Local Crime Alerts By Police Raise Community Awareness

CRIME BEAT

April 24, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

The e-mail greeting is friendly - "Hi, Peter Hermann," it begins - but the message quickly takes on a more ominous tone: "Alert Message has been issued by the Baltimore Police Department."

It informs me that "2 individuals were arrested on 4-16-09 for burglary. They were charged with an incident in the 500 Blk of S. Ann St. Property was recovered. Suspects were both white males 32 and 40 years of age. If you have any information regarding burglaries, please contact the Southeast District Detective Unit at 410-396-2429."

Two days later, cops alert me that "on April 18 at approximately 2:15 a.m. a hispanic male was fatally stabbed in the 100 blk of N Clinton St. Patrol officers quickly arrived on scene and located suspect. The suspect has been taken into custody."

Later, another alert says no formal charges had been filed, but the district commander, Maj. Roger Bergeron, tries to ease people's fears: "This is not a random event. The persons involved in this incident are known to one another and it is believed that a suspect will be charged in the near future. Police are increasing patrol in this area in order to maintain public safety."

City cops are filling walls on Facebook, posting tweets on Twitter and are now sending e-mail and cell phone text alerts on something called Nixle.

The messages about the burglary arrest and the stabbing are part of a pilot program limited for now to the Southeastern District, but anyone can sign up by setting up a free account at www.nixle.com. Simply enter an address, and you'll start getting alerts - to your cell phone, your e-mail or both - about crime occurring within a quarter-mile radius.

If it's successful, police plan to implement it across the city; so far, about 70 people have joined.

I signed up and entered two addresses - Bank Street near Patterson Park and South Broadway in Fells Point - and I quickly started getting notes about robberies, shootings and stabbings.

Melissa Techentin, head of the Southeastern Police Community Relations Council and moderator of an active community crime blog, told me she loves the texts but wants more.

"Some people might feel it's too much information, but it keeps the public more informed," she said. "It's better to know what's going on in your neighborhood than not know at all."

Craig Mitnick, the founder and CEO of Nixle, said hundreds of police agencies from around the country have requested to join, and 50 departments have gone live in the past week. The service is free to the user and the police, and governments can use the service to alert residents to just about anything, from trash pickup to school board announcements to murder to a missing person.

"Police departments should have the ability to send real-time information to the people who need it," said Mitnick, a former prosecutor in New Jersey, defense attorney, police trainer and television legal expert. "Media should not control the information. It should come directly from the government to us, unfiltered and in real time."

I'm not offended by that all. I'm all for the fast dissemination of crime news to the public. Police already post major crimes that have an interest across the city on the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.

Nixle alerts are more localized, and I hope cops realize that on a block, local means the even the smallest things matter. We certainly want to know if someone is stabbed, but we also want to know if a neighbor's car is broken into, if there's a prowler on the loose or rampaging kids are breaking flowerpots and windows.

These are the little things that, when added up, become big things and test the resolve of city residents. The more we know, the safer we'll feel.

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