A wiser alternative for University Heights?

In the closing months of 2016, neighbors posted on Nextdoor.com, a social media site, that they heard gunshots. One resident posted: “Hats off to the police that were here immediately.” University Heights police found shell casings, corroborating resident posts.

On Nov. 6, posts by the neighbors discussed their personal experiences concerning safety and enforcement of city ordinances. One post recalled a conversation with Mayor Susan Infeld about the challenges of enforcing ordinances of homes owned by non-resident owners.

On Nov. 6, Mayor Infeld wrote her own post: “The ordinances are enforced . . . regarding the maintenance of a property, and criminal nuisance ordinances regarding noise, illegal behavior . . . rental property inspections, number of unrelated adults, etc." So, a resident recalls a conversation one way, and the mayor, differently—a classic “he said she said” moment.

At the Nov. 7 UH City Council meeting, the mayor interrupted a Q-and-A between a council member and the police chief to interject a long statement into the public record naming four citizens who used social media to discuss crime.

The four residents now have their good names recorded into the public domain because the mayor named them at the taped meeting for posting “lots of misinformation about crime.” The mayor did not identify this “misinformation.” 

The residents were dismayed when they learned the mayor had called them out by name. One said, “It felt like a scarlet-letter moment . . . our crime was simply discussing crime.”

Mayor Infeld tells us sites like Nextdoor are not intended for such discussions; that it is the wrong venue to use if we have concerns. But is it? Isn’t it time for University Heights to better understand how sites like this can be used to benefit the city’s residents?

Mayors who try to discourage people from sharing information just raise more questions. Anytime you try to put a blanket on something, it “feels” suspicious to people.  

People want to know what is happening in their neighborhood; they want to know quickly and as accurately as possible. Right now, UH residents use sites like Nextdoor because that is where they believe they find timely information.

If I held an elected position in UH, I would use this as an opportunity to work with community leaders. One resident suggested the reputation management approach; another to explore how other communities and police departments are viewing social media. This is new ground for city governments and agencies long accustomed to protocols rarely being questioned.  

Isn’t a more effective model to embrace social media rather than criticize people for using it? Social media offers a cost-effective way for municipalities to provide timely, accurate, open and transparent communications to their citizens.

Social media is in its infancy; some approaches will work, others will not. Adapting is key.

Nextdoor offers free citywide communications for public agencies where “residents get to know each other, ask questions, share recommendations, and discuss safety.”

The Cleveland Heights Police Department is active on Nextdoor. The CHPD posts crime updates and requests citizen help in finding suspects. CHPD also has a robust and active Facebook page, in addition to it’s Web page on the city’s site.

This is not to say that Cleveland Heights and its police department have the answer. Crime will never be that simple. But they are exploring how social media can best serve residents.

An example: CH Police Chief Annette Mecklenburg placed a Nov. 30 post on Nextdoor explaining how recent bump-and-run car robberies took place, and described likely targets based on history. She also enlisted what some call “Community Watch on steroids” by asking the virtual community to notify police if anything suspicious was seen. This is embracing social media.

To paraphrase a football term, the best defense against “misinformation” is a robust offense of open, transparent and timely information on multiple social media sites. Playing ostrich no longer works. If municipal agencies do not post timely information, neighbors will.

Anita Kazarian

Anita Kazarian, a 31-year resident of University Heights, has been active in many of the city’s volunteer organizations. She wants to hear your thoughts; write to her at anitakazarian@gmail.com.

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Volume 10, Issue 2, Posted 5:52 PM, 01.31.2017