University City

CMPD joins neighborhood networking site

Residents using the private social-networking site Nextdoor can now count Charlotte-Mecklenburg police among those with whom they can communicate.

Nextdoor, which organizers and users describe as a geographically-exclusive, neighborhood-specific version of Facebook, is a free site and mobile application that allows only residents who have verified their home address to see or use their particular neighborhood’s page.

Charlotte-area users of Nextdoor call it a multitasking resource: it’s a way to list items such as furniture for sale; for finding lost pets; for recommendations on a baby sitter or contractor; to report suspicious activity; and advertise an upcoming neighborhood event. Residents can invite neighbors via email, or Nextdoor can mail invitation postcards.

Anyone can sign up and see if their neighborhood has an existing page, or become a founding member and start sending invitations. Additionally, Nextdoor leaders can see if other neighborhoods in the area use the service and share information applicable to the wider community.

CMPD officially partnered with Nextdoor on Sept. 19, after residents who already use it suggested the department use it to communicate, too. Officers aren’t able to see what other types of communication happen on a neighborhood’s site, but they can issue alerts, crime stats and other information. Additionally, residents can publicly or privately message officers.

Police officials said Nextdoor isn’t the appropriate way to request emergency services, but CMPD Officer Ryan Botzenmayer said the network will help the department connect with residents in a particular area more directly than emailing an HOA president, especially for time-sensitive items.

“If we have a bank robbery and the suspect is on foot and last seen headed into a neighborhood, we can send an urgent alert,” Botzenmayer said, adding that Nextdoor can act like a faster version of the department’s existing land-line alert service, in that users can get alerts on mobile devices.

“We can let (residents) know to call 911 if they see anything, and we’ll follow up with another message when we catch (the suspect).”

About 50 people attended each of two community information meetings held the week of Sept. 16, Botzenmayer said. It appeared about half the crowd already had signed up for Nextdoor; a quarter of attendees had heard of it and wanted more information; and the rest planned to sign up, he said.

Jen Harding, communications manager with Nextdoor, said the site has been active in Charlotte for years, and that about 247 of the 352 mapped neighborhoods – 70percent of the city – already use the service. Now, with CMPD as a partner, word of mouth likely will attract more users. “It’s just another tool the Police Department is using to increase neighbor-to-neighbor communication,” Harding said.

Nanci Hightower is a Nextdoor member who lives in Mallard Glen Townhomes. She said she joined to stay informed about neighborhood news. “I thought I could be invisible and still know what’s going on in my community… I’m not a social person,” she said.

“But I love when I’m walking my dog and see a police officer I recently met at a social gathering (facilitated by Nextdoor.)”

Mallard Glen has used the site to stay updated on safety concerns and report suspicious activity, something Hightower said can act as a deterrent to local crime. “Now we’re watching them and stopping them,” she said.

Rhonda Mathis is the founding member of Nextdoor in Villa Heights, where she has lived for about six years.

With nearly 900 homes in her neighborhood, Mathis said, it was challenging to get to know other residents. “We have people moving in all the time, and it’s really difficult to connect with everybody,” she said.

In the roughly six months since she first signed up for Nextdoor, Villa Heights residents have used it to make recommendations for service providers; coordinate with residents interested in working on a matching neighborhood grant; plan a social gathering; and track down a missing bike, Mathis said.

“Someone had their bike taken, and we put a picture of it on Nextdoor. It went across three or four neighborhoods and people gave tips of ‘I think I saw it here,’ and we were finally able to recover it.”

Now that CMPD is on the site as well, Mathis said, she believes more people will be drawn to the crime updates. “I’m looking forward to the police (involvement). When we have certain things going on – (suspects) they’re looking for or residents looking for more information – the neighborhood will be more informed, more quickly.”

In Cornelius, Robert Rickard is the HOA president and founding Nextdoor member for the Stratford Forest neighborhood.

Rickard said he signed up for the site to establish more communication within the 125-home community. One of the most attractive aspects was the privacy Nextdoor offers.

“I thought it was a very good communication methodology,” he said. “It’s very internal, and any information you put in there doesn’t get transmitted outside the community.”

In the nearly nine months the neighborhood has used Nextdoor, Rickard said, he’s noticed the traffic and posting on the their page has been growing. “We’re getting new members as word of mouth gets out a little more.”

Stratford Forest has used Nextdoor to help track down dogs roaming the neighborhood and to help set up the community yard sale and holiday-related community activities, he said.

While the neighborhood demographics range from kids to retirees and senior adults, Rickard said, he’s received great feedback from users about how easy it is to use, especially from older adults. “The only thing the seniors maybe have trouble with is remembering their password, but who doesn’t,” Rickard said.

“The site could be a great forum, especially for communication between people who don’t necessarily get out as much.”

It’s too soon for Rickard to tell exactly how CMPD will use the networking site, but he anticipates a positive response from residents. “If there’s an abduction nearby in Cornelius, will that be pushed to Nextdoor sites in the area? I think people would be very responsive to that, positively,” Rickard said.

“I think it’d be beneficial if Cornelius and Huntersville police were able to get on, the same way CMPD does.”

In the Steele Creek area, Lauren Birago is the founding Nextdoor member for the Stowe Creek community. She and her husband signed up about two months ago.

Of the nearly 420 homes in the neighborhood, about 35 have signed up for the service, Birago said, and she expects the partnership with CMPD to draw even more. While Nextdoor will send out electronic invites, as well as postcards, Birago said, she’s going to create new fliers to distribute around the neighborhood that highlight CMPD’s participation.

“I think it’s going to cause people to look at the site more,” she said. “People want to know what’s going on.”

So far, users in Stowe Creek have used the site to list items for sale, as well as offer services such as baby-sitting or tutoring, Birago said, adding she hopes the site will help facilitate the organization of neighborhood-wide social gatherings and help create a close-knit community.

“You can walk by a neighbor and not say anything, but I hope Nextdoor will create something closer,” she said. “It might be wishful thinking, but I think it’d be really cool to know who you’re talking to or be able to ask for something and not feel out of line.”

Jane Simpson is the founding member of Nextdoor in Park South Station, which organizers said is the third-most-active site in Charlotte.

Simpson, a Washington, D.C., native, moved to the community three years ago after spending more than a decade in a 200-plus home neighborhood in Tyson’s Corner, Va.

“We could never get anything going, there was no method to reach out to others,” Simpson said, noting she wished she had know about Nextdoor while she lived there.

When development of Park South Station is complete, Simpson estimated there will be roughly 600 homes. But of the roughly 250 townhomes currently occupied, Simpson said, nearly 140 use the service to address parking issues; problems with the community’s gate; a broken sprinkler system; and to publicize the social mixers neighbors host every few weeks and the yoga classes that have started at the community clubhouse.

“I know so many people now, I can say ‘hi’ when I’m out walking.”

Simpson said she’s looking forward to CMPD’s participation, especially after a neighborhood townhome was broken into in the middle of the afternoon, she said. “That’s my number one thing, is the safety of people in the development.”

Naomi Skarzinski is the founding member of Nextdoor for Summerfield Townhomes in Matthews. Also the community’s HOA president, Skarzinskis said Summerfield has been using the site only about two months but that she’s already pleased with it. She cited the example of the monthly board meeting, held every third Monday.

“We have 352 units in our community. Even though we have a newsletter and sandwich board for meetings, we still get comments from homeowners that they didn’t know about it and we need better communication,” she said.

“(Nextdoor) is more instantaneous than a newsletter they may or may not read.… People have a tendency to open their email before their snail mail.”

Skarzinski said she posted the information about September’s meeting on Nextdoor and got a response from four homeowners, two of whom actually came to the meeting. “That’s one thing that’s got me excited… for years I’ve told people the meeting is the third Monday of the month, but we rarely have members show up for board meetings,” she said.

Skarzinski has lived in Summerfield nearly 14 years and said she also serves on CMPD’s Independence Division Advisory Council. Officers always have been great about communicating with residents, she said, but added that Nextdoor will make it even easier.

“We’ve discussed ways before at quarterly meetings (that) CMPD could communicate better and have a better relationship… and communications with citizens within the community. I think it’s an excellent tool.”

Skarzinski said she’s also a fan of the ability to connect with neighborhoods nearby, especially in an emergency event like an ice storm.

“If someone couldn’t get roads cleared out, we can put an email out to communities in the area about the issues,” she said. “I see it as a good communication tool all around, emergencies, get-togethers, meetings, the whole bit.”

Nextdoor co-founder Sarah Leary attended the Sept. 19 announcement of CMPD’s partnership with the site. She said the service is used in more than 19,000 neighborhoods around the country and at least 1,000 in North Carolina. “People seem to understand the importance of communication,” Leary said.

She said the partnership with CMPD represents the second-largest on the East Coast, after New York City in June.