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BID Pilots Crime Alerts Using Smartphone App

By Mark LiebermanCurrent Staff Writer

When every second counts after a 911 call, waiting for an emergency response can prompt an anxious period of waiting and wondering.

But in the age of the Internet, Georgetown Business Improvement District leaders felt the situation could be improved. The group sat down with the Metropolitan Police Department, and their collaboration over the last year and a half has led to a pilot program that uses texting to alert community members to crimes.

The GroupMe smartphone app allows an unlimited number of users to participate in a single text conversation, and now more than 200 Georgetown residents and businesses have been added to this constant dialogue with police.

Many community members feel safer knowing they have a direct line of communication with the police and their neighbors. And according to 2nd District Cmdr. Melvin Gresham, in several cases the technology has facilitated arrests and other productive police activity.

“I would have to say that it has assisted the officers in getting to the scene and addressing a situation quicker,” Gresham said. “If someone calls 911, there may be a delay because the information has to be filtered.”

So far, community members mainly use it for situations like a shoplifter leaving one store and entering another moments later, according to Joe Sternlieb, the BID’s president and CEO. Upon seeing the theft take place, the witness at the first business would call 911 and then issue a text in the GroupMe describing the shoplifter. Moments later, when the perpetrator entered the second business, another witness could easily make a match.

“They felt it was helpful in preventing crime by alerting folks to activities going on in the neighborhood,” Sternlieb said.

The GroupMe option works best if multiple people are involved in reporting the crime, Sternlieb said. One person can be on the phone with 911, which could take several minutes while the operator takes down the information, while the other is commencing an instant discussion on GroupMe.

“We emphasize that if there’s a crime being committed, the first thing you do is call 911,” said Sternlieb.

Gresham said the police department has no control over the management or implementation of the GroupMe service. A lot of people are under the perception that the MPD monitors or actually has some input in the data. We do not,” he said.

Community members like Maggie Handel, a public safety block captain who lives on Dumbarton Street NW, think the GroupMe service is having a positive impact on crime response in the neighborhood.

“Prior to GroupMe, residents were fed-up with rude & dismissive 911 operators. This technology has served to re-build community confidence in law enforcement,” Handel wrote in an email.

Handel, an early adopter in the pilot program, said she’s sent 20 texts to the group. “I feel safer thanks to GroupMe,” she wrote.

The next task regarding Georgetown’s GroupMe service is to prevent misuse of the tool, Sternlieb said. Now, upon applying to join, residents sign a contract that outlines the proper format for reporting a crime, prohibits profiling and limits the conversation to topics directly related to crime.

Sternlieb said GroupMe managers contact anyone who misuses it to inform them of their mistake. But for the most part, Sternlieb said, users have kept their messages appropriate. And Gresham said all of the correspondence he’s seen on GroupMe has been on point.

“People have been very good about it,” Sternlieb said. “We were very clear about it when we first launched that you can’t use this as a marketing tool. It’s not to be used for anything other than reporting crime or suspicious behavior.”

Sternlieb said other neighborhoods in D.C. have expressed interest in replicating the program, though police weren’t able to provide information about a possible expansion.

As much as the GroupMe option is in the hands of the neighbors, the responsibility for preventing and solving crimes still falls on the police. And according to Sternlieb, the community feels it’s in good hands.

“My sense is that MPD has done an outstanding job,” Sternlieb said. “Considering the number of police-citizen contacts in a place like Washington, it’s remarkable when you think about how positive the interactions have been and how few incidents we’ve had.”

This article appears in the Sept. 9 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.