In late January, the Baltimore Police Department launched an app that promises to change the way they interact with the community. Touting the introduction of the new mobile software as “Transparency at Your Fingertips,” the department hopes this ability to interact will increase engagement and promote trust. With the app, residents can anonymously provide tips to police, receive alerts, and check out department information including a records page, crime data, and a link to the official website. From the application, users can also reach Baltimore PD’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

The Baltimore agency worked with Mobile PD to create the app. The software company works with over 100 other agencies across the US and Canada. As the 8th largest department in the US, the Baltimore PD is thus far the biggest organization using the application. Supporters of the app are hoping it will encourage other agencies to look at the same or similar products.

Why the Baltimore Police Department Developed a Mobile App

Many institutions have used social media for years. Departments have official pages and engage with people who follow that page. Some departments have even received tips via private messages. But, a great many of these pages are not monitored on a regular basis, which makes them difficult to rely on. Across social media there is also a problem with anonymity.

Some fear implicating themselves on social media, but with a mobile app, those concerns are eliminated. When the Baltimore Police Department app launched, there was concern about the app requesting permission to access photos. Immediately some people feared this meant they would be tracked via their smartphone. The staff at Mobile PD has reported the request for access to photos is to support features built into the app such as the ability to send the department photos only. Users can refuse the permissions request and still use other features of the app. But, unless they allow the request, they cannot send pictures.

While this idea may seem innovative to some, officers in Baltimore have long prepared for these types of community interactions. In 2015, the Baltimore PD launched an anonymous text-only tip line. Almost immediately, the department had a massive increase in tips from the community.

At the end of 2016 it was estimated that the department had a 174% increase in tips, which led to better, more effective policing. The huge increase in tips from the community was accredited to the new text tip line. With this type of success under their belt, Baltimore officers are anxious to see how much better their tips will get thanks to the new app.

Reasons Mobile Police Apps are Becoming More Popular with Departments

As technology continues to grow, public agencies such as police, need to keep up with changes. The use of a mobile app is a perfect example of a department adapting to what their community needs. Studies have shown that most people rely on their phones on a daily basis. People get their news, do their banking, and even keep tabs on their kids right from their smartphones. With the ability to communicate with police via an app, officers are increasing the chances of getting information they need from the people who have firsthand knowledge.

Mobile Police Apps Cannot Replace 911

One of the concerns with launching the app is that members of the community will try to use it the same way they would use 911. While the Baltimore PD has advertised the app as continuously monitored, it should not be relied on the same way as 911. Instead of using the app to report emergencies or active crimes, residents should call 911 and use the app simply to provide additional information.

Access to an app could also improve the way most people use 911 in Baltimore. Instead of looking up the non-emergency phone number for the department, residents could simply use the app. Additionally, this initiative is likely to decrease misuse of the 911 system and leave dispatchers available to handle priority calls faster.

Could Mobile Police Applications Have Mid and Long Term Tips for Departments and Users?

Baltimore PD is hoping the release of its new app will have both mid and long-term effects on the department’s ability to investigate and solve crimes. Users in a community don’t have to report anything to the department to use the application. The capacity to peruse department data provides an air of transparency, which is what police forces all over the US are desperately seeking to improve relations between themselves and those they are committed to protecting.

One concern voiced by many agencies is whether or not they can afford such a feature. Baltimore PD invested $30,000 to launch the application and it’s is expected that continued use will result in charges of about $15,000 a year. There are also minimal monthly fees to host the application in mobile stores and the cost of staff to monitor interactions. For some departments, this kind of price tag is simply too much to absorb, but for those that can afford it, the benefits are likely to be tremendous.

Only time will tell if the app is successful in promoting tips from, and interaction with, the community, solving crimes, and providing transparency. But one thing is for sure; the fact that the department launched new software to improve the way they police is a step in the right direction. With such a massive agency taking the leap to mobile, other departments are sure to follow suit, which could vastly improve policing across the US.