December 2007

Engaging Citizens for Enhancing Public Safety

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The majority of citizens in our country will never come into contact with their local law enforcement officers, let alone have exposure to the inner workings of police and sheriff's departments in their region. The Gainesville Police Department in Gainesville, Florida, wanted to change that.  They sought out and successfully employed easily available internet technologies to share the wealth of crime data they routinely collected as a tool to better engage the citizens of Gainesville in helping them to make their communities a safer place to live. More specifically, the police department wanted to:

  • Demystify law enforcement operations to the citizens of Gainesville;
  • Motivate community groups to have a stronger hand in addressing crime; and
  • Enable individual citizens to better protect themselves from criminal activity.

Before the Internet era and the advent of law enforcement websites, citizens had to watch the evening news or read the newspaper to know about the major criminal incidents that occurred around them. News reporters had to literally drive to the local police station and read a paper blotter, or they had to call the station and have a supervisor tell them about what was happening.

Incidents not reported on by the media were very difficult for the average person to find out about.   Even if a citizen did find out about an incident, they had to either come to the station or at least call to get a copy of an incident report. More often then not, the citizen had to wait three days and either come back to the station to pick up the report or they had to wait until the report was mailed to them. 

Then the internet arrived. This provided law enforcement agencies with an electronic way for its citizens to become a) more aware of crime public safety issues in their communities and b) more involved in helping their local police department address those issues. Even the simplest law enforcement websites let citizens see the 'police blotter' for their community and show photographs of missing persons or local criminals who had been arrested. 

The Gainesville Police Department is agency is doing these things, and more. They are taking full advantage of the internet and web technology in a way that allows citizens to gather the information they need so that they can become informed and involved citizens without leaving the comfort of their homes or businesses. 

The Department has two websites. The first site provides citizens basic information about the Gainesville Police Department.  Information like:

  • What District and Zone do they live in? 
  • Who is the Chief of Police? 
  • What officer works in my area of the City?

The second website is called the 'Police to Citizen' or P2C website. P2C was developed by Sungard OSSI, the technology vendor that provides the police department's Records Management System (RMS). Sungard OSSI developed the P2C website using Java and Microsoft Application Server Pages. The project took 6 months to develop and implement at a total cost of US$10,000.00 to the department.  The same software now sells for approximately US$30,000.00.

The P2C site permits citizens to create a police blotter on-demand, and to plot crime incidents on a map. By entering a local Gainesville address, citizens can create a map of the city around that address and view accidents, incidents, and arrests that occurred in that neighbourhood for the last 30 days. Individual incidents are colour-coded, red, yellow or blue, to distinguish the different types of events.

Citizens can 'click' on any dot for more detail about a particular event. What is particularly innovative about the P2C interface is that the maps are computer generated at the time the citizen requests the information, they are not static maps manually created by an analyst in the department.  To comply with state and local privacy laws, not all police reports are shown on the blotter or on the map.  Reports that are not public record, such as sexual battery reports are kept off the P2C website. A sample map is shown below.

Why are the maps so important to citizens? Gainesville is the very proud home to the University of Florida with an average enrollment of 50,000 students.  Before students relocate to the Gainesville area, they want to know where in the region are the best and safest places to live.  In the past, our agency would receive many telephone calls from students and concerned parents, asking the department if an apartment complex or residential area was safe area for their son or daughter to live. 

Unfortunately, because of legal reasons, the department was not permitted to recommend a particular area of the city, nor could the department suggest a student not live in a particular area. Now, through the use of the P2C website, students and their parents can use the interactive maps to find safe areas in which to live. We have also found that full-time citizens of Gainesville quite often use the P2C website and maps when relocating within the Gainesville region. 

The P2C website has also been a valuable tool for Gainesville citizens to be actively involved in crime watch or neighborhood watch activities. They currently use the website to stay abreast of criminal activities  in their respective communities and to notify affected neighbours, either in person, via the phone or via email, about those crimes and what they can and should to protect themselves from future occurrences.

The information relayed to Gainesville citizens does not stop with just crime data. The P2C website also allows citizens to learn about traffic citations that were issued and the locations of vehicle crashes in the region.  Citizens can use that information to see if officers are writing citations in areas that they have identified as potential problems or hazards. They can also use the maps to identify roadways and intersections where traffic light or signage may need to be improved to reduce vehicular injuries and deaths.

In this era of the Internet, citizens now have the ability to be more aware of the criminal activity occurring in the neighbourhoods where they live and work. The Gainesville Police Department's P2C website has proven to be a low-cost, effective e-Government tool to provide these citizens with the information they need to not only better protect themselves, their families, and their property, but to also become more involved keeping their own neighbourhoods and communities safer.  

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