Sunday, August 8, 2004

Police using e-mails to alert community

Departments find it efficient for non-immediate situations

By Reid Forgrave
Enquirer staff writer

MIAMI TWP. - In February, the Miami Trails neighborhood in this suburban Clermont County township was struck by a barrage of home break-ins, smashed car windows and items stolen from unlocked cars.

The neighborhood put up with six weeks of burglaries, but after a tip from a neighbor, police arrested gang members from Cincinnati and ended the crime spree.

Union Township Citizens Police Academy alumni members Lee Hite (left) and Harry Evans (right) sign up Doug Damron (center), pastor of Epiphany United Methodist Church, for the Union Township Safetynet community advisory system.
(Enquirer photo/GLENN HARTONG)
But if the police department had in place then what they have now - a public safety advisory e-mail that reaches as many as 3,000 households - police believe they could have broken up the ring of burglars and vandals far more quickly. "We just wanted to tell the residents a simple message - lock your car and close your garage doors," said Lee Hite, a full-time volunteer for the Miami Township Police Department who organized the department's new SafetyNet program that debuted two months ago. "We wanted in the worst way to e-mail everyone in this neighborhood and give them this tiny piece of advice."

By sending advisories to homeowner associations, churches and other civic groups, who then forward pertinent information to their members, the SafetyNet program opens yet another line of communication between police and residents.

It has received rave reviews from residents who want to stay informed, and from police officers who enjoy the contact with residents.

Township police and fire officials will send out messages about anything from crime sprees to boil-water advisories to someone passing counterfeit $20 bills.

It's also another example of how smaller police departments in Greater Cincinnati and throughout the country are turning to technology as a cost-effective way to keep residents abreast of public safety issues in their back yards.

The Warren County city of Lebanon this summer began a program similar to Miami Township's, where the police department sends out crime prevention tips and neighborhood crime trends to neighborhood watch groups. Fairfield Township in Butler County has graduates of its citizens police academy send out crime information through e-mail.

In Northern Kentucky, Florence is leading the region's entree into Citizen Observer, a national law enforcement entity dedicated to promoting communication between public safety agencies and residents.

The city of Franklin in Warren County posts crash reports online.

Police in Eastchester, N.Y., allow residents to go online to subscribe to a police e-mail alert system.

"Any way you can communicate with the public in an easy-to-use format is beneficial," said Mike Dickey, chief of police in Fairfield and president of the Butler County Chiefs of Police Association.

"The concept sounds interesting, and we'd definitely consider doing something like that."

Fairfield and other local police departments have reverse-911 systems to notify residents of things like missing children, but those systems can get expensive. E-mail, though often not as immediate as telephone calls, is just as effective with issues that aren't as time-sensitive.

And it's much cheaper.

"Every budget has a limit," said Hite, a retired engineer and graduate of the Miami Township's citizen police academy. "We don't have $100,000 to buy software packages to e-mail everyone in the world or make thousands of phone calls for us. With this program, we can talk directly to the residents when we put out our advisories."

One national missing children's activist agrees that e-mail isn't the best way to publicize child abductions, because people aren't always checking their e-mail.

"For missing children, it's such an immediate thing that e-mail isn't the best way to do it," said Sherry Friedlander, founder of the national group A Child is Missing, which helps locate missing children. "But still, it's wonderful to let your community be informed about all sorts of public safety issues. It can only help the community come together."

Police officers around the region expect e-mail advisories to become much more popular.

"It's such a simple idea," said Rob White, a community police officer in Lebanon who sends advisory e-mails to neighborhood watch groups. "We use e-mail every day, and it's virtually cost-free. And people can just sit down and e-mail us quickly, give us a quick tip or whatever, and then go on with their day."

More info online



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