Emails between city of Seattle decision-makers and officials at the private social-networking site Nextdoor reveal that the city planned to use Nextdoor as a key portal for delivering information about neighborhood events; distributing surveys to help determine what neighborhoods’ priorities are; and as “a smart, efficient way to educate/inform residents about SeaStat and our soon to be (officially) announced Community Policing Micro Plans,” according to an email from SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb to Jeff Reading, his then-counterpart in Murray’s office, back in October 2014.
Anyone without a Nextdoor account cannot access any of those public communications; the private site, based in San Francisco, is only accessible to members, and those members can only communicate with others in their immediate neighborhood.
In February, I reported that Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole held a “public town hall” on Nextdoor that was only accessible to Nextdoor members, who make up a tiny percentage of the city. After Nextdoor canceled, then reinstated, my membership when I reported some of the questions neighbors asked O’Toole during the virtual public meeting, along with details about her responses, the city said it would consider ending the partnership.
Since then, both Mayor Ed Murray and chief technology officer Michael Mattmiller have told me that they are working to figure out how to make communications with Nextdoor, which are subject to public disclosure laws like any city communications, more transparent, and are considering ending the partnership altogether. However, the city continues to partner with the site and provide updates to neighborhood residents by posting privately to members, who make up a tiny fraction of the city, there. Mattmiller did not return calls for comment.
In October of 2014, SPD’s Whitcomb told mayoral spokesman Reading enthusiastically, “I think we are ready to go with Nextdoor! Our plan is to tie it in to SeaStat as a community engagement and feedback tool.” Nextdoor even offered to write press releases and social media communications for SPD for the launch, though it’s unclear whether SPD took them up on the offer.
SeaStat is a relatively new program in which SPD gathers data and meets twice a month to identify and target crime “hot spots.” Community micro policing is an outgrowth of SeaStat, which involves using data to target police patrols. Both are directly informed by the priorities to which residents on Nextdoor choose to draw SPD’s attention, as well as issues SPD identifies in Nextdoor-specific surveys. As the SPD Blotter blog put it back in 2014, “Nextdoor users will have an active role helping inform SeaStat, since officer deployment will be based not only on crime data, but also on community feedback. Look for neighborhood specific surveys on how SPD can improve community safety and police services in the near future.”
The potential issue with using Nextdoor as a barometer and guide for police deployment is twofold. First, Nextdoor’s membership represents just a fraction of city residents; in Columbia City, for example, just a fifth of households are signed up; in Ballard, 16 percent; in Pinehurst, 11 percent; in Magnolia, 19 percent. Although it’s impossible to tell how many of those members are homeowners and how many are renters, the residents who comment tend to self-identify as homeowners, at least on the dozen or so Nextdoor neighborhood boards I’ve seen.
Using Nextdoor as any kind of gauge for where the city should focus police resources, in other words, is to do outreach to a tiny, self-selected fraction of the city, in contrast to the much broader way government agencies typically communicate with neighborhood. It’s kind of like determining city policy based on an unscientific survey posted on a departmental website on seattle.gov.
Second, as I’ve pointed out previously, the closed-loop nature of the system can lead neighborhoods to whip themselves into a frenzy over relatively minor issues such as discarded needles, “suspicious” or unfamiliar people, people living in their cars who don’t obey parking laws, and litter, without the context of what’s going on in other neighborhoods.
For example, Nextdoor members in Ballard and Magnolia routinely post photos of people they describe as “suspicious,” in some cases accusing them of specific crimes, without their knowledge or consent; tacitly condone vigilantism against homeless people they feel are creating litter and committing property crimes; and have threatened to dump garbage and human waste on the lawns of Murray and council member Mike O’Brien, who represents Ballard, one of the epicenters of Nextdoor-based overreaction. (Nextdoor members also frequently post tangents that violate the site’s ban on personal attacks, and have harassed and threatened me personally within the site itself and in off-site communications that refer to things I have written about Nextdoor.)
How much does any of this matter? In terms of city policy (as opposed to civil discourse), maybe not that much. Nextdoor is, after all, merely “another tool in the toolbox” for outreach by SPD and other city offices and departments—including, currently, the mayor’s office, the Department of Neighborhoods, Seattle Public Utilities, and the city as a whole.
And it’s not like the city doesn’t have a longstanding policy of basing policy on which group shouts the loudest—at a meeting on Monday evening, in fact, a city staffer admitted that Murray had promised to preserve most single-family zoning in perpetuity “after a big outcry from [homeowners in] the neighborhoods.”
But I do wonder: What message is the city, and Murray in particular, sending by continuing to partner with Nextdoor and using it as a tool to communicate with, and get feedback from, neighborhoods? Intentionally or not, I think they’re saying that they want to provide yet another way for a small, motivated cadre of agitated homeowners to direct and shape city policy.