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Tampa police to partner in crime-fighting with neighborhood network Nextdoor

The social network Nextdoor helps neighbors find shared interests and lets them warn each other of suspicious activity.
The social network Nextdoor helps neighbors find shared interests and lets them warn each other of suspicious activity.
Published Mar. 8, 2017

TAMPA — During the past three years, the online social network Nextdoor has helped people living in the Bayshore Beautiful neighborhood exchange information about interests like tracking lost pets and planning a community cleanup.

Across all the estimated 127,000 Nextdoor neighborhoods nationwide, the list of interests goes on and on — borrow a ladder or a cup of buttermilk, find who dropped the nice jacket on the street, poll who's giving out candy on Halloween, hire a handyman.

Or catch a thief.

"It's a tool that we can use in so many ways," said Lance Connors, neighborhood watch leader for Bayshore Beautiful.

The neighborhood will take advantage of a new partnership announced Tuesday between the Tampa Police Department and Nextdoor, founded in San Francisco in 2011. In the city of Tampa, more than 22,000 people have signed up for Nextdoor in 119 of 151 neighborhoods identified, said Robbie Turner, Nextdoor's senior city strategist.

About 2,300 neighborhoods across the Tampa Bay area have signed up. St. Petersburg police entered a partnership with Nextdoor last March.

Communities such as Bayshore Beautiful create a forum open only to residents, verified through U.S. mail, credit card or telephone.

"We are always looking for ways to better communicate with our citizens," Tampa Police chief Eric Ward said at a news conference Tuesday. "One of the ways or solutions we found was Nextdoor."

Many Nextdoor neighborhoods already appreciate the possibilities.

Ginger Torgrimson, 44, of Culbreath Bayou woke up Feb. 7 to find her car broken into. She sent an urgent alert on her Nextdoor app, more theft victims weighed in with their stories and photos, and soon police were on the case.

"Everyone found out right away," she said. "Police took pictures of things they have recovered after they set up a traffic stop. It's a lot quicker than a neighborhood email."

The case is still open, but investigators know the scope of the thefts now — eight burglaries and several more attempts, most, including Torgrimson's, involving unlocked vehicles. Many of the goods were recovered nearby, said Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty.

The process was about more than results for Torgrimson, though.

"You just feel a kinship toward your neighbors. You care for each other. It's an easier way to put out more information."

Jason Rewald, 40, neighborhood watch liaison in Heritage Isles, was looking for ways to bring the neighborhood together but found his regular monthly meetings inefficient. He tried Facebook, Twitter and a dedicated website, but nothing stuck until he stumbled on Nextdoor in April 2013.

"Nextdoor streamlined our approach, and we can provide real-time and weekly updates," Rewald said.

As with many social media platforms, Rewald has noted a few petty attacks.

"Sometimes someone will post something like, 'I get fined when your lawn looks like that' when it turns out their mom was in the hospital," he said. "As a lead, I ask them to knock it off and they're adults about it and apologize."

All members have the ability to flag content they deem inappropriate.

Less than a quarter of 1 percent of all content on Nextdoor is abusive, company spokeswoman Jen Burke told the Tampa Bay Times.

Changes were made after an 2015 incident in Oakland, Calif., where suspicious activity was reported on Nextdoor based solely on a person's race.

"We were made aware and saddened," Burke said.

Nextdoor found that some people were racially profiling without realizing it. Members now must provide a description beyond race to identify a person as suspicious. With updates like this, she said, Nextdoor reduced racial profiling by 75 percent.

Tampa police will use Nextdoor to post public safety information specific to a neighborhood — the identity of a suspect seen in that area, for example, or an alert about car burglaries.

In reverse, residents can send a direct message through Nextdoor to an assigned officer to report a suspicious car, say, or a tip on a wanted suspect.

Police can't see what residents are discussing among themselves, though.

"The old-fashioned days of neighborhood watch are antiquated," Ward said. "Everybody is busy these days. … The easiest way for us to communicate is through technology."

Tampa police have not entered into a formal contract with Nextdoor, and no money is changing hands. The social network is free to use.

St. Petersburg police can't point to any increase in arrests to prove the value of their year-old partnership with Nextdoor, but it has clearly brought in more tips and built a stronger relationship between officers and neighborhoods, said police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez.

"It adds to our interaction," Fernandez said. "It is one more way for the people to contact the police.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.