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When neighbors turn against neighbors

Social media apps give rise to biased crime reporting

Jule Pattison-Gordon
When neighbors turn against neighbors
In some neighborhoods, social media apps like Nextdoor have sparked allegations of racial profiling.

When Krystal Adams, a sales engineering manager in Joliet, Illinois took her 15-year-old son for his first driving lesson, an undeveloped street in her subdivision seemed like the perfect spot.

But minutes after her son took his first turn behind the wheel, a police cruiser showed up, lights flashing.

The officer said he was called because of suspicious behavior: “Someone was driving too slow behind the subdivision,” Adams recalls.

Adams, who has lived in the predominately white area for eight years, knew it was her neighbors who alerted the police. The next time Adams took her son out for a driving lesson, she posted a message on Nextdoor, a social media site she and others in her subdivision had been using for the last six months. The site is designed to help neighbors share news and advice, including warnings about anything that seems suspicious or criminal.

“I said ‘I’m teaching my son to drive. Please don’t call the police,’” Adams recalled. “My neighbors said, ‘If you weren’t doing anything illegal, why are you complaining?’”

In the following weeks, Adams says she went back and forth with her neighbors over their postings about blacks walking through the subdivision, a Mexican listening to loud music and other incidents she says said should not have warranted suspicion.

When Adams pushed back, she received a slew of vitriolic responses she likened to cyber bullying. She complained to the site’s moderator, but he told her he didn’t think the responses were racist.

Platforms for racial profiling

Adams’ experiences, and those of her black and Latino neighbors in the Joliet subdivision, are being replicated across the country as sites like Nextdoor are increasing in popularity. Already 78,000 U.S. neighborhoods use the site, says Nextdoor. In neighborhoods like Oakland, California and Georgetown, D.C., many blacks say the websites are platforms that allow their white neighbors to give vent to their racist attitude toward blacks.

In Oakland, California messages by Nextdoor users have included a posting mistaking a black mail carrier for a burglar and a message calling for a black boy to be arrested for not picking up his dog’s poop, according to the East Bay Express.

In Georgetown, D.C., the social media app sparking controversy is Operation GroupMe — a chat room app connecting businesses, police and residents that was launched by a collaboration between the Georgetown Business Improvement District and Washington, D.C. police. It aims to help businesses send warnings about shoplifters, including messages and photos.

Between January and October 2015, more than 3,000 messages were sent over GroupMe, and of these approximately 70 percent reported blacks, generally accusing them of shoplifting or seeming suspicious, according to a review by the Business Improvement District. Individuals targeted by suspicious store clerks and owners include black shoppers and black store clerks. The accusations were rarely merited — Joe Sternlieb, CEO and president of Georgetown BID told CBS New he estimated less than five percent of African Americans reported on the site get arrested.

Entrenched bias

Social networking sites such as Nextdoor are not inherently discriminatory, said Maurice Mitchell, an organizer with Black Bird, an organization that provides support to Black Lives Matter and other groups connected to the national Movement for Black Lives. But the way they are being used demonstrates the intractability of racist attitudes.

“I think they’re exposing the pernicious nature of white supremacy,” he said. “It’s not located in any one institution. It’s baked into the DNA of the country. We need to change the culture. We need to get to the root.”

While activists in Boston and across the country have pursued specific reforms, like body-worn cameras and independent review panels, Mitchell said no one strategy will curtail the excesses of police abuse.

“There’s no magic bullet,” he said. “There’s no one reform. If you understand the nature of racism and white supremacy, you realize no one thing can effect change.”

Mitchell said activists in the Movement For Black Lives have succeeded in raising awareness of the deep-seated biases in US culture and institutions.

“Over the past year, starting with the movement in Ferguson [Missouri], people have been very intentional about shifting the conversation and how we talk about black life.”

Validating paranoia

Pervasive racial biases among civilians have been exposed by offline programs as well.

The Department of Homeland Security’s “See something, say something” campaign encourages U.S. residents to report suspicious behavior by their neighbors or passersby. But in giving few guidelines around what constitutes “suspicious,” law enforcement encourage residents to give voice to anything that alarms them, no matter how small or unsupported, said Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty program. The result: irrational fears — including racism — seem to be validated.

When public safety programs make a blanket call for residents to report suspicious activity, “It’s almost like police are saying, ‘Anything you are afraid of is valuable information to us,’” said Crockford. “Well, we know many people in this society are afraid of other human beings and things that should not provoke fear.”

Crockford said law enforcement officials across the country have complained of being forced to waste time on calls that are based on nothing but racial fears.

“People in law enforcement have been reporting frustration on receiving way too many 911 calls from scared white people about presence of people with darker skin near them,” she said.

Daily detainment

Social media is just another facilitator of profiling practices. Before the sites existed, some police officers say they struggled with white paranoia.

A Boston Police officer, who recently was assigned to Area E5 in the predominantly white neighborhood of West Roxbury, said he often received calls about suspicious behavior that turned out to be about black people going about their daily lives.

“They would call up and say there’s a black man in the neighborhood,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We would go in and check it out. It ended up being a dragnet approach. Sometimes it was just a kid coming home from school, minding his business. We would have to go through the whole procedure of a field interrogation.”

Fear spreads

Before Nextdoor, white neighbors communicated their fear of blacks directly to police dispatchers. But with the advent of social media, the crowdsourcing of suspicion has allowed blacks to listen in on the conversations. And many are discouraged by what they’re hearing.

In Joliet, Adams said she had cordial relations with her neighbors before they joined the Nextdoor site.

“We always had a sense of community,” she said.

But reading posts has changed Adams’ view of the people in her area and her sense of comradery.

“Know thy neighbor. Nextdoor seems like a site of bullying. People hide behind the power of the pen instead of really getting to know their neighbors.”

Two weeks ago, Adams left the Joliet Nextdoor group for good. The cyber bullying stopped, but she said she now fears her neighbors’ suspicions could lead to a deadly police encounter, the kind captured on numerous cellphone videos over the last year.

“My son is a sophomore,” she said. “He wanted to walk three blocks to a friend’s house. I said, “I’ll take you. And call me when you’re coming home. I’ll pick you up.’ He said, ‘It’s only three blocks.’ But I don’t want to deal with the aftermath of what happens.”

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