Development of Interactive Web Sites to Enhance Police/Community Relations

Development of Interactive Web Sites to Enhance Police Community Relations

Susan A. Baim
Miami University Middletown, USA

Copyright © 2003, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.

Abstract

This chapter discusses research conducted to determine the feasibility of introducing police Web sites and virtual communities as new tools in the move toward community-oriented policing. Using citizen satisfaction surveys designed to evaluate police department performance in three Ohio cities, a profile of future citizen expectations regarding interactions with the police is constructed. Based on differences in the demographics of the cities' populations, probabilities of success in implementing online communications with the police are assigned. A model for establishing a virtual community for the Trenton, Ohio Police is explored in light of the survey results and established community-oriented policing theory.

Introduction

Imagine the following two scenarios, each of which could easily happen in any one of a thousand different city neighborhoods nationwide.

  • Scenario 1: After a long day at the office, Mrs. Sally Jones returns home after dark. Approaching her front door, she notices that it is ajar. As she gets closer, a man, covered head to toe in black, bursts from her home and runs past her into the night. Grabbing her cell phone, she dials 911 and reaches the police. Officers are dispatched promptly, but Mrs. Jones is afraid to go inside — in case someone else lurks in the shadows. Yet, she is afraid to stand out in the open where she also feels vulnerable. She steps around the corner of her house to be out of view when, suddenly, she's caught in the bright flashlights of two unfamiliar police officers, guns drawn, as they approach her from the shadows.
  • Scenario 2: After a long day at the office, Mrs. Sally Jones returns home after dark. Approaching her front door, she notices that it is ajar. Looking just past the door she notices the city police squad car in her driveway. Two officers that she has known for years, Officer Bill George and Sergeant Karen Smith are talking to each other — there are two angry looking men already in the back seat of the squad car. As she approaches the officers, Sgt. Smith calls out, "Hi Mrs. Jones, we were on patrol in the neighborhood and saw one of these characters around the corner. Things didn't add up and he eventually led us to his partner who was already working on your front door. These guys will never learn — we know everybody in the neighborhood and it's real easy to see who's out of place."

These scenarios illustrate the difference between the traditional police practice of call-based policing and the more modern approach known as community-oriented policing. In the first scenario, the officers were just doing their job, as impersonal as it may sound. Unfamiliar with the residents of the neighborhood, they were forced to treat everyone as a suspect until proven otherwise. Mrs. Jones not only faced a burglary that night but also probably had the scare of her life looking down the barrels of two guns pointed in her direction. Scenario 2 illustrates true community-oriented policing. The two officers on patrol recognized that someone looked out of place and did a little investigating on their own — not waiting for a call. By the time Mrs. Jones arrived home, the situation was under control.

These idealized scenarios were created for illustrative purposes only, but they do indicate the type of change in policing philosophy that is working its way through police departments across the country. Community-oriented policing places officer and the citizens that they protect into much closer contact on a routine basis. Both sides become much more familiar with each other before problems occur and can work together more effectively when the need arises. Implemented correctly, community-oriented policing can reduce stress for the officers and citizens alike, plus allow the officers to cover more ground in terms of handling the problems that are of greatest concern to the neighborhoods where they work.

The primary focus of this chapter is to describe a mechanism for increasing police/community relations that works in concert with the community-oriented policing programs that a department may currently have in progress. Based on a study of the relationships between three Southwestern Ohio city police departments and their communities, it is proposed that online virtual communities, preferably hosted at city government or police department Web sites, would provide a unique forum for police and citizens to stay in touch with each other, to express and discuss mutual concerns and to implement programs of benefit to the communities. Based on the data collected from surveys conducted in each city, a model for the design of a highly interactive police Web site is proposed. The probability of using the Web site in each unique city environment to create a virtual community for citizens and police officers is assessed.

Background

Brief Overview of Community Oriented Policing

Effective community-oriented policing programs are multifaceted. They rely on a mindset change on the part of the police officers, but also on the part of the citizens in the neighborhood. Community-oriented policing also requires a change in technology, as police officers may need to work on more sophisticated crime prevention techniques. Most importantly, however, community-oriented policing requires a change in the communications patterns that the police officers use with the citizens in their communities. This innovative policing technique is based on clear and open lines of communication with all neighborhood residents. The police officer must be able to sense when something just isn't right, and that requires solid, ongoing communications with residents. Residents need better communications, too. They will not be able to assist the police in keeping the neighborhood safe if they lack information on what has been happening down the block or on the other side of town. Working behind the scenes, but still every bit as critical to the success of these programs, is a solid database and knowledge management effort designed to supply all parties with the information that they require.

It is no longer sufficient for police officers across the country to cruise the streets in squad cars and apprehend criminals when called. Conscious of the number of high technology tools now available and a general trend on the United States toward maximizing satisfaction with all products and services, citizens in small and large cities alike are requiring more from their police departments. In a recent article for a sales and marketing journal, Betsy Cummings (2001) points out that police departments are essentially being asked to enroll in Marketing 101 in order to better sell their services to their constituencies. Cummings quotes officials in the New York Police Department as saying that determining what programs will "sell' to city residents and improve the image of the department is no different than a business looking at its marketing strategy to determine what products and services should be on the shelf. Increasingly, one of those products offered by police departments is a city-personalized version of community-oriented policing.

In a somewhat surprising discovery, the widespread presence of 911 services across the country has been linked to a need for more community-oriented policing approaches. As observed by Fred Siegel (1999), the computerized call tracking of 911 calls to police, and the resulting tendency of departments to track their success based on the speed of responding to those 911 calls caused many departments to lose focus on non-emergency police work over time. The end result was actually a greater disconnect for many city residents who did not experience emergencies but had to deal with mundane issues such as minor thefts, vandalism, etc. These crimes, known as "broken window" crimes in New York City, for example, were largely ignored in favor of stressing a department's statistics in handling/clearing the 911 calls coming in each day. Community-oriented policing in many regards takes an opposite view of success — stressing instead the need to work with city residents to eliminate the more minor "broken window" crimes so that more serious offenses have no room to take root. Whether or not Siegel's analysis is correct, the trend back toward community-oriented policing indicates that residents expect the minor crimes to be dealt with as efficiently as the major emergencies. This situation represents a clear need for an organizational culture shift for many police departments — a shift that more and more departments are prepared to make.

Continuing an examination of newer technologies and their positive or negative effects on the effectiveness of police, many technologies are universally believed to help officers stay in closer contact with the people that they protect and serve. Perhaps the best-known example is the trend to equip squad cars with personal computers or mobile computer terminals so that officers may handle more policing duties without needing to return to the station. Christina Couret (1999) terms the addition of computers to squad cars as a "silent partnership of police officers and technology" that dramatically increases the officers' effectiveness. These Internet-based technologies allow officers to complete reports online while in the field. The officers remain visible within the community and able to interact with residents for a higher percentage of their shift hours. Data transmission is also faster, more accurate and more confidential than speaking over a radio channel with a dispatcher who may actually be handling a more distracting workload than is the officer in the field (Greenemeier, 2002). Reading Greenemeier's account of recent technology additions to squad cars in Sacramento, California, it is clear that officers are rapidly moving to a state of working in virtual offices that roll throughout their communities.

Police departments that have taken advantage of the latest available technologies in terms of communications gear, weaponry, vehicles and other law enforcement equipment are generally well-versed in handling major crimes and emergency situations within their communities. What may not immediately be obvious is that these same departments are also positioned well to move forward with community-oriented policing efforts. Community-oriented policing takes time — time to sit down with residents to understand their concerns and to draw up action plans that could help improve the quality of life in community neighborhoods. Only those departments that are experienced and efficient at handling the major crimes committed within their jurisdictions are likely to have the time, and also the patience, that it takes to pursue a significant community-oriented policing agenda. According to Lumb (1999), however, shifts toward community oriented policing, even under the most ideal circumstances, will be temporary unless the department's overall leadership strategy changes along with the changes in available technologies. Specific training in how to interact with the citizenry in a more proactive, informational way is needed from the Chief of Police's office right down to the individual officer on the beat.

Specific Examples of Community Oriented Policing

Although the concept of community-oriented policing has been in existence since the 1960s, little formal evidence of studies designed to ease its implementation or enhance its effectiveness through customer satisfaction measurements are observed in the literature prior to the early- to mid-1990s. In one of the earliest published studies, officers of the Merriam Police Department (a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri) developed a brief survey questionnaire that they used in conjunction with personal visits to meet with business owners in the community (Sissom, 1996). The officers' goal was to build a better working relationship with community business leaders across a broad spectrum of the city's economic base.

Prior to implementing the project, police and community leaders agreed that officers knew a small percentage of the business owners well, but were virtually unconnected from the remainder within the community. The business owners that were known to the officers exhibited either or both of two characteristics. First, these business owners may have been repeat crime victims, either due to running a relatively high-risk business or due to their location within a high-crime region of the city. Second, these business owners may have owned businesses that would typically be frequented by the officers for personal reasons, such as meal breaks while on patrol, or similar reasons. In total, the percentage of business owners that the officers knew well was lower than what the department felt was necessary to gauge the true needs of the community (Sissom, 1996).

Results of the Merriam survey project were reviewed personally by the police chief and used to establish a training program to enhance officers' understanding of community-oriented policing principles. Regular contacts with all businesses were instituted as part of the officers' daily patrol duties, and a mechanism was set up to track these contacts on an ongoing basis. The survey process was revised and updated to be used on a recurring basis to give an indication of how the operational changes were affecting community/police relations (Sissom, 1996).

The Merriam study was relatively unique because it focused exclusively on businesses and business owners as partners for improving community-oriented policing. No mention of individual citizens is made in the report, leaving the reader to ponder how the non-business concerns of community residents were to be factored into any strategies for improving overall community relations. More common is a fully integrated approach that focuses attention on a wide sampling of citizens within the community, some of whom may own businesses and some of whom may live but not work in the community.

Newer studies, such as those described by Hugh Culbertson (2000), focus on identifying the issues that tend to divide police officers from their communities and prevent the successful implementation of community-oriented policing initiatives. Culbertson notes a variety of turning points in community/police relations, including the 1995 criminal trial of O. J. Simpson and the early 1990s videotaped beating of Rodney King. He stresses that the failure of police departments to understand and address the divisive issues in their communities can thwart any efforts to implement change in a department's operating procedures.

Unfortunately, police officers are customarily trained in a manner that at best is indifferent to the development of positive community relations and at worst is likely to run counter-current to that goal (Culbertson, 2000). Examples include a training focus on catching criminals and suppressing violence through forceful, often paramilitary, means and the use of a "code of silence" that serves to defend other officers even in times of clear mistakes made in the line of duty (Culbertson, 2000, p. 16). No number of positive initiatives made to build community relationships can circumvent the images left in the eyes of the public when a police department appears to be preprogrammed to suppress criminal acts in a manner that is not supported by the community at large.

Implementing the fundamental change in police operating procedures that is needed to support community-oriented policing in more than a token sense thus becomes a delicate balancing act. Officers must be prepared for any and all conceivable threats to the safety and security of their community, while keeping the obvious trappings of such preparation out of sight as much as possible. On the other hand, officers must treat citizens and business owners as if they are all part of the same team, or partnership, while remaining vigilant for any signs of criminal activity that could undermine the quality of life within the community (Vincent, 1999; Woods, 1999). This "dual role" is difficult to achieve in practice and requires the utmost in careful planning to execute well, yet it exemplifies the true essence of a modern community-oriented police force.

The planning required to implement an effective community-oriented policing approach exposes officers to the inner-workings of the neighborhoods that they protect and serve. Many problems that these officers will be asked to solve are not exclusively within the sphere of influence of the police. As such, the thought processes used and action plans derived by the officers may appear to be comparatively "un-police-like" as compared to traditional crime-fighting activities. In an intriguing and very recent study, William Rohe, Richard Adams & Thomas Arcury (2001) investigated many of the community-oriented policing efforts underway in two North Carolina cities, Asheville and Greensboro. In each case, these researchers identified common themes between the approaches in use by the police and those in use by the cities' planning commissions. The analogy makes sense from the point of view that the police officers are problem solvers within the community, as are the communities' city planners. Although the two city government functions may seem to be very much separate, collaboration between the departments is suggested as a means of increasing the effectiveness of community-oriented policing efforts. The authors' rationale focuses on the tool kit carried by the city planners. Planners are known for their skills in community problem identification, collecting and working with large volumes of data and developing alternative strategies for addressing situations. These are precisely the skills that police departments are trying to build in their officers as they move toward more routine interaction with the general public. Community-oriented policing also looks at building long-term relationships, as opposed to exclusively solving immediate problems. Again, according to Rohe, Adams & Arcury (2001), this approach is very common in city planning departments, where the designs of city infrastructures, such as utilities and roadways, will be in use over very long periods of time. These authors use the term "cross-training" to explain how city planners can help police departments that are just getting started with new community-oriented approaches. Police officers new to the community-oriented approach learn how to move from an action-oriented, immediate problem-solving mode to one of putting solutions in place for the good of the community — solutions that will stand the tests of time.

Whether or not a partnership with city planners is the correct approach to take for all community-oriented policing efforts, the idea of police departments partnering with other city agencies to address issues of importance to the community makes good common sense. Shared knowledge of a city, its residents and its problems can help officers increase their effectiveness at the individual neighborhood level where community-oriented policing is most effective. Citizens concurrently are finding that they can no longer rely on local newspaper accounts or the nightly news to keep them informed of what is going on within their communities. Partnering with the police in an effort to reduce crime and improve the quality of life continues to increase as a viable proposition in many communities. As any and all better forms of communication between the officers on the street and the citizens that they protect are put in, the end result should be to help alleviate these concerns and increase the effectiveness and the efficiency of the policing process.

While the majority of community-oriented approaches to police services originate within the departments themselves, there are external driving forces (such as the aforementioned interactions with city planners) that contribute to the development of these programs and must be viewed in a larger context. For example, the role of city governments as a whole in overseeing the actions of police departments in virtually all communities cannot be ignored. Key findings of a recent study on reinventing city governments include the need to expose all departments under the supervision of the city manager, including the police, to periodic review by outside, third party evaluators. Beyond a general review, specific customer satisfaction studies are recommended for any department that interfaces directly with the public — again including the city's police department (Kearney, Feldman & Scavo, 2000). The results of carefully-executed surveys are suggested as important evaluative tools for city managers to use not only in assessing the resource needs of police departments, but also in monitoring whether or not the departments are operating in a manner that is consistent with community expectations.

City managers, mayors, and other government officials who may be in a position to oversee police departments are more likely to use the results of customer satisfaction studies as part of an ongoing planning process than they are to originate the placement of the studies in the first place. One approach popular in city governments today, for example, uses what is termed the "whole system approach" for including multiple stakeholders within a community in the planning and development process for all city services (Oleari, 2000). When using this approach, a city manager will involve the department under study, professional city planners, politicians and members of the public at large. The goal is to develop a mechanism of sustainable change that will allow the city department (in this case, the police) to move forward in implementing long-term goals that are consistent with community needs at the present time and in the future (Oleari, 2000). In contrast to more conventional planning approaches, in which a draft plan is presented in a public forum for scrutiny and comment, the "whole system approach" places sufficient citizen representation on the planning committee itself to eliminate the need for broad public scrutiny at a later date. The public is again invited to participate when the plan is rolled out, often by monitoring the progress of "action teams" that are charged with implementing the proposed change (Oleari, 2000).

In concluding this brief overview of the forces driving community-oriented policing approaches, it is essential to note that not all parties view the new "shared responsibilities" model of protecting the community as being a positive change. John Worrall & Ricky Gutierrez, for example, observe that empowering employees at various levels, and in various city agencies, to work together in solving problems that are traditionally within the jurisdiction of the police can lead to confusing issues of liability should anything go wrong (Worrall & Gutierrez, 1999). Community-oriented policing efforts tend to increase the discretionary powers of individual officers (and others who may be supporting them) as they move forward with new initiatives. As the clear line of command and control over all possible situations transfers from the police administration and its hierarchy to the individual "cop on the beat" it may be necessary to re-evaluate how cities view their responsibilities to protect and serve their citizens. These authors do not advocate eliminating community-oriented policing by any means. Rather, they take the position that this transfer of authority to individuals lower in the organization, combined with the notion of shared responsibility across multiple city departments, may require different training for individual officers than what was traditionally required in a call-oriented, highly structured police department.

Research in Support of Community Oriented Policing

Surveys Conducted in Southwestern Ohio

The primary research presented in this chapter was originally conducted to assess city residents' satisfaction with four separate governmental agencies in three Southwestern Ohio communities. Table 1 lists the studies conducted and their specific purposes.

Table 1: Locations and original purposes of studies conducted

City

Agency

Study Type

Date Conducted

Middletown, Ohio

Police Dept.

Customer Satisfaction

Spring, 2000

Middletown, Ohio

Water Services

Customer Satisfaction

Spring, 2001

Oxford, Ohio

Police Dept.

Customer Satisfaction

Spring, 2001

Trenton, Ohio

Police Dept.

Customer Satisfaction

Spring, 2001

Each of the four surveys was conducted using a mail questionnaire format. Questionnaires were developed jointly with the Chiefs of Police and other high-ranking police officials or with individuals at the Division Director level in the case of the Middletown Water Services Division. Input from the Oxford Citizens' Advisory Board was also used in formulating the questionnaire employed in that city.

All four surveys focused on issues of general concern to the residents of the communities, with special emphasis on the quality of the services provided by the local police or water departments. The questionnaire designs included a number of quantitative ranking questions to provide the best possible statistical assessment of the agencies' performances along with a selection of qualitative questions designed to broaden or "flesh out" the understanding of the issues revealed. Each survey also included a generous selection of demographics questions in order to look for differences of opinion across different age, income, neighborhood or other differentiators. With the exception of the earliest study conducted (that of the Middletown, Ohio Police Department), all surveys also included a selection of questions designed to evaluate respondents' access to and use of the Internet. Had that information been collected in the Middletown Police Department survey, it would not have been necessary to include the Middletown Water Services Division survey in the present analysis. Fortunately, the number of surveys sent out and the distribution of the surveys across the city of Middletown was the same for each of the two city agency surveys. Although not a perfect match, in that a year had elapsed between the police and water surveys, it is not unreasonable to combine the Internet usage data from the water survey with the other data from the police survey when analyzing citizens' opinions in the City of Middletown. The Oxford and Trenton data sets are "cleaner," in that all questions were asked at one time.

The sample size for each survey was approximately 2,000 city residents. Although the surveys are similar in terms of number and scope of questions, they are not identical. The Trenton Police Department survey and the Middletown Police Department survey were the simplest of the group. The Middletown Water Services Department survey was more complex, while the Oxford Police Department survey touched on the greatest number of issues.

Data Analysis and Presentation

All survey respondents returned their completed questionnaires to Miami University, Middletown, where the quantitative and qualitative data analyses were handled by the author and a small group of undergraduate Marketing students. This same team prepared the final reports for the clients. All quantitative data analysis was performed using SumQuest survey software, a package that allows the rapid entry and analysis of multiple questionnaires plus statistical analysis and graphical presentation of results.

Investigation of Internet Usage Trends and Potential Interest in Police Web Sites

The original research conducted for each client included a brief assessment of the Internet usage data collected, but in no case did it explore the possibilities of encouraging the use of police department Web sites to drive virtual communities for community-oriented policing. For the purpose of investigating this potential link, the data concerned with Internet usage were re-examined and compared across all three cities. Trends observed, with the possible implications for Web site usage and virtual communities, are discussed here.

Results and Discussion

Current Web Site Activity

Of the three cities studied for this report, two have well-developed police department Web sites while the third has begun to construct a Web site as a direct result of the data collected in the present research. The most sophisticated current site is that of Middletown, Ohio, where the Chief of Police is Bill Becker. Chief Becker and his staff have developed a multi-functional Web site that gives a well-rounded view of the department, including the various sub-branches under the Chief and many helpful tips for citizens. Although there is no virtual community operating in conjunction with the Middletown PD site, the site is welcoming to visitors and could likely be adapted to provide a community service of this type without major overhauls.

The city of Oxford, Ohio, also has a police department Web page that is easily accessed from the main City of Oxford government page. The Chief of Police at Oxford is currently Steve Schwein who, unlike long-time Chief Becker in Middletown, has held his position for only a few years. Oxford's site is much simpler that Middletown's, although it, too, strives to provide a welcoming presence for visitors. At the Web site, there are some relevant statistics regarding how Oxford's department stacks up versus others in the local area and some links to career information and the department's vision and mission materials. There is relatively little information on the department itself, or on how citizens might better interact with the police, again demonstrating no obvious link to a virtual community.

The City of Trenton, Ohio, is currently building a police department Web site, beginning with contact numbers and self-generated profiles of the department's officers. The Chief of Police at Trenton is Rodney Hale, who has held his position for less than one year. Trenton's city government Web site in general is less sophisticated than those of the other two cities and is more designed to expose browsers to what the city has to offer, rather than to the inner workings of the various city departments. Nevertheless, the Trenton site is well-designed and could easily be configured to offer interactive capabilities with the police or other departments. (As used in this context, the term "interactive" is meant to convey the idea of a Web site that offers visitors the opportunity to offer input to something seen on the site and/or request information from the site rather than simply to view the site in a static mode.) Adaptation of such a web site to a virtual community would likely be relatively straightforward.

Data collected from all three Ohio cities showed a widespread range of Internet-readiness among the citizens. City of Middletown residents only demonstrated a 40.1% connectivity rate, while City of Oxford residents were much more likely to be connected with a rate of 81.4% among those residents surveyed. City of Trenton residents fell in between with 61.7% connected to the Internet.

Regardless of the percentage of a city's residents that are connected to the Internet, it is clear that those residents will not demonstrate an interest in the city government's Web site unless it offers something specifically of interest. For example, in an unrelated question, City of Middletown residents were asked to evaluate the likelihood that they would be willing to pay bills over the Internet — such as the monthly water and sewer bills that each homeowner and many renters receive. A very low percentage, on the order of seven percent, indicated that they would even consider using the Internet for paying their utility bills. While this may seem disappointing to many that tout the use of the Internet for conducting routine business, it is nevertheless indicative of the sentiment of Middletown residents. Oxford residents, despite their very high connectivity rate, do not frequently visit either the city government site (28.0% of those with Internet access) or the police site (26.1% of those accessing the overall government Web site).

Developing a Web site that is inviting to residents because it contains information that they are seeking, or because it allows them to conduct the type of business that they want to conduct, would be predicted to increase the probability of success. In the Trenton survey, additional questions were added to determine what features residents already made use of on their city government Web site and what features would be most desired if a specific police department Web site were to be implemented. Results obtained on these two questions are shown in Figures 1 and 2.

click to expand
Figure 1: City of Trenton data — Purpose for accessing city government Web site

click to expand
Figure 2: City of Trenton data — Features desired in a Trenton PD Web site

The results obtained from the Trenton survey are somewhat surprising, given the low level of interest in police Web sites at Middletown and Oxford. Digging deeper into the demographic data of the three cities provides a plausible explanation. Table 2 provides an assessment of each city, based on an overall analysis of the demographic data.

Table 2: Overall qualitative assessment of demographic data, all three cities
 

Middletown

Oxford

Trenton

Age of Residents

Oldest

Close to Middletown

Younger

Internet Access

Lowest

Highest

Middle

Length of Residency

Very Long

Very Long

Relatively Short

Explanation

Low Internet access rate and set police expectations make Web site use unlikely.

High Internet access rate (college town), but older population accustomed to police services a certain way.

Medium Internet access rate but younger, mobile population willing to try new approaches.

Future Trends

Future Police Web Site Usage

From an examination of the research data collected in each of the three cities, it is likely that the City of Trenton may be the best candidate for the development of a new, interactive police Web site. If successful, this site could lead to the roll out of an online virtual community for the police department and local citizens to use as an information resource and mode of communication. With Trenton's acceptable Internet connection rate and the younger, more mobile population living in that city, it is plausible that receptivity to new forms of community-oriented policing may be good or better. Although a discussion of other data obtained from the Trenton survey is beyond the scope of this chapter, there are additional attributes expressed by city residents that make them seem less set in their ways than the residents of Middletown and Oxford.

It is not surprising that Middletown looks like an unlikely candidate for the development of an interactive police Web site and virtual community. Middletown residents have comparatively little familiarity with the Internet and seem relatively set in their ways of doing business. Additionally, they have enjoyed a very well respected, stable police department under the leadership of Chief Becker for a number of years. The impetus for change simply is not evident.

It is surprising, however, to conclude that there would be a relatively low probability of success for the City of Oxford. College communities tend to be more vocal in debating issues and raising concerns than do many other cities of smaller size, and one might predict that this could lead to a very high usage of a virtual community associated with the police department. Such communities may also be more liberal in their politics, but the effect of this parameter on the desirability of an interactive police department Web site is not under study at the present time. Additionally, the survey in Oxford, as conducted, surveyed predominantly permanent residents of the city as opposed to students on campus. The older residents of the surrounding city, despite claiming to have a very high rate of Internet access, did not demonstrate a high interest in city government Web sites and thus may be difficult to convince to try something new.

Creating an Interactive Web Site and Virtual Community

Considering the data obtained from the surveys of Middletown, Oxford and Trenton, Ohio, it is clear that an information resources management professional attempting to set up and operate an interactive police Web site could face a challenging road ahead. Even before work on an actual Web site begins, the developer and/or host must determine three things. According to an interview with Howard Rheingold, as reported by Rodney Moore, every developer must know how the site will be marketed, what the developer wants to get from the site in return for visits by potential members and what technologies will be required in order for the site to function properly (Moore, 2001). Failure to define each of these parameters at the outset will, in the best of cases, seriously slow down development efforts. In the worst of cases, it could prevent the site from gaining acceptance at all, with little to no traffic.

As noted by John Hagel & Arthur Armstrong in Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities, there is "nothing more uninviting to passing Web traffic than a community without members" (1997, p. 134). This is the Internet equivalent of the old adage about giving a party and having no one come. Yet, this appears to be exactly what could happen if one were to begin building a new police Web site for either Middletown or Oxford. There is limited usage of the existing sites, but certainly not enough to be able to predict immediate success of any new launching. Trenton is a different story. With the right publicity, a new police Web site could get off the ground relatively quickly. Trenton residents were not bashful about indicating the types of information that they are seeking and this would give the site developer an excellent place to start.

Virtual communities take on a variety of forms, but it is likely that one of use to a police department would place a premium on running lively discussion forums on topics of community interest. A helpful guide for those who may be just starting to post messages in a discussion forum is presented by Rachel Gordon (2000). Gordon lists many hints for success, but she also observes one feature of discussion forums that may be of critical importance to the police. One of her examples explores the frustration that many people feel when they cannot get a straight answer out of a technical help line. When these people turn to a discussion forum, it is often true that they can find someone who has had the same exact problem that they are now experiencing. Answers usually come forward in layman's terms and the value of the discussion forum is confirmed. For the police, such interactions can be an invaluable check on their credibility within the community. Officers providing information to a forum are likely to receive corrections and highly potent feedback on anything that seems unusual to the readership. Often cloaked under an amusing pen name, anonymous readers would be predicted to challenge the police when necessary. Police officers known for honest, straightforward interactions within the virtual community would help build the department's reputation.

There has been a significant discussion in the literature regarding the future of virtual or online communities. A number of authors prefer to think that virtual communities are beginning to take a back seat to B2B interactions and will soon lose favor as being unprofitable (Schwartz, 2000; Weir, 2000; Rheingold, 1999). Other authors argue that remaining profitable, or reaching profitability, is not necessarily the ultimate goal for all communities (Brewer, 2000; Wood, 2000). The position taken by the latter authors states that interactions between key groups of people though virtual communities are a desirable goal to aid in the transfer of critical information and the general upgrading of skills within a special interest or professional group. Such efforts do not necessarily generate a profit for an online merchant and thus may be overlooked by many Internet specialists. Yet, this is exactly the type of interaction that may be most desirable for police departments entering the world of virtual communities. If Web sites can be hosted and maintained along with other city government Web sites there will not normally be a burdensome cost involved. Community members, including the police officers, should be able to interact for the good of the community under this type of scenario — to attempt to write off virtual communities such as this because of a lack of traditional profits is to miss the point of their existence.

It is likely that the trend toward community-oriented policing will continue and even be enhanced in future years due to continual improvements in technology that allow police departments to gather better data on what is expected of them by their constituencies. Traditional mail surveys, online survey questionnaires and Web site usage statistics can all contribute significant pieces of information that will allow police departments to align themselves with community needs and wants. At the same time, improvements in technology that make it easier for police officers to transmit and receive critical information while on patrol will make it easier for officers to spend the personal time necessary to get to know the citizens that they protect and serve. The common theme throughout is one of knowing what raw data and interpreted information is needed — and designing approaches to gather it in a timely manner. Police-sponsored virtual communities can be a productive link in this information chain.



ERP & Data Warehousing in Organizations. Issues and Challenges
ERP and Data Warehousing in Organizations: Issues and Challenges
ISBN: 1931777497
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 174

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