New technologies are constantly finding their way into law enforcement, with potential pitfalls and benefits for both citizens and officers. Advantages include accessibility and speed, but there can be disadvantages as well, including the loss of personal contact with police and the possibility of false and frivolous reports.
California State University Northbridge took these pros and cons into consideration when it created an online reporting program for non-emergency, non-serious crimes. The program is a timesaver for students, who do not have to travel to the police station or wait for an officer, and it frees officers to deal with more serious crimes, which still must be reported in person.
The department says that online police reports will be treated the same as in-person reports. “The only difference in reporting a crime online is that the first line of communication will be a computer instead of an officer,” said Christina Villalobos, the department’s public information officer.
Guidelines for online reporting are posted on the department’s website. Emergencies and crimes with known suspects are excluded. Crimes that can be reported online include harassing phone calls, hit-and-run accidents, identity theft and other thefts, lost property, vehicle burglary and tampering, and vandalism.
Some faculty and students have expressed concern that the convenience of online reporting might increase the number of frivolous reports. But the tool is “pretty restrictive in what can and cannot be reported” according to Villalobos, and frivolous reporting has not been a problem so far: In fact the program has been slow to catch on. Property crimes (360 last year) and vandalism (194) are the most common CSUN reports, but only 77 crimes have been reported online since the program went online in March.
Urgent crimes must be reported in person because the department feels that they require personal contact with an officer. These include violent, hate and sex crimes, as well as missing persons, stolen vehicles, lost/stolen license plate, domestic violence, assault and battery, and serious traffic accidents that are not hit-and-runs. “There are a lot of questions for things like robbery and rape,” Villalobos said. “We need more information on those types of things.”
It remains to be seen whether convenience and speed trump personal contact and result in more online reporting. The department expects the number of online reports to increase as students become more aware of the program.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.