The neighbourhood social networking platform Nextdoor dropped its “Forward to Police” feature this week, a widely panned function that’s faced years of criticism for purportedly facilitating racial profiling.
Using the app’s “Crime and Safety” category, Nextdoor users in some regions can act as a sort of unofficial neighbourhood watch and post information about suspicious activities and suspected crime in their community. The “Forward to Police” feature allowed users to re-send these posts to local police departments registered with the platform.
Since these alerts are all self-reported and unverified, though, concerns about racial profiling have dogged Nextdoor since the feature’s release in 2016, with widespread complaints surfacing about people of colour being reported as “suspicious” at a disproportionately high rate on the app.
But it seems the surge of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died after a police officer knelt on his neck to restrain him, finally pushed Nextdoor to ditch the feature completely. No doubt the decision was also fuelled by the platform’s ballooning growth in recent months as much of the population has been stuck at home under shelter-in-place orders.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, founder Prakash Janakiraman said user engagement had increased by 80 per cent during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In addition, its userbase has reportedly past the 10-million mark.
“As part of our anti-racism work and our efforts to make Nextdoor a place where all neighbours feel welcome, we have been examining all aspects of our product,” the company said in a blog post this week. “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.”
That doesn’t mean Nextdoor’s relationship with law enforcement is over, however. Several features still remain on the app to share information with participating police departments, including one that lets users DM cops. The company’s also recently expanded its police outreach efforts, including enlisting officers to promote the app and partnering directly with departments to enable geo-targeted messages to neighbourhoods.
Nextdoor has never disclosed just exactly how many police departments relied on the Forward to Police feature or were registered on the app. An investigation by Bloomberg’s CityLab last month found dozens of departments across the nation had signed up with the platform, including Minneapolis.
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Less than a year after the feature was introduced, Nextdoor responded to growing concerns about racial profiling on its platform with a bevy of updates. New prompts were added requiring users to add more information if their post mentioned a person’s race, including asking them whether they would still find that person suspicious if their race or ethnicity wasn’t a factor. Nextdoor also adopted new categories for users to flag conversations as inappropriate.
According to Nextdoor, these changes reduced the number of racist posts by around 75 per centÂ in recent years. However, subsequent investigations by BuzzFeed in 2017 and Gizmodo’s sister site, The Root, in 2019 found that rampant racism remains a prevalent problem on the platform. Owing to this, online critics roasted Nextdoor for its hypocrisy last month when it released a company statement in support of Black Lives Matter. A recent Buzzfeed report also detailed several accounts of community moderators taking down posts from local forums that mention the Black Lives Matter movement despite the company’s official statement.