Sometimes when residents of Fishers, Ind., see something questionable on their streets, such as a strange vehicle, a person who is acting suspicious or an erratic driver, they hesitate to let police know about the situation because it doesn’t qualify as a 9-1-1 call.
So instead of notifying police, a resident might do nothing at all. To the Fishers Police Department, that’s a behavior the department wants to change through a new CrimeWatch mobile app that it released on May 18 for free use by any of the city’s 90,000 residents.
The app, available for Android and iOS devices, lets participating residents take a photo of suspicious events, check off a box describing what they see and file a quick report to officers who are out in the streets getting notes on their in-car computers. The CrimeWatch app is not for 9-1-1 calls—residents still are being urged to call 9-1-1 for shootings, assaults and other serious crimes—but it is a way for the city’s 104 cops to stay in touch with what’s happening on the streets, via direct reports from concerned citizens. It’s also not an app to get tips from residents. If a call becomes an emergency call, residents can hit a button on the app to directly call 9-1-1 for help.
“This is going to change the way we do law enforcement,” Capt. Ed Gebhart, who spearheaded the app initiative with the department, told eWEEK. “It will allow community members to contact police cars on the streets at the time they need them.”
Once a resident reports an incident through the app, the alert goes out to officers on their in-car computers within 15 seconds so they can respond while the suspicious activity or other incident is occurring. “People who send information through the app can feel like things are being dealt with,” said Gebhart. After police respond, residents are sent an automated text message to let them know police checked out their report.
The app was built by a local software developer, Auri Rahimzadeh, who spent about 18 months building the app and the back end that was needed to connect it to the department’s existing systems. About 1,200 residents have installed the app so far.
Residents can select from several kinds of reports to make using the app, including a theft from a house, a theft from a vehicle, a suspicious person, a suspicious vehicle, an audible alarm and erratic driving.
Gebhart said he had the inspiration for the app as he watched the officers at a police station roll call before hitting the streets one night. “I saw half of our officers on cell phones. This is how they communicate with other people. I got to thinking about technology and how they arrive on scene” and put the ideas together.
The Fishers app aims to better engage a mobile-driven community, improve police response times and proactively circumvent crime, according to the department. Residents download the app and then register it using their name, address, phone number and email address so police know who the reports are coming from, according to Gebhart. Rahimzadeh built the app and did the development work for free and Gebhart donated his time as well.
“It’s vital in law enforcement to get an accurate description of a suspect before we get out of our cars,” said Gebhart, a 22-year veteran of the Fishers Police Department. “This is how this is going to change law enforcement.”
Though the app has only been available for a week, about a dozen residents have used it so far to send reports to police officers. “It’s a communications piece between the community and police,” he said. “When they need an officer around and they think it’s unimportant, I want them to use this technology because we want to respond. What we’re trying to do is use the information people give us to positively patrol the streets of Fishers.”
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The police department is willing to share the app and its technology with other communities around the nation who would like to use it as well, said Gebhart.
“The business environment in the city of Fishers allows its employees to innovate and make the city better” by working together, he said. Gebhart met Rahimzadeh through a business incubator in the city called Launch Fishers, and they took their idea and ran with it.
“This isn’t just a police department initiative, it’s a city effort,” he said.
Lt. Zach Perron, the public information officer of the Palo Alto (Calif.) Police Department and the general vice chairman of the Public Information Officer section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, told eWEEK that apps like those being used now in Fishers are truly transforming the ways that officers can respond to crimes in their communities.
As society is changing, police departments “need to change also and leverage technologies as best they can in whatever way their residents seem comfortable,” said Perron. “While it may seem odd to some people that someone would want to pick up a smartphone to report something using an app, that would not feel strange to someone who grew up with digital media.”
Police departments like the one in Fishers “are really on the forefront of interacting with their community and it’s great,” said Perron. “The overarching idea is to give people as many channels as possible to provide information to law enforcement. When you funnel people to a particular method, that may prevent participation for other people. Mobile apps are another step in getting input from residents.”