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Manhunts Go Digital: Enhancing Public Safety

When authorities zeroed in on suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami in connection with recent bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey, they called on a formidable new force in the manhunt. We’re not talking about a branch of law enforcement or a covert Special Forces agency. We’re talking about millions of civilians with the unprecedented potential to aid in Rahami’s capture thanks to receiving real-time smart phone alerts aimed at harnessing their collective vigilance. Let’s take a closer look at this breakthrough technology, along with highlighting how community policing is transforming public safety.

What is Community Policing?

While police exist to protect people and property, the fact is that there are only so many of them. Simply put: they can’t be everywhere at every time. But this doesn’t have to mean that their reach is compromised by their limited numbers. Enter community policing.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services defines community policing as “a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies, which support the systematic use of partnerships and problem solving techniques, to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues, such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.”

The overarching theme? Solving many of the public safety challenges facing our communities today takes more than police alone. It also takes an extensive network of partnerships between the police and a diverse network of stakeholders, along with a commitment to proactive problem solving.

Community Policing at Work

In the case of the search for Mr. Rahami, digital technology was used to instantly, inexpensively and exponentially expand the reach of law enforcement—not only to raise public awareness about the threat, but also taking it a step further by enlisting citizens as active participants in protecting the communities in which they live. Said Mayor Bill de Blasio of its value, “This is a tool we will use again in the future. No more wanted posters on the precinct house wall. This is a modern approach that really engaged a whole community.”

Last weekend’s use of “Wireless Emergency Alerts (AKA W.E.A.) is far from the first instance in which the power of the public has been leveraged by law enforcement to enhance public safety. From safety updates following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing to shelter-in-place notifications during an active shooter scare at LAX mere weeks ago, technology is vastly improving the way people receive critical information.

There’s An App for That

An additional crop of new smartphone apps share the community policing mindset. One example? New Orleans’ French Quarter Task Force (FQTF) which lets residents report crimes and suspicious behavior with a tap. Hailed as “Uber for cops” by NBC News, the program is credited with decreasing violent crime in the area by 45 percent.

The LAPD’s iWatchLA, meanwhile, not only encourages people to report suspicious behaviors and activities, but also includes a key educational component. In alignment with its “If you see something, say something” terrorism reporting campaign, the app gives residents a handy tool for turning the tables on convention: Rather than a one-way system of police helping people, people can now help the police. Perhaps Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell put it best in declaring, “We can’t be everywhere, but the public is everywhere.”

Given that we’re living in an era in which essentially anything can be crowd-sourced, it’s hardly a stretch that this technology is being put to work where, when and by whom it’s needed most.

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