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OPD partners with Nextdoor site

Social media site allows police to send targeted alerts to neighborhoods

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Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2015 4:45 am

Odessa police on Wednesday began using Nextdoor.com, a free social media site comprised of closed neighborhood groups that Police Chief Tim Burton described as a “virtual neighborhood watch.”

Police who use the site will include some commanders and Cpl. Steve LeSueur, the department’s public information officer. They plan to use the site to send targeted alerts to certain neighborhoods, police officials said at a Wednesday press conference announcing their Nextdoor plans.

And while police will not be able to look at neighborhood forums, the command staff hopes neighborhood residents will respond to their posts and maybe offer leads, but at least use the website to better keep track what’s happening near their homes.

 “There is no substitute for neighbors watching neighbors,” Burton said. “And Nextdoor is an example of utilizing contemporary technology, tools and methodologies so we might more easily fulfill that mission of protecting people, preventing crime and providing better service to our neighborhoods.”

Twenty-nine of Odessa’s neighborhoods are represented on Nextdoor.com, according to the company. The OPD reported that represents about half of the neighborhoods in town.

Neighborhoods are added as users sign up and create them and get fellow neighbors to join. The boundaries can be large.

Joining a neighborhood on the site requires an invite or proof of residency like a utility bill.

Mission Estate’s resident Duane Moreland described the tool as an easy way for his neighborhood to talk as a group instead of waiting for infrequent homeowner association meetings.

“We are located on the fringe of Odessa, and as a result of that we are kind of a prime target for thieves and robbers,” Moreland said. “It’s been a really important part of keeping in touch with each other when crime happens.”

Nextdoor created a special site for the Odessa Police Department, one of about 750 agencies the company partners with. The site allows police to send out targeted messages to certain neighborhoods or city-wide alerts. Users can also directly message the police department.

“This isn’t Big Brother,” LeSueur said. “We can’t watch what they are writing, but we can communicate with them without invading their privacy.”

LeSueur said the department also planned to use reports of suspicious activity in neighborhoods to coordinate with beat officers.

Nextdoor launched in 2011 in San-Francisco, where it was co-founded by former Odessan Nirav Tolia, who serves as the company’s CEO. Since then, the site grew from about 100 neighborhoods to more than 53,000 today in every state in the country. Tolia said his childhood in Odessa about 30 years ago helped inspire Nextdoor, recalling his parents’ relationship with neighbors — arranging carpools, landscaping, dealing with nuisances on the block and so forth.

“That experience stayed with me,” Tolia said. “And it was a guiding light for Nextdoor. That’s something I continue to carry with me from Odessa and something we want to expand to all neighborhoods.”

The company does not disclose total users, but it reports users exchange about 5 million messages on the site every day.

Not all chatter on the neighborhood forums revolves around public safety. Posts range from lost dogs to recommendations for services like plumbers or babysitters.

 But Tolia said in an interview last month that he sees safety discussions as a core purpose of the site and of neighborhoods in general. Ideally, he said he hopes to expand the company’s partnerships to other municipal agencies such as sanitation or streets.

Tolia said the company sees earnings potential in the commercial chatter on the site and room for targeted advertising, like connecting babysitter services to people asking about babysitters.

Tolia’s father, the eye doctor Nalin Tolia, said he was among the first users of the website in Odessa. He started the Mission Dorado group that now has more than 450 members.

“Nextdoor was started by my son, but I don’t think that’s the only reason I like it,” Nalin Tolia said at the police department conference. “I like it because it helps neighbors communicate much more easily with neighbors in this day of technology.”

But police also emphasized use of Nextdoor as a supplement.

“It never supersedes a 9-1-1 call,” Burton said. “And that’s a good point: This is a non-emergency communications tool. And that’s it.”

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