Nextdoor Ends Its Program for Forwarding Suspicions to Police

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Nextdoor.com Inc., the neighborhood social networking app, is discontinuing a feature that allowed users to forward their posts directly to local police departments, the company announced late Thursday. The move comes as Nextdoor faces scrutiny over its role as a platform for racial profiling, its increasingly cozy partnerships with law enforcement, and after reports that some of its community moderators were removing posts that mentioned Black Lives Matter. But the company is retaining other features that facilitate communication with police through the app, including one that allows direct messages to law enforcement.

“As part of our anti-racism work and our efforts to make Nextdoor a place where all neighbors feel welcome, we have been examining all aspects of our product,” the post read. “After speaking with members and public agency partners, it is clear that the Forward to Police feature does not meet the needs of our members and only a small percentage of law enforcement agencies chose to use the tool.”

In an email addressed to Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson John Elder on June 12 that was seen by CityLab, Joseph Porcelli, Nextdoor’s global public agency lead, said that the company would discontinue the feature officially on June 17. Porcelli told Elder that he was giving him an early “heads-up,” and that he planned to alert the rest of Nextdoor’s law enforcement partners of the change on Monday, June 15. 

The email suggested that the decision had been in the works for a while. “Over the past few months, we have been evaluating some of our public agency platform capabilities, and we have made the decision to remove the Forward to Police feature,” Porcelli’s email to the law enforcement partners read, according to a draft copy sent to Elder. “Our decision was made after looking into member engagement metrics and speaking directly to many of our members and partners who are currently using the feature, those who used it for a short period of time and turned it off, and those who have never turned it on.” 

Elder said he did not know why Porcelli had sent him such a heads-up and that he didn’t recall seeing the message. (He has more than 20,000 unread messages since George Floyd’s death on May 25, he says.) Porcelli did not respond to a request for comment. 

Nextdoor’s Forward to Police feature was introduced in 2016, designed to allow users to re-send posts they wrote to participating law enforcement agencies that had official accounts on the platform. Because police officers can’t view private neighborhood groups, Forward to Police offered departments a way to field neighborhood complaints directly, without monitoring every post like a blotter. 

Civil rights and privacy advocates have raised concerns about how the feature streamlined the reporting of suspicions about minor offenses, encouraging police to follow up on what would have otherwise been casual observations on social media. Despite efforts to combat racial profiling using algorithmic moderation, the site is overrun with “Crime and Safety” posts supplemented with photos or videos of “suspicious” characters who are often Black and Brown; critics say encouraging law enforcement intervention could lead to more unnecessary encounters between police and communities of color. Even if police departments don’t follow up on every forwarded tip, increased surveillance paired with one-click reporting “can encourage people to escalate things that do not merit being escalated,” Rachel Thomas, the founding director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco, told CityLab in February.  In the U.S., that’s doubly dangerous, she said: “You really could be endangering somebody’s life when you call the police.”

 Though Nextdoor didn’t reveal how many departments use the feature, CityLab found dozens of departments across the country had signed up — including Minneapolis, where the police killing of George Floyd has sparked momentum for dramatic police reform. (In an email, Elder said, “we barely use Nextdoor.com. I am not even sure what the Forward to Police function is.”)

Since Floyd’s death elevated global protests over systemic racism in late May, Nextdoor — like many technology companies that collaborate with law enforcement — has been caught in the crosshairs. A May investigation by CityLab showed that Nextdoor has been cultivating relationships with public agencies and police officers, asking them to help recruit other departments onto the platform and playing up the role of the platform in fighting crime. A follow-up report by OneZero showed that the social networking platform was holding weekly training webinars for police.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Nextdoor released a statement affirming its support for Black Lives Matter, which struck critics and Black users as hypocritical given the platform’s role in surveilling Black and Brown communities. It also set off internal turmoil: Buzzfeed News and the Verge found that some volunteer moderators were disgruntled by the public statement, that Black users’ accounts were being disabled for posting about Black Lives Matter, and that other race-related posts were being removed.

Sarah Friar, Nextdoor’s CEO, has since released another statement condemning racism on the platform, promising in a blog post to improve diversity in the company’s hiring, strengthen community moderation and draw “a firm line against racist behavior” on the site. “While we have been working for years to create this civil forum for discussions, it is time to expand our plan for improvements to our platform and our company,” she wrote. “With our employees, neighbors, partners, and advisors, we are taking action.”

Nextdoor’s decision to terminate the Forward to Police program appears to follow this call for change. But in Porcelli’s memo to law enforcement, he did not mention race. Instead, he pointed to low usage and engagement metrics by both the police department partners and users on Nextdoor. 

What has been more common among police departments who use the feature at all, he said in the email, is sending and receiving direct messages through the platform. This ability for users to send private messages to law enforcement officials has not been removed. Porcelli wrote he believed that officers would “receive more actionable information” from those direct contact channels. 

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