Editor’s note: Being neighborly

The Sacramento Police Department’s Nextdoor page has 118,000 followers.

Gov. Newsom enlists Nextdoor to help Californians check on each other during coronavirus crisis

Something like Nextdoor seems tailor-made for our new reality of staying at home and social distancing.

And indeed, Gov. Gavin Newsom is partnering with the platform in launching his Neighbor-to-Neighbor campaign, which calls on Californians to be the “first line of support” for older and other vulnerable residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state office in charge, California Volunteers, plans to use Nextdoor to give guidance on how to safely check on neighbors, family and friends and to share ways to make sure people have basic necessities during home isolation. “Now more than ever we must create a culture of WE over me,” Newsom said in a statement that was tweeted by Nextdoor.

It has also launched a new interactive map to make it easier to help neighbors by marking yourself as available for grocery shopping, child care and other needs. Nextdoor is on the ground in 22,000 neighborhoods across California and in more than 240 neighborhoods in Sacramento. So it has a lot of positive potential during this pandemic.

But when President Donald Trump keeps calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus”–though he also said Monday that Asian-Americans aren’t to blame for the outbreak “in any way, shape or form” and must be protected–we have to careful that Nextdoor isn’t used for racial profiling. SN&R documented the danger in a 2015 feature story of people using the platform to amplify their prejudices and racial paranoia, in addition to un-neighborly snooping and tattling.

The coronavirus information campaign is the latest evolution for Nextdoor. It launched in 2011 as the “neighborhood hub,” where residents promote community events, review businesses, sell knickknacks and air everyday gripes.

It quickly also turned into a social media version of anti-crime neighborhood watches.

The Sacramento Police Department was one of the most enthusiastic early adopters in law enforcement. Since June 2013, the department has had an official Nextdoor page, where it posts alerts on missing persons, appeals for help identifying suspects and updates on arrests and cases, as well as information on community meetings. For instance, the department put out an alert on an alleged sexual assault on Center Parkway on March 5; by March 7, it announced an arrest of a 15-year-old male.

The department promoted sign-ups and reached 10,000 by late 2013. When crime rates dropped, the department credited increased community involvement as one reason. Membership jumped to 20,000, and Nextdoor cited another Sacramento crime decrease as among public safety “success stories.”

Now, the department’s Nextdoor page boasts 118,000 followers.

It also helped test the “Forward to Police” feature, which was introduced in 2016 and which allows residents to directly report suspicious people or incidents to law enforcement.

But it did not become permanent so residents must call 911 or the non-emergency line. Officer Karl Chan, a spokesman, said the feature doesn’t work for a department of Sacramento’s size.

“Our social media is not monitored at all times, like our dispatch center is, so we do not want the community to think that it is an alternative to calling our dispatch,” he explained in an email.

Chan added: “We do not look at social media as a way for the community to report crimes to us for safety reasons, and privacy reasons.”

Because of that, the department does not have numbers on reports or arrests through Nextdoor—or instances of racial profiling of suspicious people.

The department, however, is taking the next step with a mobile app that launched Feb. 12 and that lets its 100 officers on Nextdoor push out alerts to specific neighborhoods while out in the field. Nextdoor says that thousands of cities, counties, police departments, fire departments and other public agencies have downloaded the new app to reach people with crucial, real-time information.

Now, Sacramento police are using Nextdoor, in addition to its other social media accounts, to push out information on its response to the coronavirus crisis.

“The goal of the Sacramento County Health Officer’s Order is to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Chan posted on the department’s Nextdoor page. “The Sacramento Police Department, through education, will help with this very important goal in our community.”

And if Nextdoor can help neighbors watch out for each other without spreading prejudice, that would be another victory in the war against coronavirus.

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