“So our wonderful neighbors (NOT) at 613 Cornerstone Drive, e-mailed the WPD stating that we were growing pot. This after yesterday when he called my husband a pot smoking drug addict! So, just now Officer Krause stopped by to look at our ‘marijuana grow operations,’ ” wrote Doris, of East Garden, in the app Nextdoor. (It was strawberries and jalapenos, apparently.)
But the story didn’t begin or end there: Doris, it turned out, had called the police on this neighbor twice about his dogs, who wouldn’t stop barking. The police were sympathetic but indifferent; they didn’t issue tickets unless the dogs in question had been barking for 30 minutes or longer. The neighbor, whom she refers to as Stink Eye Steve, had in turn pointed a surveillance camera directly at Doris and her husband’s hot tub—and Doris had called the police again, who assured her that said camera was perfectly legal.
The exchange was posted by the Twitter account @bestofnextdoor, run by Jenn Takahashi, which has turned Nextdoor interactions into internet sensations. For the unfamiliar, Nextdoor is a social media app for neighbors. “We believe that amazing things can happen just from talking with the people next door,” the company’s marketing materials claim, with all the earnestness of a fast-growing tech start-up—but it turns out that not all is well and good amongst the people who live next door, and maybe talking makes it worse.
What differentiates Nextdoor from other forms of social media is that is purports to be a closed community. (It’s the internet, so obviously it isn’t, in any meaningful way.) But in its supposed closedness lies its particular brand of ugliness—the proprietary kind, the neighborhood watchdog kind. The “Crime & Safety” pages are populated with complaints that range from outrageous to totally innocuous. “I cannot believe folks are barbecuing right now!” someone opines. “Give me a break.” Elsewhere, someone is leaving vegetables arranged in phallic forms on someone else’s deck. “Pervert in the neighborhood,” he reports. “Let’s keep the kids safe!” His wife is frightened to even go outside, apparently.
Amidst the absurdity, there is the racial profiling, the name-calling, and in some cases, personal targeting. As the East Bay Express reported, Mike Zint, a homeless activist in Berkeley, was repeatedly called out in various Nextdoor groups. Nextdoor users were calling Zint a criminal, and he heard that some groups were conspiring to shut down a protest he was planning. So he tried to join the network—only to be ejected by Nextdoor itself when someone reported him for not having a permanent address.
Meanwhile, Nextdoor has been expanding its partnerships with public agencies. It has now partnered with roughly 2,500 law enforcement agencies of all kinds, which might seem harmless enough—another way for public officials to get out the word about crimes that happen in the community, to interact with residents, and to find out what’s going on. (Cue Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf posing with San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo in front of the brand’s logo.) Some journalists, activists, and officials have raised the alarm on the relationships between the app and law enforcement groups; Ali Winston of the New York Times recently tweeted, “Nextdoor has been a conduit for some of Oakland’s most base, racist impulses.” Neighbors for Racial Justice, an activist organization in Oakland, has given presentations at police commission meetings on racial profiling and the app. Former Seattle mayor Ed Murray derided the app for creating an atmosphere of “paranoid hysteria” in neighborhoods. But mostly the partnerships between the company and local departments have gone unnoticed.
Probably because it’s more of the same. Nextdoor provides a clear lens into the petty vigilantism of American neighborhoods that is already routine, and into the kinds of complaints police already get over the phone, on Twitter, on Facebook, via fax. This summer, some of these complaints have gone viral. (One notable incident, in Oakland, began when a white woman called the police about a few black people barbecuing near a lake.) These kinds of complaints have been a facet of the American experience that mostly goes unnoticed: nonwhite people living their lives, white people calling the police, and police responding.
“Community policing” means so many things that it doesn’t really mean anything at all. But the term still gets thrown around a lot. It is championed these days by local lawmakers on the (extremely relative) left—Bill de Blasio, for instance—as a corrective to other sorts of policing, perhaps the kind we associate with more brutality. There are some sensible ideas that fall under the broad umbrella of “community policing”: the idea that cops should get to know certain areas and understand the people who live in them, and the idea that police talking to residents and residents talking to police is probably good, on balance. In theory, community policing is supposed to cut back on vigilante justice by encouraging residents to turn to the cops instead of enacting it.
But one of the problems with community policing is the problem of neighborhoods, those inherently exclusive slices of American life whose entire existence depends on the drawing of boundaries, both literal and figurative. People feel ownership over their neighborhoods, despite the fact that the neighborhoods themselves are mostly public space. (That sense of ownership, I’d bet, increases in direct proportion to property value.) Thus, neighbors police their neighborhoods; they form neighborhood watches, or they call the cops when someone arranges two bell peppers and a zucchini in the shape of a dick on their porch, or they post in Nextdoor’s “Crime & Safety” category about it.
Depending on who’s talking, community policing can also be used to mean community self-policing, the very thing it’s supposed to guard against. Neighborhood watches are the clearest example of this co-opting of “community policing” into a kind of vigilante justice; in the name of “keeping the kids safe” and “protecting the neighborhood,” groups of semiautonomous self-selected crime fighters patrol their neighborhoods. Sometimes they’re armed, and sometimes, yes, they shoot and kill and are protected by the law when they do. This is the extreme, the extraordinary, but it’s brought about by the same forces and fears that are obvious from casually perusing Nextdoor.
Doris and Steve, most likely, will keep calling 911 on each other. Dogs will bark; new plants will appear, and they could be either weed or oregano. The police will come and adjudicate. Most likely, no one will get hurt. Most likely.
The issues with “community policing” have partly to do with broader issues about policing in America—issues of force, issues of race, issues of broken windows and institutional corruption —but they also have to do with issues of “community” and neighborhoods. Who’s in them and who isn’t, and who gets to decide?