Kirsten Oldenburg launched her online bulletin board to help her Capitol Hill neighbors track local crime trends. She soon discovered that her neighbors’ interpretation of crime went beyond robbery, assault, and battery. Before Oldenburg knew it, her listserve was hosting an endless debate on barking dogs. What had begun as an affirmative response to lurking bad guys had become an electronic soapbox for quality-of-life misdemeanors.
The online chat deteriorated to the point where neighbors had coined the term “barking pollution” and had come up with a number of creative remedies. Oldenburg, however, decided to muzzle the discussion when her interlocutors advocated stealing loud poochies off the porches of neighborhood offenders.
“Sometimes we’ll get stories that are just going around in circles, and I’ll just sort of cut it off,” Oldenburg explains. “I say, ‘Don’t send any more dog-barking stories. We’re just not getting anywhere with this.’”
When she finishes reining in her neighbors, Oldenburg sends them a monthly list of all the crimes reported in the preceding month, complete with crime type and location. Follow-up messages might feature comments from nearby substation Capt. Alan Dreher regarding a recent spate of plant thefts, information about the 14-year-old who attempted to rape a woman in her 70s, or the post-traumatic thoughts of a local who had been bike-jacked and robbed at knife-point in the span of a few weeks.
Neighborhood types chime in with their eyewitness accounts; one subscriber, for example, observed the robbery of Mott’s Market on 12th Street SE: “I saw a masked man coming out of Mott’s holding a young lady and walking backwards with her into Gessford Court Alley…The policewoman moved in on the gunman and a shot [or more] was fired. The hostage was released and the gunman [ran] off on foot.”
The convenience of e-mail, according to Sgt. Robert Parker, who helped volunteers start a community listserve in Mount Pleasant, makes “people more inclined to report suspicious activity to the police than they were before. It also cuts down on the number of people calling in with questions about different crimes in the neighborhood,” freeing phone lines that can be better used to handle real emergencies.
While the listserves prosper by pooling information from public-safety activists and their neighbors, they don’t include a key faction in crime-fighting: cops. “In terms of this technology, we at the police department are playing catch-up with the community,” admits Kevin Morison, the department’s new director of corporate communications, who formerly managed the Chicago police department’s Web site. Morison was brought to town in part to cyberize the District police, but it’s a little like wiring the Flintstones. Officers currently have no external e-mail access, and Morison says that the department’s Web site, which will include links to various volunteer-run listserves, is at least a month from launch. Dreher, for example, has to use his home computer to keep in touch with his online constituents. “I print out what’s useful,” he says, and then distributes the information to colleagues the next day.
With the department underwired, Internet policing is handled predominantly by unpaid citizens like Laurie Collins, who runs the listserve for the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Collins started her listserve with funds that she raised to open a computer-equipped police station in her community. A self-employed computer network engineer, Collins provides the cops in her police service area (PSA) with free online access. She says it’s worth it as long as she can spread the word on the latest crime scourge. “If there was a shotgun stalker or a rapist in our neighborhood, we want to know that,” says Collins. “We don’t want the police to hide it.”
So far, Net policing has been targeted toward less menacing targets. “There was a guy tagging the walls all over Mount Pleasant, ‘Charlie Brown of Mount P,’” Collins explains. “There became this big e-mail debate, because some people felt that graffiti was art. Well, a guy in our neighborhood got caught breaking into a car. His name was Charles Brown. When he was arrested and brought into 4D, the cops said they knew he was the one who’d been writing graffiti, and he confessed to the crime.” Collins’ account is confirmed by Cmdr. David McDonald, who notes that Brown was charged with offenses more severe than graffiti-tagging.
Useful as they are, crime listserves are “fairly uncommon,” according to Dreher. Neighborhoods with the highest crime rates happen to have the lowest Internet penetration rates. And it’s no secret, says Dreher, why wired neighborhoods do a better job of keeping criminals at bay. Listservers provide “real-time information so that we can deal with issues in a real-time fashion,” says Dreher. “In the normal course of [detectives’] work, they’ll investigate and hopefully find out who’s committing crimes. But if a citizen sees somebody doing something in the neighborhood, that information can be invaluable to the detectives.”
The cops can also use listserves to reach out to folks who don’t attend community meetings and miss the department’s public service announcements. Rita Hunt, who serves as police liaison for Oldenburg’s neighborhood, cites a recent case in which a suspect confessed to more than a hundred burglaries. “[E]ventually the people that were part of his crime spree will find out through the e-mail that in July of ’98 their house at, say, 434 Constitution Ave. was one of the burglaries that he confessed to,” she says. “So at least there’s closure. Can you imagine calling over a hundred people? I’m busy enough.”
If Kathy Smith has her way, serial burglars who test the waters in her neighborhood will soon go elsewhere because of online exposure. From her home office, equipped with both computer and sewing machine, Smith churns out Communit-E, a listserve preoccupied with crime prevention in PSA 202, which is bordered by Massachusetts Avenue, Reno Road, Western Avenue, and Van Ness Street.
By just about any standard, that tract is among the safest in the entire city. Smith herself has no problem leaving the perimeter of her house exposedthere’s no fence, picket or otherwise. Locals walk the street alone at any hour. The area appears so safe that some folks don’t bother with basic crime-prevention tactics. And that, says Smith, is the problem. “I’ve got one neighbor who left her front door unlocked while she was in her back yard,” Smith explains. When the neighbor came back inside, she found a stranger “walking down the stairs with her jewelry box.”
So Smith tells Communit-E subscribers to be suspicious of “workers,” supposed hired hands who could be entering through second-floor windows, helping themselves to jewelry and televisions, just as well as cleaning gutters. And she keeps an eye out for her elderly neighbors, easy targets for the quiet crimes in upper Northwest. “I really appreciate the value of keeping doors locked,” she says, “even when I’m in the house. Not that I really expect somebody to just walk in, but I understand that they could. And sometimes they do.”
“It’s helpful to know about what types of crime are being committed and where,” says Communit-E subscriber Steve Butler.
Smith’s messages resemble the kind of friendly advice that used to be handed over a back fence. Following a spate of weekend burglaries, for example, Smith urges her readers to get bars for their windows. Some of it is relentlessly local; other tidbits are just generic crime tidbits. “Women be aware,” reads an entry that details a series of abduction scams one subscriber saw on an episode of Inside Edition, all of which involve men who lure female victims out of shopping malls.
Marcus Westover, a 2nd District captain who has worked with Smith, says that Communit-E’s relatively safe area of coverage doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort. “Even if there were no crime sprees per se for the neighborhood to be concerned about, it’s great information, and it gets the community aware and involved.”
All of the listserve volunteers claim that being informed on crime problems doesn’t intensify fear as much as it heightens their senses. Oldenburg, the daughter of a cop and a two-time mugging victim, says, “When I’m walking down the street, my head is just going in all different directions at once, looking at all different people approaching me.”
Smith’s only real personal experience with lawlessness involved the side mirror being ripped from her parked car. “But I am safer just because of that little level of awareness,” Smith argues. “There’s no such thing as absolute safety.”CP