By Daniela Gerson*
In a conference room packed with 17 members of Chinese ethnic media and Los Angeles-based foreign correspondents, Alhambra Police Chief Mark Yokoyama announced last December that he was launching the country’s first municipal Sina Weibo — or “Chinese Twitter” — account. The move was an effort in conjunction with USC Annenberg to engage the suburban Los Angeles community’s large immigrant population.
L.A.-born Yokoyama was not prepared for the response. Scores of questions from Chinese-speakers from Alhambra to the Midwest to Beijing eager to better understand American policing overwhelmed him. In just five days, the account attracted more than 5,000 followers, about five times the “likes” for the Facebook account the police department had spent more than a year building.
The Weibo frenzy slowed after the first week, but interest remained strong, and within four months followers were more than 11,000. The immediate impact is clear: Chinese or Mandarin calls to the department requiring translation increased 64 percent since launching. Police departments from New York to Seattle to Monterey Park have inquired about how to create their own accounts, the initiative won the California Police Chief’s Excellence in Technology Award, and Yokoyama is convinced Weibo has transformed his force’s relationship with Alhambra’s Chinese immigrant population.
“We’re answering those questions that have probably been on the minds of people for a long time. They just didn’t know how to ask or who to ask,” Yokoyama said. “It tells me people have some sense of trust in at least asking the question of the police. That’s the outcome that I’ve most enjoyed.”
Weibo has proven an innovative way to fortify the city’s communication infrastructure, according to Annenberg Professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach. She teamed up with Journalism Professor Michael Parks in 2008, in an effort to investigate how local news in a multiethnic community can impact civic engagement and cross linguistic and ethnic barriers. The result was Alhambra Source, a multilingual community news web site with more than 80 local contributors who speak 10 languages. Weibo was a serendipitous outcome of the project that resulted from bridges forged between local media, immigrant residents and policy makers. “The fact that now there is increased communication between the police and the ethnic Chinese community is critically important,” Ball-Rokeach said. “Weibo is kind of a mobile community relations department. It’s a way in which new technologies can actually facilitate police community relations, particularly with hard-to-reach populations.”
Indeed, Alhambra’s venture into Weibo added a cultural and linguistic layer to a growing trend toward social media in policing. For the past four years, the International Association of Chiefs of Police has been monitoring social media use among departments. The growth has been “exponential,” according to Senior Program Manager of Community Safety Initiatives Nancy Kolb. Word reached Kolb about the Alhambra Weibo account earlier this year. While other cities have created Twitter and Facebook accounts in Spanish, this was the first time she knew of a U.S. police department using an international social media platform to reach residents. But she does not think it will be the last, based upon how social media is growing. “There is a nexus of social media with just about everything that law enforcement does today,” Kolb said.
In many ways, police departments are following in the steps of media and private companies that were initially concerned about the ability of the masses to talk back and now are embracing it. “Just this year alone so many agencies have come on board,” said Captain Chris Hsiung of the Mountain View, California Police Department. Located down the street from LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google, the agency has championed the idea that police need to embrace social media to engage with residents and promote community safety.
“We have nothing to really fear. Occasionally you get egg on your face like New York did,” Hsiung said, referring to a recent incident when the New York Police Department asked residents to pose with police officers and their initiative backfired when residents posted negative pictures instead with police arresting them that went viral. “But if you’re human, transparent, people really like you. A lot of our approach mirrors private sector PR strategies. People are out there and if you’re not part of the conversation you have no control over it. But if you’re part of it you can help control it.”
When Yokoyama signed on as chief in 2011, he quickly realized that finding a way to create that sort of conversation with the Chinese population that is roughly a third of Alhambra’s population would be a challenge. More than a quarter of the city’s residents live in linguistically isolated households where no adult spoke English well. As such, the language barrier was clearly the first hurdle: Just 6 percent of his force, or 5 out of 85 sworn officers, spoke Mandarin or Cantonese. At events most of the people who came were white and Hispanic, which better reflected the demographics of the force.
The idea for the Weibo account was generated after Yokoyama read an article in Alhambra Source on engagement techniques to reach the Chinese community. The chief asked for a meeting with Alhambra Source editorial staff and the author, courts interpreter and Alhambra Source community contributor Walter Yu. To reach younger, more highly educated and affluent recentimmigrants like himself, Yu suggested the department develop Weibo. He also offered to help make it happen, adapting his significant social media skills to help Alhambra become a presence on the Beijing-based social media site.
While immigrants once would send letters back to relatives or flock to call centers, today they tend to hold onto social media ties from their home countries. In China, unlike most of the rest of the world, the government has banned Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “The Chinese are afraid these will become mechanisms for discontent to build and they don’t want that,” said Clayton Dube, director of Annenberg’s USC U.S.-China Institute.
But Beijing has let homegrown social media companies grow, among them two Weibo — or microblogging — firms and another one similar to the texting service Whatsapp with social attributes that is growing rapidly. “The China-based services perform two important functions,” according to Dube. “First is they give Chinese netizens tools that give them similar sort of functionality without setting them free basically. They use these as a way of moderating the public temperature. … They also censor them and use them to put out their own messages.” So far, at least, Alhambra Police Department’s Weibo is not seen as worth censoring and Dube does not think it would raise concern in Beijing. “I think the Alhambra Police Department was smart to do this,” Dube said, “And I think other communities with large numbers of Chinese speaking residents of whatever nationality should be mindful that it would be of their benefit to inform residents via this tool.”
The Alhambra Source, Yu and the police chief developed a system for taking in questions, translating them, and sharing them with the public. Yu created an #AskAmericanPolice campaign on the Alhambra Police Department Weibo account. When questions arrive, often as many as dozens a day, Yu translates them into English and sends them to the police chief. Yokoyama responds and sends them to Alhambra Source staff for a copy edit. Once approved, Yu translates them back into Chinese for Weibo. He also sends the Chinese version to Alhambra Source, which is posted along with English and Spanish versions.
The questions come from immigrants living in the Los Angeles area, across the country, and even from people in China curious about how American policing works. One parent wrote in from Missouri, “I have an 8-year-old—may I ask if I can leave my child at home legally?” Various local residents asked how to report incidents of fraud and stalking. And others just expressed relief to learn that they could actually call the police and not get in trouble.
“I believe sometimes people are just afraid to report to the police because of repercussions,” Yu said.
In addition, immigrant residents are learning that the role of police in the United States is different than in China. For example, the idea that police will actually help out with a noise complaint or protect a lost pet is foreign to many immigrants. “In China police don’t do anything about pets,” Yu said. “Now they actually see them helping them and they get really curious.”
Along with the dialogue, came tips, as the police realized this was a key segment of their population that could be activated to help solve crimes. When there was a faux Southern California Edison phone call scam, the police department put out a warning on Weibo. Soon people were reporting that they’d been scammed. Others reported prostitution and drug sales.
Also contributing to the success of the Weibo account was that it coincided with the police department investing in its English-language Facebook account. In the past, the city used it the same way it would use a press release, essentially a one-way fax machine to the public. Officials would post a heavily vetted, and rather dry, print report once every couple of weeks. But then the department started posting pictures, and officers were encouraged to post on Facebook. The numbers started to take off, and so did the discussions on Facebook.
For Yokoyama, the only frustration is that he still cannot be as fully integrated a part of the conversation as he would like. “On Facebook I’m there all the time, but this is the unknown,” he said, explaining the challenges of not understanding Chinese. But to residents, even if through translation, a bridge has been built to the police force. In a voluntary survey of 121 users, more than 90 percent of respondents feel better about the Alhambra police and understand the service better.
“This brings U.S. police officers’ job closer to us, and also answers our questions,” one respondent commented in Chinese, expressing a sentiment many echoed by many others. “I wish my local police department had Weibo as well.”
*Director of the USC Annenberg Civic Engagement & Journalism Initiative and editor of the Alhambra Source