The Seattle Police Department’s foray into Nextdoor is a product of its broader attempt to reconnect with the community it serves after being placed under a Justice Department consent decree in 2012. A federal investigation the year before had uncovered a pattern of excessive violence among officers, and the resulting report expressed “serious concerns about biased policing.”
To be more transparent, the department took to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to push out information about crimes, events, and the agency itself. Twitter is the department’s primary communication tool, Whitcomb says—and indeed, its account has a disproportionate number of followers for Seattle’s relatively small population, trailing only Boston’s and New York City’s much bigger police departments.
But Nextdoor is more private and decentralized than Facebook or Twitter, and so when Nextdoor approached Seattle Police in 2014, the department saw an opportunity to engage with Seattleites in a different way. The department waited until there was a critical mass of Seattle residents on the platform—about 20,000—before diving in. “It’s not our place to promote platforms,” Whitcomb says. “It’s our place to go where people are having conversations.”
Public-agency accounts like the Seattle Police Department’s work a little differently than individual Nextdoor user accounts: Public employees can post to community pages, see replies to their posts, and message privately with individuals—but they can’t see the rest of the chatter on a community page, or read private messages that users have sent to one another. Seattle Police is one of the larger of the 1,400 public agencies—mostly police departments—on Nextdoor.
Seattle’s department encourages precinct officers to maintain a presence on the community pages for the neighborhoods they serve. The initiative is an example of what the department calls “micro-community policing”: an attempt to use hyper-local data to customize its approach to law enforcement. Officers can alert residents to crime trends, ask for feedback on policing initiatives, or simply introduce themselves and encourage neighbors to say hi to patrolling officers.
After a honeymoon period, however, Seattle’s relationship with Nextdoor hit a few bumps in the road.
This February, Nextdoor hosted Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole for the first-ever online “town hall” on the platform: Residents asked the police chief questions and had a chance to hear directly from her. But when local journalist Erica Barnett reported on the event, Nextdoor booted her from the site for violating its terms of service for publicly posting users’ questions. It wasn’t until after she wrote about the incident on her website that her account was reinstated.
Barnett’s reporting was fiercely critical of the echo-chamber effect of the local, private community pages, many of which have hyperactive “crime and safety” sections. Indeed, in a recent interview with Barnett, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray derided an atmosphere of “paranoid hysteria” he’d witnessed on the message boards of some of Seattle’s more upscale neighborhoods.