Increasingly, communities are turning to technology to help solve problems that the police are unable—or unwilling—to attend to. So that’s what I did: I went online, joining an increasing number of people who are using local networks to solve crimes that have affected them, such as robberies, reckless driving, and even plant theft.
One in 10 posts on the neighbor-networking site Nextdoor is related to crime and policing matters. I had nearly 800 neighbors on that platform and was also in several neighborhood groups on Facebook, whose members totaled 74,000. In all, my description of the attack on Zoey was shared hundreds of times. By circulating information about it, my neighbors and I were participating in a ritual that is modern only in terms of the technology it now relies on.
In the UK, as in other places, collective action is filling a gap left by a diminishing police presence. A significant reason for this is that budget cuts have forced a decline of nearly 23% in the police workforce, according to Unison, the country’s largest union. London’s Metropolitan Police has been the worst affected, with over 3,000 jobs lost between 2012 and 2016. This includes 3,350 jobs for community support officers—a role created specifically to make the police more visible. These officers had been brought in to work with the community, says Menaal Munshey, a criminologist with the United Nations. “But because of the cuts, that link has been broken. And the community feels like it’s on its own.”
That frustration is likely why anonymous tipsters opted to reach out to me, a complete stranger, rather than go to the police. Previous appeals to the police had apparently fallen on deaf ears.
Of course, such information sharing isn’t always a good thing. A study published last year by Dutch academics Ronald van Steden and Shanna Mehlbaum confirmed what is already observed: neighborhood groups have “undesirable social and moral by-products” such as discrimination, stigmatization, exclusion of strangers, and excessive social control. “If people are constantly encouraged to be aware of anything and anyone ‘out-of-the-ordinary’, such a process may slowly but surely open the doors for harsh surveillance practices to creep into people’s normal lives. This, in turn, stimulates the erection of a digital pillory, a witch-hunt for (assumed) paedophiles, exclusive forms of ‘stranger danger’ and other potential for voyeuristic mob activism. It is not difficult to recognise that democratic values of openness, tolerance and mutual respect are at stake here.”