Racial Profiling Via Nextdoor.com 

White Oakland residents are increasingly using the popular social networking site to report "suspicious activity" about their Black neighbors — and families of color fear the consequences could be fatal.

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Through Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meetings and other local organizing groups, residents in the hills have pressured the city for years to devote more police officers to patrolling their streets and investigating property crimes and violent offenses in their neighborhoods. Motivated by the belief that OPD prioritizes resources in high-crime areas and does not do enough to protect their homes in the hills, residents have repeatedly taken matters into their own hands. Some have formed traditional neighborhood watch groups in which volunteers walk the streets. Others have installed security cameras. And many neighborhoods have launched private email listservs that enable residents to efficiently communicate with their neighbors. In the early days of the listservs, the idea was that residents could use the online communities to coordinate efforts to push for police officers — and also share tips about suspicious activity or crimes in real time.

One of the first in Oakland was a Dimond email listserv that launched roughly seventeen years ago, according to Ann Nomura, who is Mitsu Fisher's wife and the mother of James and Emma. "It was very much a grassroots tool for organizing," said Nomura. "It was really focused on getting basic services."

But as more of these lists emerged and grew in membership — and as concerns about crime escalated — the tone shifted, according to Nomura, who has subscribed to numerous listservs over the years. Eventually, many groups frequently attracted inflammatory posts or racially insensitive messages about crime trends and suspicious people, she said. Nomura sent me one 2012 example from the Dimond group in which a white woman warned of a "light skinned black female" talking on her cell and walking her dog. "I don't recognize her. Has anyone described any suspect of crime like her?" the neighbor wrote. Although some responded that the post seemed unnecessary, others thanked her for sharing the information and agreed that the woman seemed suspicious. Eventually, a neighbor chimed in to say that the woman lived a few streets away and has lived in the same house her whole life.

When lifelong Oakland resident Leland Thompson joined "Glenfriends" — a Yahoo group for the Glenview neighborhood that started in 2001 — he was shocked to see how many posts described suspicious people with vague descriptions that matched him: "Black man, five-ten, 160 pounds, bald," he said. Thompson told me that he and his wife, who is white, now have a running joke in which she'll read the listserv and tell him, "'Oh, you're on Glenfriends again!'"

click to enlarge Oakland native Leland Thompson became so frustrated with Glenview residents profiling him and fearing he might be a criminal suspect that he stopped jogging in his own neighborhood. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Oakland native Leland Thompson became so frustrated with Glenview residents profiling him and fearing he might be a criminal suspect that he stopped jogging in his own neighborhood.

After seeing so many posts warning of dangerous Black men, Thompson, who grew up in the projects of East Oakland and has lived in Glenview for seventeen years, said he stopped wearing hoodies. "It's sad because people are not seeing individuals. They're just seeing profiles and they're acting on it," he said. "Even though this is my community and my home, they just see a silhouette."

Thompson, an executive coach and leadership trainer, used to go jogging at 5:30 a.m. in his neighborhood, but he said residents would clearly get scared of him, and eventually he decided it was only a matter of time before someone called the police on him. He never runs in his neighborhood anymore. "How come I have to change to make you comfortable? I have to show you that I'm not threatening as opposed to you making the assumption that based on my behavior, I haven't posed a threat?" he said with a loud sigh.

While lists such as Glenfriends became increasingly divisive over time, they weren't necessarily reaching wide audiences in Oakland and tended not to have formal partnerships with OPD. But in 2011, Nextdoor.com entered the Oakland market, offering a more advanced, well-designed website for neighborhood messaging — a platform that eventually attracted interest from police. And both supporters and critics of the company now agree: It was a game-changer for online communication and crime reporting in Oakland.

When Oakland Police Lieutenant Chris Bolton first learned about Nextdoor, it was clear to him that the website offered an unprecedented opportunity. Bolton — who is the department's social media guru and is known for his active use of Twitter — said a resident of the Golden Gate neighborhood in North Oakland suggested to him in 2013 that police consider using the site to communicate directly with residents. At that point, there were roughly 7,500 Oakland residents on Nextdoor.

"I was drawn to it personally because of the organic way that neighborhoods formed and chose to communicate with one another," Bolton said in an interview. "I just feel that the more people talk with one another, the more we know our neighbors. And the more we share information, the stronger that neighborhood can be."

In June 2013, the department launched a pilot partnership with Nextdoor in North Oakland, which enabled OPD to have a profile on the site that officials could use to send out messages to residents. In April 2014, OPD and Nextdoor launched a formal citywide partnership, and today police regularly publish alerts, suspect photos, missing person reports, crime statistics, and other public safety information. Sometimes, police send out citywide alerts, but more often local area commanders write neighborhood-specific posts for limited clusters of users.

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