City Hall and police department look to increase service and engagement by joining private social network for Newark residents

Newark community activist Donna Jackson is widely known here as an unbowed guardian of grassroots community interests, willing to call out politicians, police, and community members when she thinks they're falling down on the job.

But seated inside the City Hall rotunda at a press conference announcing a new civic social media tool being rolled out citywide, she was feeling positive about a possible opening for Newark communities to connect with the local government, police, and each other like never before.

That social media tool is Nextdoor.com, and it's a private social network for neighbors. Nextdoor, itself only two-and-a-half years old, first came to Newark about a year ago, with individual residents logging in on their own to establish the social network's various neighborhoods (disclosure: the author is the founder of NextDoor's Central Business District neighborhood), and posting about events, items for sale, local recommendations, community incidents, and other topics.

In April, the city announced to Nextdoor.com's founding members that City Hall and the police department would begin using the platform to disseminate information, and to hear about local concerns from the site's members. Police and the city say they will encourage Nextdoor members to form "virtual neighborhood watches", and report incidents anonymously through the portal. The city also said it would post announcements about city services and other important information for residents. Police director Eugene Venable said the department would post crime tips and strategies to the site.

This is the first such partnership between Nextdoor, a city hall, and a police department in the northeast, according to the site's founder and vice president of marketing, Sarah Leary.

Jackson, for one, is for it. "I think that this is an excellent opportunity for us to connect in our neighborhoods, because for the first time in 10 or 12 years, we don't talk to each other anymore in our neighborhoods," she said. "I think this is one area to get us to reconnect."

Mayor Ras Baraka said today that he is "ecstatic" about the new technology, and hailed it as one that "allows us to make the city a little smaller". 

As we reported earlier this year, prospective Nextdoor members must verify their home address by entering a credit card, social security number, or telephone number, or by having a postcard with a verification code sent to their home address. Once inside the network, users are able to send messages to individual neighbors, their entire neighborhood, or nearby neighborhoods. The neighborhoods themselves are small geographic areas: Lower Roseville, Broadway, Central Business District, and the Ironbound are some of the neighborhoods in Newark.

The participation of the police department on Nextdoor concerned a few active members when it was first announced. When the police department announced its presence on the site back in April, a couple members suggested that they could use the network to eavesdrop on Newarkers.

It's a concern police chief Anthony Campos sought to allay: "Nextdoor does not allow the police department to snoop or investigate the posts," he said, adding that the department is interested in the technology because strong neighborly bonds help "create a stronger, safer city". 

But even if there isn't a technical way for police offers who are not Newark residents to see neighbor-to-neighbor posts on the site, Jackson said that concerns about privacy should be addressed from a different angle. "There need to be serious assurances to people in the community," she said. If residents proactively report incidents and police respond, she said, they need to make sure the identity of the Nextdoor member in question is protected.

And to be sure, many members have warmly welcomed the police presence. In the past day, several police officers have posted greetings and introductions on the site. They've been met with thank yous, welcomes, and even specific requests for training.

Leary said it was the early users of the social network that inspired partnerships like the one between the social network and Newark city departments. She said those early users began asking how Nextdoor members could integrate city halls, police departments, and fire departments into conversations when they choose to do so. "We followed that lead," she explained, adding that Nextdoor created a way for city departments to enter into a dialog with members "without compromising the privacy of the neighbor-to-neighbor communications."

Gary Campbell, an eight-year Newark resident and member of the Forest Hill neighborhood on Nextdoor, said he joined the social network about a year ago, in part because his car was broken into five times in about six months. "I was very frustrated, because it seemed like I was just out there all alone," he said. "That's actually when I joined Nextdoor. We get these emails about different things happening in the area, so I'm more aware," he continued.

Campbell's feeling about the city and police department's new role? "It'll just help support the residents," he said. "It'll decrease the apathy, give us a little more control, and help us to feel stronger about the city, especially if the technology takes a hold."

But Jackson, displaying her typical awareness of grassroots concerns, said that although Nextdoor could be "an excellent tool", some additional resources would need to be put behind the initiative in order to customize it to the needs of all Newarkers. "We need to make sure that the internet connections, and the tools that are needed for all of us to connect with this, are in place," she said. Senior communities, she pointed out, could see an outsize benefit from this type of tool, but would need access to computers, and the training to take advantage of it.

In the wake of the justice department calling for a federal monitor to watch the Newark police department, could this tool help improve police-community relations? "It all depends on the responses," Jackson said. "I think that much of the breakdown has come from a top-down mentality of 'we don't have to be in the community, we just have to deal with the community'," she said. "This tool presents an opportunity for that relationship between the community and the police to start to change," she added.

Newark residents can join Nextdoor for free at Nextdoor.com