The Story Of Flint Police Operations, A Group Saving A Crime-Ridden Michigan City With Social Media

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SHOTS FIRED=2700 blk Eaton Place, 6 shots heard, nothing seen. #Flint.

It’s just another night in Flint, Mich. A concerned citizen heard gunshots and called 911. That’s where the story used to end.

There is a shockingly low number of police officers in Flint. The department was gutted over the last 10 years. That 911 call will likely go unanswered. But now, through the power of social media and the tweet above, a neighborhood is at least on alert.

Flint is a proud city. Auto workers first sat down for their rights in Flint. Tanks were built on Buick’s lines to battle Hitler. But as Michael Moore documented, the jobs left. Now, 30 years after Moore himself left, there are even more empty factories, neighborhoods, and with them, lives. But there’s plenty of crime to fill the void. That’s where 21-person strong Flint Police Operations social group comes in. They’re aiming to restore Flint. Social media is their tool of choice.

This group of crusaders, seemingly fueled on just passion, is working to turn Facebook, Twitter and Google + into a sort of online police neighborhood watch. Calls come into 911 dispatch, which are then broadcasted out to the appropriate response unit. This radio chatter is streamed live online. The Flint Police Operations volunteers monitor these streams 24 hours a day and pass the info along to their followers, which in turn puts more eyes on the street.

Despite the official-sounding name, Flint Police Operations is not affiliated with Flint’s police force. The group was started two years ago by a military staffer who was concerned about his family back in Flint. He took to Twitter, transcribing police scanner traffic on the social media site to make the information more accessible for his family. Then, last August, the group expanded its operation and created a Facebook page, which now has 27,000 followers. Minus some curious outsiders, that’s nearly 27,000 residents of Flint and the surrounding area watching crime, fire, and paramedic incidents as they happen. Awareness is a powerful tool.

Flint is a city struggling to survive. One hundred years after Billy Durant founded General Motors in Flint, the city is crumbling. The city swelled to 200,000 people in the ’60s. But then GM started shutting down the factories, leaving behind a workforce trained only to assemble cars, but nowhere to build them. Now, in 2012, there are only about 100,000 residents and the city is broke. Crime is at an all-time high. Arsons happen almost every night. Unemployment is so high that it cannot be properly measured. But the city has a rich history and the remaining residents do not want to see it fail.

Kat VanSickle is a paramedic by day and Flint Police Operations administrator by night — or vice-versa if the duty calls. I spoke with her at length about the FPO. She, and the group she belongs to, have lofty goals. “Bring Flint back. Clean up the streets. Save Flint,” she said in one breath. She went on, “The police are strapped. We have the citizens out there helping.”

It’s true. The City of Flint is in the red and thus dangerously low on police officers and firefighters. There simply isn’t enough money to employ the number required. The departments have seen drastic cuts due to shrinking budgets. A Michigan State University study found Flint police spending, on aggregate, 57.5 minutes an hour reacting solely to calls. Only 2.5 minutes — “a token amount of time” the study stated — is devoted to community policing. Michigan State Troopers are picking up some of the slack, but as the crime stats show, Flint is a dangerous place.

Enter the Flint Police Operations. Think of the group as a social media-based community watch. Concerned citizens call 911, activating the police. One of the FPO administrators hears the radio call (6-7 are on duty 24 hours a day) and immediately puts the information out to its social media sites. Between Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, 32,000 followers are immediately made aware of the incident. This isn’t about vigilante justice. This is about watching the streets.

Flint Police Operations expressly discourages vigilantism. “We’re totally against that,” VanSickle told me. But much as a community watch organization keeps safe watch over a neighborhood, FPO is encouraging the residents of Flint to do the same en masse. “See something, say something” is FPO’s underlying message.

It’s hard to say if the group’s actions are directly affecting the crime rate. VanSickle told me that their group led to the arrest of two criminals last year — a drop in the bucket for Flint, really. FPO does more than just report crimes, though.

The group is composed of paramedics, firefighters, ex-military personal and concerned citizens. Between the 21 administrators, they actively monitor and report police activity, fires, health emergencies, weather alerts and hazardous road conditions — all relayed as they happen to the FPO’s followers’ social media feeds.

The best part? The actions of the FPO can be replicated by nearly anyone. The group does not have any special ties with police or emergency dispatch. They use free services readily available online. The only special requirement, which the FPO seems to have plenty of, is a passion for their hometown.

Flint Police Operations uses scanner traffic from RadioReference.com. They use existing police shorthand for their updates and constantly post reminders what the abbreviations means. The group slowly trained its followers to act respectably and only comment on posts if they have a previously unannounced update on the incident. Liking a post does not mean the user likes the fact that gun shots were fired. As an early subscriber to FPO, I can attest the group has worked very hard to create an invaluable tool for the community.

It’s a clear goal: Save Flint. But it’s a tough job.

Police, firefighters and elected officials cannot save cities like Flint without help. Dedicated residents like Kat VanSickle and her fellow Flint Police Operations administrators are needed to save a dying city from within. It must start with the citizens. Flint might be a empty shell of a once great city but it’s not going to become a lawless wasteland on FPO’s watch.


[photo credit: Christa VanAmburg]