Nextdoor, an app for connecting with neighborhoods, puts on its police cap

Nextdoor wants more police officers, fire departments and other safety workers using its site

You can sign up for Nextdoor on your desktop or the iOS app

You can sign up for Nextdoor on your desktop or the iOS app

Nextdoor, a growing app for connecting people with their neighbors, wants to make those neighborhoods safer.

Public agencies such as police departments, sheriff's offices, fire departments and emergency management offices across the U.S. can now sign themselves up for the service, the company said Tuesday. Previously, some 350 public agencies across 250 cities had accounts on the site, but they were added manually by Nextdoor itself.

With the change, Nextdoor hopes to provide a new online channel where public agencies can provide safety and emergency-type information and alerts to their respective service areas. The move comes following feedback from users seeking an improved way to communicate with public safety officials using the service, said Nextdoor co-founder Sarah Leary, in an interview.

"There's been a strong interest in adding public safety officials to the conversation," she said.

Public agencies can now use Nextdoor to send targeted information to specific neighborhoods, groups of neighborhoods, or an entire city. Agencies can sign up for free at nextdoor.com/agency, upon which Nextdoor will verify them using public databases. Currently the company is allowing sign-ups for public safety agencies only.

Nextdoor calls itself a private social network for connecting with your community. Users must verify their address using one of several methods including postcard, credit card or a phone call, and can only post to the feed of their own neighborhood or surrounding areas. For some users, the site has become an important place to congregate online when something happens in the neighborhood. As a result, Nextdoor provides a hyper-local form of social networking different from Facebook or Twitter.

Local events, help wanted ads and recommendations are popular on the site, but there is also a wealth of information posted by its users revolving around safety and crime. On any given day users may post about burglaries, break-ins or public disturbances. These sorts of posts make it clear there's an opportunity for public safety officials to contribute in some way.

Whether the expansion really helps make communities safer likely depends on how well it's used by officers. Under the change, public agencies cannot see the conversations on the site between individual users. Instead, officials can post or send out alerts to their respective service areas, which will then be seen by regular users. From there, regular users can start talking and engage with the agency. Regular users can customize their settings to change how they're alerted when different agency posts go out. Users can also send private messages to agency officials.

Nextdoor is positioning the expansion more as a way to deliver public safety updates, crime reports and recommendations, and to help users engage with officials. It's not for officials to monitor the conversations of regular users on the site. In that way it respects users' privacy, Nextdoor's Leary said.

At least one member called Tuesday's expansion a good move. "Since I value the public safety tips and quick dissemination of information on Nextdoor, I'm very happy to have public safety agencies sign up as members," said a San Francisco resident.

Another user supported it, especially if police officers' posts are able to correct misinformation that sometimes spreads on the site. "It's important for them to have a voice in the conversation," said the user, who is involved with helping the San Francisco Police Department but beyond that preferred to remain anonymous.

But police officers also need to be careful not to post information that could interfere with open investigations, the member said. Posts about car break-ins, for instance, are common on Nextdoor. If police posted on that subject, it could give vandals useful information, if the vandals are also on Nextdoor, the person said.

Since last year, Nextdoor has more than doubled its coverage to more than 43,000 neighborhoods. Currently it has no ads.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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