Police go online to work with residents

Tomball and Magnolia police departments are experimenting with new Web-based and mobile technologies that are allowing them to better connect with the residents they serve.

The Magnolia Police Department began using a Web and smart phone app called SafeTown earlier this year, which allows the department and residents to view maps of crime incidents and crime data, as well as reports on what crimes are happening, and when and where they are happening.

"We are utilizing state-of-the-art technology to interact with the citizens in our community," Magnolia Police Chief Domingo Ibarra said. "All people need to do is log online and they are presented with an abundance of information."

In Tomball, the police department uses a similar program called Crime Reports and is in the process of beta testing a new element that emphasizes community collaboration.

"The piece that they're trying to develop allows people to create neighborhoods and share information within those neighborhoods," Tomball Police Chief Rob Hauck said. "Any avenue that connects people to one another, to their police department and to public safety entities and allows us to better share info is huge."

Though the crime prevention aspects of these applications are notable, Hauck pointed out that everything the department does ties back into creating a bond with the community.

"Our challenge is to build and maintain trust within communities, and the way we do that is being engaged with our public—face to face, but also with social media," he said. "There is truly an emotional attachment, and I believe that genuine emotional attachment is the key to safe neighborhoods."

SafeTown

SafeTown, which can be accessed though both a Web portal and smart phone apps, allows users to view up-to-date information on crime happening within a specified region. Crime statistics are updated with events on a regular basis.

While the MPD is operating under SafeTown's basic functions, the app has proven so effective that the department has plans to roll out additional SafeTown applications throughout 2013, said James Senegal, executive officer with the MPD.

"Right now it's just a one-way conversation, but we will soon be introducing applications that will allow residents to share information and tips with us as well," Senegal said.

He said he expects the new SafeTown capabilities to be introduced before the end of the summer and that every tip will be investigated.

"Far too often the only interaction the average person has with the police department is getting a traffic citation," he said. "We want to foster a partnership. We want them to feel empowered."

Tomball technology

A lot of what the Tomball PD has done with Crime Reports has been through the use of an application called Command Central, which allows the department to analyze trends, identify hotspots and compare crime by type, year and location.

New developments that are being beta tested allow residents to view crime maps and set alerts to be notified of crimes based on crime type and location.

"The community collaboration piece is new," Hauck said. "The developers who create these apps are realizing how valuable it is for police departments to be connected to members of the community, both businesses and residents"

As a beta testing agency, the TPD gets to offer input on concepts that are still being developed, Hauck said.

"We get to see what's new and what [developers] are thinking, but we also get to help them develop," he said. "We give direct input to their engineers and designers."

As technology becomes increasingly relevant to police department in its day-to-day operations, Hauck said he has come to recognize the importance of having a competent IT team.

"I have learned so much from having a good IT director," he said. "We love to talk in law enforcement about the newest thing, but we need the mission to drive the technology, not the technology to drive the mission. We need to make sure that we have our technology people right beside us from the onset and all the way through implementation."

Doug Tippey, director of information and technology with the City of Tomball, is consulted before the PD makes any technology purchase, Hauck said.

"Technology makes it easier to search data, keep track of data and save data, which makes the whole process easier," Tippey said. "One of the best things we have going for us is that our chief understands the value of technology and is willing to look at different technologies to determine if they will help us."

Mobile connection

In Magnolia, the use of the text-based service, Nixle, allows the PD to issue text alerts during emergency situations, or just to let residents know of nasty traffic conditions or street closures, Senegal said. Residents can subscribe by texting their ZIP code to the number 888777.

"We're trying to get as many people as we can to subscribe to our Nixle," Senegal said. "Just by sending out one alert, we can save so much time that we would normally have to spend answering questions and responding to individual phone calls when something happens."

Another application used by the Tomball Police Department called Tip Submit works hand in hand with creating more informed residents by giving them the ability to submit anonymous tips to the department through text message or Web upload.

"We see examples every week," Hauck said. "We've had people report drug deals that our investigators were able to stop. We've had someone send a tip that an intoxicated person was getting ready to drive home, and we were able to stop that. We've had a student submit a tip about a fight that was going to take place that our student resource officer prevented. We are peace officers first and foremost, and this is the kind of thing that helps us keep the peace."

Hauck said the introduction of new technology, as well as the more effective use of existing technology, is all a part of a broader effort to make Tomball safer by empowering both the police officers and citizens.

"We are the paid professionals who have committed our lives to providing police service, but we're not the only ones responsible for creating safety in our communities," Hauck said. "That's all of our jobs together."

By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.