As other city departments, including the Department of Neighborhoods and City Council offices, have backed off from using Nextdoor—the private, homeowner-dominated social media site—to communicate with Seattle residents, the Seattle Police Department has taken the opposite approach. (Nextdoor, which is dominated by homeowners, has come under fire as a hotbed of racial profiling by white homeowners in cities from Oakland to Seattle.
Since February, when I first reported that Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole did a private, members-only “town hall” with Nextdoor members, ostensibly as part of SPD’s outreach to the public, the department has steadily increased its use of the website as a communications tool. In fact, every month since the town hall, the number of citywide posts from the official police department Nextdoor account has gone up—from one in March, to two each in April in May, to three in June, to eight in July. Additional precinct-specific alerts appear to have increased in frequency as well, based on the number of posts in three precincts. (SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says there has been “no strategy to ramp up Nextdoor engagement,” which he says “fluctuates.”)
It isn’t just event notices. SPD has also used the site to help Seattle University set up focus groups to determine how communities across the city perceive crime and safety issues in their neighborhoods. The focus groups are being conducted by Seattle University, but will be used, along with a separate survey also done by SU, “to inform and revise the [Micro-Community Policing Plans] priorities and strategies,” according to SPD’s website. “MCPPs will then be used in conjunction with crime data to direct Seattle police resources and services to target unique needs of Seattle’s micro-communities.” SPD has identified ten micro-communities for its surveys and focus groups.
This work, in other words, will directly impact where SPD resources and services are directed, according to SPD. According to SU researcher Jessica Chandler, who (like all the other researchers in SPD’s five precincts) has a seattle.gov email address and posts to Nextdoor from SPD’s official agency Nextdoor account, SPD and the university have done no online outreach outside Nextdoor, and the online RSVP page is an internal Nextdoor page accessible only to Nextdoor members.
SPD spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee says SU has “’publicized’ their focus groups via direct outreach at [the Downtown Emergency Service Center], through community groups, such as the Asian Pacific Islanders Directors Coalition and the Chinese Information and Service Center. Information was also sent to Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos for distribution to constituents, and included in a story in the Capitol Hill Times.” The department’s Facebook page does not appear to have mentioned or provided any information about the focus groups.
In a recent Nextdoor post responding to a North Precinct resident’s question about outreach avenues other Nextdoor, Chandler replied, “We are currently working to have the focus groups shared through other avenues soon! In the meantime, if you would like a flyer I would be more than happy to email one to you. Send me a personal message if so!”
Under state public disclosure law, most communications between city email addresses and citizens are public. But because Chandler’s communications—like Chief O’Toole’s “public town hall” on Nextdoor—took place behind Nextdoor’s firewall, they aren’t accessible to the general public. If you aren’t a Nextdoor member and you want to access government agencies’ conversations there, you have to first know that they exist and second, file a public disclosure request and wait for the results. SPD has a significant backlog of records requests, meaning that even routine requests often take months, so by the time you find out about a conversation, say, on policing priorities in your neighborhood, chances are it will be too late to do anything about it. (One decision that was made in real time is the relocation of a focus group, via private message, to a location more convenient to a single Nextdoor member; “Chandra: I am willing to change locations to better accommodate! I will PM you, thanks!” Chandler wrote.)
Why doesn’t everyone in the city who wants to know what city agencies are up to just join Nextdoor? For one thing, some people, including many renters, move often and have to join by asking Nextdoor to send a physical postcard to their home so they can prove they actually live there. For another, Nextdoor is a private site that asks residents for their home addresses and targets its marketing based on those addresses; it also makes people’s addresses public to their immediate neighbors, which could raise privacy concerns. Anecdotally, many people have told me they left Nextdoor because of the toxic environment it seems to breed in certain neighborhoods, and because they felt bullied by neighbors whose political views differed from their own. But the bottom line is that just as people shouldn’t have to join Facebook to read city departments’ Facebook posts, which they don’t, citizens shouldn’t have to give a private company their personal data to access public information about what taxpayer-funded agencies are up to.
SPD’s Spangenthal-Lee responded to questions about why the SU researchers were posting from official City of Seattle Nextdoor accounts and had government email addresses by directing me to SU. “[Chandler is] posting as a researcher on the previously mentioned study, which is being conducted under a research agreement between SU and SPD. The study is being conducted independently, and I’d direct you to Seattle U for questions about their research/methods,” he said.
I talked to Chandler by email. In response to my questions about the SU-SPD partnership, she said:
As Seattle University was hired to work with SPD, we are evaluating how they implement the Micro-Community Policing Plan, knowledge and understanding of MCPP, and crime and safety concerns. That is where the focus groups come in to play. There is [a research assistant] in each precinct, all graduate students like myself, and we are all conducting focus groups with each micro-community. The idea behind the plan is that no tw3o areas are the same therefore, the crimes and concerns will not be and will need different resources and strategies. At the end of the project, we report on if MCPP is working, adjustments that should be made, etc.
After I raised questions about the city’s decision to do business on Nextdoor, Mayor Ed Murray said he would reconsider the city’s use of the site to communicate with residents; on Monday, Murray’s temporary spokesman Jeff Reading said the review of the city’s social media policy has been “on pause” since former Murray spokesman Viet Shelton left in March and will resume now that new spokesman Benton Strong has started. Whitcomb said of Nextdoor generally, “Nextdoor engagement is important to us. It is one of many digital platforms that we use.”