Boston Police 2.0

What does the public lose in information as the department upgrades its digital presence?

The Boston Police Department, in the midst of a digital transformation, ironically bungled the opening of minutes of Thursday’s Twitter diversity forum by tweeting under the misspelled hashtag #BPDDiveristy.

The mistake was fixed after some requisite Internet mocking, and Commissioner Ed Davis wound up responding to a handful of questions under the correct hashtag for more than an hour. Then, he signed off by saying it was “great.”

The forum, which the BPD held so Davis could respond directly to his critics, is just the latest example of the department going full-fledged digital. The BPD also has a newly unveiled website revamp—a step up for anyone who’s ever experienced frustration from logging on the gaudy, old BPDNews.com—and is scrapping its printed annual report along with the treasure trove of information contained within it.

Police spokeswoman Cheryl Fiandaca said continuous alerts from BPDNews.com along with the department’s Facebook and Twitter feeds beat the once-a-year reports. “It is a more modern and timely way to report the same information contained in an annual report on a regular basis instead of just once a year,”  she said via email.

Fiandaca added that the printed annual report was “not cost or time effective. Rather, the BPD is using the blog BPDNews.com and its social media accounts to report data, statistics, and community involvement.”

It all begs an important question: Is the BPD ready to go entirely new school? Social media blasts out the latest news as it happens, but police department annual reports have the benefit of presenting information in a way the new website isn’t currently doing. Typically, the reports are chock-full of yesterday’s news: annual crime statistics, year-end spending, the size and scope of the force, details of new community initiatives, and reports of officer misconduct.

Howard Friedman, a Boston attorney who has successfully sued the city many times for violating civilians’ civil rights, said annual reports permit the public to know their police department. “A police department is an important public agency performing major public services,” Friedman said. “[Annual reports are] one of the few ways civilians can understand what their department is doing and how it’s doing it.”

BPD revealed there were 630 misconduct allegations filed against its officers in 2010, the last year it issued an annual report. The department also claimed that violent crime was down in 2010. Media reports characterized it as a rough year for homicides, including the Mattapan Massacre.

Annual reports aren’t just a tool for accountability. Who doesn’t want to geek out with graphs and charts? You can learn a lot from the 2010 annual report’s golden nuggets. That year, the department had:

• a $270.9 million budget;
• 534,000 911 calls fielded;
• 2,090 police officers;
• 787 civilian personnel;
• 400 text tips versus 386 by phone;
• 20 dogs;
• 15.8-year average length of service (and 44.4 median age);
• 3,928 foreign language calls (yet the website so far is entirely in English);
• more Twitter followers than the NYPD (and still does have more than them).

Daily tweets and Facebook posts don’t present a lasting image of change over time the way an annual report does, Friedman argued. “It’s a more permanent document than the website,” he said. “You can compare staffing levels—have they added or taken away divisions? It’s a way to let people know of new initiatives in the neighborhood and report on the results.”

It appears that Boston is on the forefront of doing away with the annual report. Other cities still publish annual reports and post the PDFs on their websites. Charlotte, a city slightly larger than Boston, uses its annual report to tout hosting the 2012 Democratic National Convention while disclosing misconduct and crime tallies. Washington, D.C., also posts them online, where you can read about crime and police misconduct.

At the same time, police departments are managing to use social media to get their message out, too, according to Nancy Kolb, senior program manager of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “They’re looking for the best and most efficient ways to be transparent and work with members of the community,” she said. “Social media is a great tool to bring community policing into the modern age,” adding that it’s up to “each individual agency” how they use their websites.

Samuel Walker, a national expert in police practices at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said departments should issue annual reports each year. The medium is not important so long as BPD puts out the same information online as it did in print. ”As long as the info gets out, it’s OK,” Walker said. “The form of delivery is not important. But it must be complete and timely information.”

Fiandaca said the revamped website is a work in progress and new details are being added. Asked about whether data on complaints against officers—a feature in annual reports—would be added, Fiandaca had this to say: “We are continuing to load data on the site. We will be posting that information in the coming months.”

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