DPD's new 'virtual neighborhood watch' accused of racial profiling

An upbeat piece appeared in the Detroit Free Press a couple days ago touting a "virtual neighborhood watch" that helped locate a missing teenager on the city's east side. The teen was found with the help of an online network called Nextdoor, and the Detroit police force has now become an official partner with the San Francisco company.

The article is overwhelmingly positive, and quotes the company's co-founder, Sarah Leary, as saying, "Over the last four years, hundreds of neighborhoods in the Detroit area have embraced Nextdoor. This has been speared-headed by neighbors who care about engaging with their neighbors, working together to share information, and looking out for each other and make their communities safer."

A little extra reporting, however, might have revealed that not everybody is all smiles about the neighborhood-oriented social network. A long-form story that appeared in the East Bay Express two months ago gives a different view.

The piece, entitled "Racial Profiling Via Nextdoor.com," raises some good points. It turns out that plenty of white users of the network post information about "suspicious" people who are doing nothing suspicious except being black. And when they're called out on it, these people who "care about engaging with neighbors" can suddenly fly into a rage — and use their administrative privileges to silence debates about racial profiling.

Now, this might not pose much of a problem in Detroit's almost completely black neighborhoods, but in some of the areas that are changing, it's easy to see how such social networks could quickly alienate longtime residents and people of color. And that's a conversation people need to have if the police are going to turn to Nextdoor as a resource: The people using the system should describe suspicious behavior, not appearances that alarm them, such as a hoodie or brown skin.

The article is also embedded with a short documentary that covers many of the complaints about Nextdoor. If you're thinking about joining it (or writing about it), you should probably at least watch that first.