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Back to Archives | Back to August 2007 Contents 

Citizens Reporting Crimes Online: The San Francisco Experience

By Captain William Gitmed, San Francisco, California, Police Department

Using New Tools to Meet the Same Demands

The importance of a police department’s ability to provide services to its community that will benefit as many citizens as possible cannot be overstated. It can be argued that in deciding which services to offer, a law enforcement or government agency should select services that help its entire jurisdiction. Unfortunately for most cities, the acquisition and implementation of such a service can be a daunting, if not impossible, task.

For a city such as San Francisco, the task is complicated by many factors. Trying to obtain police reports from tourists, who would rather get back to their vacations than deal with filing a report, and trying to obtain a copy of these reports for insurance purposes can be a logistical nightmare. As a center of commerce, business commuters are often too busy to wait for police to take reports for minor crimes committed against them and would prefer to return home as soon as possible without filing a report. Meeting the specific and very individual needs of such cultural enclaves and districts as Chinatown, North Beach, and the Mission District with a uniform service creates difficulties as well. Diverse immigrant populations from around the world not only hold onto their cultures but also their languages, which challenges police to provide services despite an obvious communication barrier. The city also hosts 20 postsecondary educational institutions, whose students do not all reside within the city limits but find themselves victims of crimes that require them to file police reports within San Francisco, delaying their already hectic commutes. The cultural diversity of San Francisco makes it a worldly and amazing city filled with cultural, artistic, and economic affluence; to be frank, however, such diversity creates a nightmare when trying to justify implementing new services that can benefit both the city and county of San Francisco. Granted, not all agencies may face the same number of complications as San Francisco, but every agency faces challenges in making new connections with and providing new services to its citizens.

Every so often, law enforcement agencies come upon revolutionary advances that help them successfully carry out their mission, duties, and responsibilities to their respective communities. Items such as handcuffs, handheld radios, bulletproof vests, computers in patrol vehicles, and the Internet are just several of the technologies that have made an enormous contribution to law enforcement services. Many departments have implemented the latest advancement, the Internet, to better serve their citizens while also saving labor and avoiding administrative red tape. Legal forms can now be downloaded and printed at home to save time for both citizens and records personnel. Electronic media releases help cut down on the nonstop calls to frontdesk phones from reporters seeking new stories. Composite sketches are available to citizens for continuous viewing, eliminating the need for citizens to recall a sketch they saw on the evening news two nights prior. Employment information can be listed on departmental Web sites. Many other uses for Internet technology are only now being tried out. The latest wave has been a move toward providing “e-government” services to citizens. Law enforcement has also participated in this latest development with the advent of online reporting, which allows citizens to report crimes online.

Why Citizen Online Reporting?

From shopping to banking to communicating with family or even sending e-mail to a colleague down the hall, people have incorporated the Internet into nearly every aspect of their daily lives. Even old, clumsy folding maps and heavy phone books are used less and less as a result of online services. It is only logical, then, that citizens see the Internet as a resource and a tool for interacting with their law enforcement agencies. As such, it is important for law enforcement agencies not only to see the value of online tools but also to make use of the tools available to them. Whether an agency is small or large, citizens will consult the agency Web site for information and will look for the easiest way to resolve their specific issues. Online reporting is one such service.

Although the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) was initially skeptical of how many citizens would make use of such a service, the department was pleasantly surprised when, in the first month of providing the service, which was not publicized, 11 percent of all reports taken were submitted online. The use of online reporting did not contribute to an increase in the total number of reports taken that month; in fact, citizens have turned to reporting crimes online that they would have otherwise called in. Citizens who have used the online reporting service have so far been pleased; in addition to the reports, the SFPD has received e-mail messages commending its online reporting service.

The benefits of online reporting can be seen from the perspective of both the law enforcement agency providing the service and from citizens using the service. Agencies have the ability to serve citizens as they normally would while keeping officers on the street. This prevents busy or understaffed departments from having to create “no-response” policies for lowpriority calls. Staff resources can also be better allocated as online reports gradually replace telephone reports and the workload for desk officers becomes manageable compared with a never-ending stream of citizens visiting police station lobbies to report crimes. The monetary savings are quite substantial when considering the volume of reports that are taken online as opposed to having officers take reports and write them. Depending on the vendor an agency chooses, online reporting systems can also facilitate crime tips, special form submissions, and volunteer applications and can even serve as a 3-1-1 system, so that citizens can conveniently report abandoned vehicles, barking dogs, or even streetlight outages.

Citizens see online reporting as a service enhancement that makes their lives easier. They can report crimes from the comfort of their homes or from convenient locations such as their offices. Waiting for officers to take a minor incident report is no longer a concern for citizens with long commutes, family obligations, or other appointments that would have to be postponed to file police reports in the traditional way. For example, in the morning rush to get to work, citizens who notice just before getting into their vehicle that it was subjected to a hit and run would much appreciate the option of reporting the crime from their office computer during their lunch hour.

How Does Online Reporting Work?

Two years ago, the SFPD began its search for an online reporting system. As expected, the market was limited in its offerings. Judged at face value, all of the existing programs appeared to be the same. Although most available programs did facilitate online reporting, the end result was little more than an e-mail sent to a desk officer, who would then have to copy and paste the information into a report or, in some cases, rewrite reports and submit them to their report management system (RMS) manually. However, Coplogic ( offered an online reporting system that not only collected information from citizens but also allowed citizen reports to be exported to an agency’s RMS.

In reporting a crime online, a citizen finds a link on an agency Web page and submits responses to queries about the incident on the page. Then, assigned agency personnel review the report and take action as outlined by department policy. However, depending on the features and capabilities of the online reporting system an agency uses, the experience can vary substantially.

Currently, the SFPD allows citizens to file online police reports for lost property, theft, vandalism and graffiti, vehicle tampering, vehicle burglary, and harassing phone calls. When citizens attempt to file a report, they are greeted with a screen outlining the process and requirements for submitting a report online. They are also given a set of links corresponding to the offense they plan to report. Each crime type has a designated reporting path that requires pertinent information specific to the crime being reported. The majority of the online report consists of choosing from drop-down menus to ensure ease of use and to avoid coding errors when the report is exported to the department’s RMS. Upon completion of the report, citizens have the option of modifying any portion of the report and printing out a temporary police report that is clearly marked as unofficial until the report has been reviewed.

Once an online report has been submitted, it is then sent to a reviewer’s inbox. Once a report reaches the inbox, reviewers have several options, but the primary duties involve reviewing, approving, rejecting, modifying, or following up on reports. Reviewing allows a reviewer to search for any possible errors. Approval prepares the report for export. Upon approval, the system sends an e-mail message with a PDF version of the police report to the citizen who filed the report, along with a final report number. Rejection of reports requires the reviewer to e-mail the submitter explaining why the report was rejected. The e-mailed explanation of rejection is also sent to a designated departmental e-mail account for accountability and internal-affairs purposes, in case the original submitter chooses to file a complaint about the rejection e-mail. An officer can modify a report with or without following up with the submitter. A log keeps track of any changes made to reports and also records which reviewer made the changes.

Approved reports are then exported out of the online reporting system and routed into the RMS. From this point on, reports are treated and viewed in the same way as an officer-initiated report. This saves an incredible amount of time, because the department commits practically no time to data entry. Other features within the system, such as allowing citizens to file supplemental reports, can also add to the amount of time and money saved by agencies using online reporting.

How to Choose an Online Reporting System

As with most products agencies use and shop for, no two online reporting systems are created equal. The parts of the system with which citizens interact, called citizen fronts, are all very similar, with minor aesthetic differences. Beyond this front is where agencies must look when deciding which online reporting system will best fit their needs. Following is a list of questions agencies should ask when choosing an online system:

  • Does the vendor offer to host the application?

  • Does the system come with multilingual support?

  • Is the system limited to crime reporting, or can it also facilitate crime tips and online forms, and can it be used as an online 3-1-1 system?
  • How user-friendly is the administrative portion of the program?

  • Does the system allow for approved reports to be routed to certain detectives or other specialized divisions?

  • How dynamic is the system with regard to making incident-specific changes?

  • Can citizens file supplemental reports to officer-initiated reports?

  • Does the reporting system interface with the agency’s existing RMS?

  • How do the vendor’s current customers feel about the system?

The interface option with the SFPD’s RMS was a major selling point. The feature planned for its new RMS will make online reporting truly beneficial not only for the citizen but for the agency as well.

Flexibility for the Future

The SFPD is currently using its system with a so-called soft launch—that is, by simply posting a link on its Web site—but a full-scale launch is also in the agency’s plans. Media coverage, kiosks, and dispatchers informing citizens about online filing will not only benefit citizens but also save the city thousands of dollars. Within the first month of going live with a soft launch, the citizens of San Francisco filed enough reports to result in a cost-savings equal to the price the agency paid for the entire online system.

Although the SFPD has not made full use of all the features available in its current system, the program allows for changes to be made on the fly without disruption to any live aspects of the program. Presently, the department is planning to use multilingual support in English and Spanish. The SFPD is also investigating the creation of a program similar to the Stockton, California, shoplifter program that uses online reporting to allow loss prevention and security officers at businesses to file shoplifting reports online, which allows patrol officers to simply pick up shoplifters, book them, and write a supplemental report. The SFPD also hopes to allow citizens to file supplemental reports to home and commercial burglaries in the event that an officer takes a report and the victim realizes that more items are missing from the crime scene than originally thought.

Online reporting is not a fad that will disappear in the near future, but rather an enhancement of police service that is here to stay. The SFPD is proud to be among the early pioneers providing the service and hopes to find other uses for the program. The benefits to police agencies far surpass those of alternatives such as telephone reporting and, of course, the old standby of having officers spend time taking reports in person. The San Francisco experience with online reporting has definitely exceeded all of its original expectations, and the SFPD looks forward to a future when online police reporting has become the rule rather than the exception.■



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 8, August 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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