Berkeley police officer Stephen Burcham presents 10-year-old Brandon Coleman with a certificate. Photo: Mark Coplan
Berkeley Police honored Brandon Coleman (left) in January for helping locate a missing at-risk man after learning about him through a text alert sent by the Oakland Police Department. Beginning May 1, Berkeley will for the first time have the same tool. Photo: Mark Coplan

The city of Berkeley is kicking off its first foray into social media communication with a six-month pilot program to let police officers send crime and safety alerts directly to the public, city staff announced Monday night.

City staff has been saying since 2011 that plans to explore social media usage, and develop a policy to govern its use, are in the works. As of this week, there’s finally something to show for it.

Beginning May 1, Berkeley Police officers will be able to use online alert network Nixle to send out a variety of information concerning anything from missing people or wanted suspects to road closures and other advisories.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko announced the pilot program to a group of about 60 community members who attended a neighborhood watch-type meeting with police Monday night.

Residents can sign up now for the program either online or via cellphone. Sign-up instructions appear on Nixle’s website. There is no cost to sign up. Participants can elect to receive alerts via phone or email, or simply view the information online. (The city of Berkeley account appears here.)

It’s a simple tool but police have said the results can be powerful. When an at-risk man went missing from Berkeley in January, Berkeley officers got in touch with Oakland police to help spread the word, which they did via Nixle and Twitter. Almost immediately, a Nixle subscriber spotted the man in Oakland — with the help of her 10-year-old son — and called local authorities to report it. Oakland Police said previously that the man was found safely “entirely due to social media broadcasting.”

And it was a community tip via Nixle that alerted police to the discovery of a human skull up on Grizzly Peak in January.

Nixle does not allow interaction between subscribers, or offer features like comment boards or public profiles. It’s primarily a “push” system that allows authorities to send information out to community members more easily. Some departments also enable Nixle users to submit anonymous tips through the system, but it wasn’t immediately clear Monday whether Berkeley would take that approach. Nixle does, however, allow users to share information on other social networks, such as Facebook or Twitter.

According to Nixle, information shared by users “is stored on a secure server in a secure facility. The company does not sell personal information to third parties.” (Read more about the service here.)

The Oakland Police Department uses Nixle to send a range of alerts. Berkeley Police will begin using the tool May 1. Image:
Many law enforcement agencies, such as the Oakland Police Department and the California Highway Patrol, use alert network Nixle to push out a variety of public safety information to the community. Berkeley Police will begin using the tool May 1. Image:

City spokesman Chakko announced the new initiative during the Berkeley Safe Neighborhood Committee’s annual block captains meeting at the Berkeley Police Department. Members of the group had invited Chakko in January to make a presentation about the city’s plans regarding the use of social media as a communication tool.

The committee, which is in the midst of reinventing itself and doing more outreach to connect with community groups, is an umbrella organization that serves as a bridge between police officers and neighborhood safety efforts. Residents can get in touch with their local police coordinator to learn more.

Chakko said having Nixle available to the Berkeley Police Department could strengthen the relationship between community members and local authorities.

“The core of public safety messaging is really about building a better relationship with the community, and we’re hoping this will do that,” he told meeting attendees.

Chakko said Nixle would supplement existing city alert services, such as the Berkeley Emergency Notification System and radio station 1610 AM, which are primarily intended for more widespread disaster notifications.

Nixle to help staff gain experience as city crafts social media policy

City manager Christine Daniel informed Berkeley City Council members about the Nixle pilot program Monday afternoon in a memo.

The memo followed a request last week from two council members, Jesse Arreguín and Gordon Wozniak, for an update about how the city plans to use social media platforms to improve communication and transparency in the future.

In her memo, Daniel said the city is developing a social media policy, which she described as “a significant undertaking” that “requires coordination and input from numerous stakeholders to address policy and legal issues.”

In the meantime, the pilot will “allow the City to obtain experience with one media platform, Nixle, prior to finalizing a City-wide plan. This pilot allows the Police Department to communicate information of benefit to residents on an as-needed basis.”

Daniel said the department “will use the Nixle platform to convey non-emergency public safety information to the community. The purpose of this program is to provide a tool that allows the Police Department to push out information periodically to community members while gaining experience with developing a messaging structure that best adapts to certain social media platforms.”

According to the memo, the city will adopt Nixle as a standard communication tool if the pilot is successful. The city will continue working on its social media policy and is “exploring the implementation of other social media tools.”

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said Monday night he’s excited the city is moving toward embracing new communication tools, and looks forward to having Nixle as one way for the department to reach out.

“We’re going to keep putting out more and more information,” he said. “It’s not the ‘be all and end all’, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Berkeley officials: Social media ‘critical’ for transparency (04.01.14)
Neighbors talk surveillance, robberies, code enforcement at crime watch meeting (03.07.14)
3 years on, city of Berkeley still stuck on social media (02.19.14)
Berkeley residents, police collaborate on safety (04.18.13)
Why doesn’t the city of Berkeley have a Facebook page? (03.14.11)
A council member takes to Twitter, other officials lag (05.27.11)

Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...