nherent in modern policing is the need to reach out to the communities served. To this end, police officers attend neighborhood meetings, organize crime prevention campaigns, mail out newsletters, and distribute business cards. Today's most effective communication tool is the Internet, and more departments are developing their Web sites.
This interest in police Web sites is not surprising. The last decade has seen the Internet, particularly the Web, become a central source for everyday information and services. Customers routinely view Web pages to answer mundane questions such as a retail store's hours of operation and when the latest blockbuster movie plays at the local theater. They also use the Web to do research. In terms of services, the Internet has revolutionized shopping, banking, and myriad other everyday tasks. The reliance on Web-based technologies gives law enforcement another opportunity to reach in its constituents.
This article explores the extent and nature of the use of Web sites by municipal police departments. In addition to crime suppression, many police departments stress the importance of restoring and cultivating positive relationships between police departments and residents. This research considers the contents of the Web sites in terms of value and usefulness to the citizens and achieving the informational goals of the police departments. The article concludes with recommendations identifying the essentials for a police department's Web site.
The authors reviewed all of the Web sites related to police departments in New Jersey in 2003. New Jersey is a populous state, varied in demographics and crime problems and relatively large in geographic coverage, making it a composite of U.S. law enforcement. Although the data in this report is more than two years old, and although more departments are expected to have developed their sites and others have enhanced their Web presence since this research was completed, this review will provide the reader with a baseline of Web site development and content of law enforcement public Web sites.
The Web Sites
The authors first compiled a list of all the municipalities in New Jersey and then attempted to find the Web site associated with the police department in each municipality using a popular search engine, Google. Once the Web site was located, that department was coded as having a Web presence and the Web site's content was subsequently analyzed. There were several possible outcomes to the searching process.
- No Web Page: No Web site found after several searches.
- Municipal Web Site: A Web site was found, but it was embedded in a broader Web site, in most cases the city's Web site. As such, the police department's Web site did not exist on its own. While these police departments can claim to have Web presence, the problem with these Web sites is that the police department may not have full control over the content and the police page follows the form and basic content of the other city agencies or bureaus. In these cases, a Webmaster is usually in charge of the Web site for the entire city, and they control the frequency of updates and basic formatting issues.
- Generic List Site: A police department Web site was found, but it was as part of a generic list of police departments across the state. These Web pages offered minimal information and most had only the department address, the name of the chief, and a contact phone number.
- Unofficial Web Site: There was an independent Web page for the department, but it was not an official site endorsed by city or police officials. These were usually sites made by individual officers out of personal interest. Some were informational, others were platforms for political ranting, and yet others offered little more than a few pictures of police cars with waling sirens and flashing lights.
- Official Web Site: An official, independent Web site created and maintained by the police department. These sites were under the control of the police department, were updated often, and provided relevant information to the community at large.
- Under Construction Web Site: A police department Web site that was inaccessible because it was either under construction or subject to other errors that prevented the researchers from viewing the site properly.
In 2003 a total of 566 police department Web sites were surveyed, each belonging to a separate municipality. These police departments represented 21 counties and served jurisdictions that ranged from small towns to large urban centers.
Overall Web Presence
Of all the municipalities, 40 (n = 226) were found to have some sort of Web presence, meaning that after an Internet search, some sort of Web site appeared. Those departments that only appeared by name on generic lists of police departments were not considered to have a presence on the Web.
Of the 226 municipalities that had some sort of Web presence, 63 percent were official Web pages designed and updated by the police department. This is a promising finding, in that most police departments using Web-based technology are responsible for their own content and have a direct link to the communities they serve.
Contents of Web Pages
The content found on the various police department sites was evaluated. While determining the valuable elements of a Web site rests on subjective notions, it is possible to rank the elements that are most likely to meet the needs of the community. Thirty-five elements are deemed important for Web site content and each item1 was given a point value between one and three, allowing for an overall Web site score. 2 This was important because simply having an official Web site does not mean that the contents are useful or well designed.
Figure 1 shows the extent to which each item was found on the police department Web sites. 3 The results have been sorted in descending order to illustrate the relevant contents of Web site.
Figure 1 reveals a wide discrepancy in Web site content. For example, only 11 percent displayed pictures of individual officers, only 16 percent provided crime data and only 1 percent provided interactive neighborhood crime maps. Very few departments allowed online surveys (4 percent), and 58 percent provided a general e-mail capacity designed to allow residents to voice concerns directly to the department. In terms of format, 40 percent of the Web sites were deemed user-friendly, meaning they were easy to navigate and contained useful, relevant, well-organized content. Only 23 percent of police sites allowed residents to leave anonymous tips.
Crime Problems and Police Web Sites
Were police departments in jurisdictions with the highest crime rates maintaining a Web site to reach constituents, as part of their strategy to reduce social disorder and criminal activity? To find out, the authors used the Uniform Crime Reports to identify the municipalities with the ten highest crime indexes and then evaluated the nature and content of their Web presence using the same point value.4
Figure 2 shows that in 2003, six of the top 10 busiest police departments in the state had a Web presence, and that 40 percent of departments had official Web sites. Of the four with official sites, one scored the highest possible of any police department Web site in the state while three scored below 70 percent, with one reaching only 36 percent. Police department Web sites are not a cure-all for all social ills and information gaps, but these results demonstrate that Web-based technology remains underused by many police departments, including those in high-crime jurisdictions.
The integration of modern technology with today's policing methods is commonplace in law enforcement departments. For example, police departments use computers for a variety of purposes, such as interagency information sharing, transmission of field data, and Internet access. Almost 60 percent of police academies now provide computer and information systems training to new recruits.5 This training serves as a foundation to prepare recruits for the incorporation of computers into their policing functions. In this capacity, many police departments use mobile data terminals, laptop computers, or handheld computers, many of which include complex elements such as GPS technology.
The Internet has become a valuable resource to many members of the public as they regularly seek its power to address of issues, needs, and concerns.
The police are no exception. According to a 2003 report by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, 56 percent of all departments used computers for Internet access, including more than 80 percent of those serving a population of 25,000 or more. Local police, in particular, have demonstrated an increasing trend: more than twice as many local police departments used computers for Internet access in 2000 (56 percent) as in 1997 (24 percent). 6 These statistics support the notion that the infrastructure is present to carry out Web-based endeavors as most police departments today are hard-wired to the Internet and able to download and upload information with equal effort. It is very reasonable to expect this continued used of the Internet to increase among departments.
Importance of Official Department Web Sites
Most police departments have yet to establish an agency Web site. According to a 2000 report from BJS, "Of the local police departments that collectively serve the majority of citizens throughout the United States, only 18 percent of them have an established homepage on the Internet."7 As of 1999, 88 percent of departments that serve 1 million or more residents have recognized the importance of this resource and have established an Internet homepage.8 Many of the large cities currently maintain quite extensive and informative Web sites.
Improvement of communication between the local police departments and the communities they serve has long been a challenge. Communication through personal contact, newsletters, community meetings, and cable access television have long been valued by local police. Adding the power of the Internet to these other methods of community outreach would be beneficial to the local police department. The establishment of department Web sites on the Internet would be the first step in using the power of this limitless resource.
As providers of vital public services, police departments should examine the extent of their Web presence and create and maintain sites that are informational, helpful, and user-friendly. Through the advent of Web publishing software packages, many police departments can move towards making this a reality.
Simply creating a Web page, however, is not enough. Police departments can create Web pages, but these are of little use if residents see them as irrelevant or feel as though they only represent an insincere community-building effort. Police department Web sites should invite residents to learn more about their department, including current police practices and the department's vision for the future. A good Web site should have something for everybody, from information about paying parking tickets to key phone numbers in the municipality for social services.
In short, police Web sites can enhance police-community relations and address the needs of residents by providing content that is relevant and practical.
Recommendations for Police Department Web Sites
Using the Web, law enforcement can communicate with their public 24 hours a day (everyday) on a large and varying number of topics potentially exchanging an unlimited amount of information: "For a fraction of the cost and time required in the past, police agencies can educate the community electronically about neighborhood crime trends and wanted criminals, drug abuse prevention, missing children, youth programs, department and city services, and a host of other useful information."9
This research suggests that police department Web sites should have three separate but equally important goals:
Educate: Police departments should see the Web site as a way to disseminate relevant information they would like residents to know about. This information should be divided into descriptive information, such as:
- Name and contact information of the chief
- History of the police department
- Organizational charts
- Hiring and recruitment information
- Pictures of individual officers
FAQs (frequently asked questions about routine items) and operational information, such as:
- Crime trends and crime maps
- Street closures
- Emergency information (what to do in case of disaster)
- Parking regulations
- Fines for various infractions
- Information about DWI checkpoints
- Recent arrests
Direct: Many people will come to a department Web site because they are looking for information. While this information may not be related to police, the police Web site needs to fulfill its duty as a social service agency by directing people to the relevant agencies or bureaus. For example, police Web sites should have contact information or links to agencies such as the following:
- Department of motor vehicles
- Code enforcement bureau
- Animal control
- Gas companies (in case of leaks)
- Public works
- Municipal court
- Fire department
Request: Police departments should also see Web sites as a tool to learn about the quality of their services. Web sites can be a great forum to gather information about resident experiences with police services or to ask them for suggestions for improving police practices. Many police departments already offer resident surveys on their Web sites, allowing residents a voice in their perception of local police practices. In addition to building a communication bridge with the community, resident surveys can also be powerful management tools. For example, a commander may learn about a problem area highlighted by the surveys, leading to a change in patrol allocation.
Also, asking residents to send e-mail messages to police administrators with tips, ideas, or suggestions may lead to some innovative police practices and community partnerships. Residents need to feel as though the police value their input, and Web sites are a great way for residents to share information with police agencies. For example, a police department could show the different beats in a city with the pictures and email addresses of the officers or commanders responsible for each beat. People residing in different beats would therefore know exactly who to address their concerns to. The concerned police parties would then learn of specific problems in their beats.
A Web site can personalize the department and the officers and provide transparency to the community. Information contained on a Web site can breakdown unknown barriers and establishes a sense of involvement by residents. Citizens can become ambassadors for crime prevention and community safety by using the information obtained from the department's Web site. The department's Web site can also eliminate many bureaucratic restraints, demystify many process and procedures, and lead to greater under standing between the citizens and their police department. James Onder noted in an article published by the Community Policing Consortium that an agency Web site can promote community policing by providing a look inside the agency, personalizing officers and staff, and giving the public a sense of involvement. Onder noted that when e-forms for downloading, or for filling in and submitting right online, are available, citizens are more apt to submit a suggestion, because they can do it from the ease and privacy of their home computer. When the department is this accessible, the level of interaction between the community and police tends to blossom.10
The Need to Update
It is important to maintain and update the department's Web site regularly. The baseline information should always be readily available to serve the public, while enhancements should constantly be considered.
Linking to other official sites is also helpful to visitors to the site. For example, the National Sex Offender Public Registry (NSOPR) by the U.S. Department of Justice is a valuable link for parents. The NSOPR is a searchable Web site that links state and territory sex offender public registries and allows users access to public information about sex offenders throughout the United States. Launched on July 20, 2005, the NSOPR is linking 22 state registries, offering information on almost 200,000 registered sex offenders nationwide and soon all states will link to the site, giving the public access to information on all 500,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. Users can initiate local, state, and national searches based on a personal name, zip code, county, city, or town. According to the Department of Justice, plans are in place to provide additional NSOPR options, especially radius searches and mapping capabilities.11
The Internet and the use of Web-based technology has become a staple of modern life. While many departments have embraced the efficacy of Web sites, too many municipalities still lack an adequate web presence. Jurisdictions simply cannot afford to be without adequate web pages or to be content with unofficial sites developed by third parties. Furthermore, departments need to carefully consider the content of the web page and ensure that it speaks to the needs of the community by offering relevant information instead of cartoons of police cars with flashing lights and looping sound files playing "Hill Street Blues" in the background. ■