We’ve run into several cases lately where, after information posted on Nation of Neighbors was sent to Law Enforcement, we received a reply similar to: “Thanks! but why didn’t you just call instead of posting it online?”
That response really surprised me. I’ve been focused on sharing this sort of information for so long, it’s been a while since I last paused to wonder why I think this is a good idea. Is it a good idea? Here’s my case for public intelligence – immediately sharing information that law enforcement might otherwise not.
Punishment vs. Prevention
There are many reasons why crime or suspicious activity might be kept private. One of the most frequently cited is that releasing information ‘might interfere with an ongoing investigation’. Releasing information out into the public might alert the suspect that they’re being watched and cause the suspect to somehow modify their behavior, reducing the chance that they can be successfully apprehended and prosecuted. From the law enforcement side, this is a good thing. After all, public opinion judges them on arrests – not prevention. Someone sees something suspicious, calls their local non emergency number and reports the incident to law enforcement, who take it from there. The problem is, that unless the suspect has actually committed a crime and is immediately apprehended, there’s no real benefit to the local community. Even in cases where the incident shows up on a public crime map several days or weeks later, the opportune moment for public knowledge of the incident has often passed.
Why make these incidents public immediately? If the incident you’re thinking of reporting affected you, chances are it could affect your neighbors as well. If a scammer knocked on your door, he’s going to knock on other doors in your neighborhood. The woman driving by slowly who may be casing homes isn’t only interested in yours. If you were a victim of a crime, there’s a good chance that someone in the neighborhood knows something that can help catch the perpetrator – or prevent someone else from becoming a victim. While there is a chance that the perpetrator will find out that there was a report made by some anonymous person, it will generally cause them to move on to some other neighborhood where people aren’t watching. Anyone remember the exterminator commercials where the homeowners solved their cockroach problem by turning up the lights to the point where they had to wear sunglasses indoors? Criminals work like that too.
Many of the incidents reported online would never have been reported to law enforcement. Calling your local police takes a much higher threshold of concern than reporting something confidentially online. Unfortunately, many callers are left wondering whether their call was appreciated or valued. There’s also the fear of retaliation – not knowing if their name will be given to the suspect – and the lack of followup. Did they act on the information? Should you be concerned? Were you blowing it out of proportion?
Getting immediate community feedback is invaluable – for both law enforcement and citizens.