expansion capacity as system activity and load increase.

During the testing process, the information systems manager determined that the BBS offers some extended capabilities. A teleconferencing function allows users to communicate in real time on the system. An electronic-mail feature allows users to send messages to the department, other registered users, or public message forums.

Users can post questionnaires, conduct unformal polls, and inform other users of upcoming events of interest. The system also will display a registry of users that allows those posting messages to see who accesses them.

Access

Citizens can use any personal computer, standard communication program, and 1,200 to 28.8 bps modem to access the department's BBS. First-time users must answer a brief online questionnaire in order to register with the system. The department provides the bulletin board service at no cost to local telephone customers; long-distance users pay only the cost of a toll call to access the system.

Uses

The Searcy Police Department implemented its bulletin board system primarily as a way for the department to provide information to the citizens it serves. However, the extended capabilities of the system also provide a new way for members of the public to communicate with the department.

Citizens can post questions, leave messages of praise with individual officers, and even file complaints. Complaints filed through the bulletin board are printed and investigated in much the same way as complaints filed in person--the primary difference being that the complainant does not have to travel to the police station.

All messages from citizens are routed and recorded by the BBS software. The information systems manager monitors the BBS and routes general messages to the chief or the public information officer, depending on content. Citizens also can send messages directly to individual officers.

In addition to providing a new way for citizens to interact with the department, the BBS offers a unique way for the agency to provide information to its citizens. All initial reports filed with the police department now are posted on the BBS. To protect personal privacy, the department censors the reports by removing names, addresses, and other personal identifiers. Nonetheless, in a community the size of Searcy, such information-sharing can help dispel persistent concerns from some individuals that the police department covers up certain information. By allowing citizens to see all of the reports filed with the department, instead of only those that the news media deem newsworthy, the department believes that these cover-up concerns will become a thing of the past.

The police department also uses the bulletin board system to provide up-to-date information on new laws that may be of interest, general safety tips, and reminders of basic traffic regulations that drivers often question. Citizens can download and print these documents, or just view them online.

Public Response

Since establishment of the BBS in July 1995, over 1,360 calls have been processed. Ninety-one citizens have registered with the system. The police department has received more than 1,080 messages from users. Citizens have accessed the system in excess of 600 times to download various documents posted on the BBS.

Perhaps the best gauge for evaluating the effectiveness of the bulletin board service, however, is to measure its success on a more individual basis. On one occasion, the bulletin board helped reassure a former Searcy resident who now lives out of state. After attempting unsuccessfully to contact his elderly mother in Searcy by telephone, the man posted a message to the chief via the BBS. An officer dispatched to the residence located the woman. The chief relayed a message via the bulletin board, advising the man that his mother was fine.

On another occasion, a citizen sent a message via the bulletin board wanting to know why the police had established roadblocks at various locations throughout the city. The man was somewhat irate because his car had been stopped at one of these checkpoints and the vehicle in front of his had not.

The department posted a reply explaining that the patrol division periodically conducts vehicle safety checks to alert motorists of problems with their vehicles that may pose a safety risk. The citizen's attitude toward the police seemed to improve noticeably after receiving the explanation. And, because the department also posted its reply on the public message forum, it conceivably answered similar questions from other citizens who had not posted their concerns about the safety checks.

Unique Advantages

The ability to disseminate information to a wide audience with one message represents a key advantage the BBS offers over telephone communication. Another is that citizens who may be reluctant to bother the department with a telephone call may not think twice about posing a question via the bulletin board system.

Citizens know that a response will be posted when an officer has time to research their concern and draft a reply. The system seems to offer a comfortable distance level that users find reassuring.

Conclusion

In the emerging information age, the level of information exchange in which organizations engage will be an important standard by which the public will judge their effectiveness and value. Because enhanced communication between the police and citizens also is a central component of community policing, this may prove especially true in the law enforcement field. Fortunately, many law enforcement agencies already possess the basic tools necessary to improve interaction with the citizens they serve by implementing an electronic bulletin board system.

The Searcy Police Department has found that such a service not only offers an innovative medium for the department to provide information to its citizens, but it also serves as a new way for citizens to interact with the department. The BBS uses technology to further a reemerging concept in policing--getting officers involved with the community. As electronic communication becomes commonplace, agencies that embrace this technology will find themselves well-poised to join the information revolution.

Sergeant Webb serves as the public information officer with the Searcy, Arkansas, Police Department. Searcy's BBS number is 501-279-1015.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Police Practice
Author:Webb, Tim
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Apr 1, 1997
Words:1451
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