On August 24, Jeff Kaufman rolled out of bed and noticed the letters "PH" had been scrawled into one of his window air-conditioning units. After photographing six similarly damaged units in his Old North End neighborhood, he posted a comment to the online newsletter, "Front Porch Forum."
Total damage to the ACs was $1000, Kaufman wrote. "Does this rise to the level of a felony?" he wondered.
That same morning a South End resident heard a vandal outside his window. Rather than call the police, however, the resident got in his truck and followed the college-age offender.
After catching up with the supposed perp, he asked, "Are you a 'writer?'" referencing a term for graffiti taggers. "No, dude," the man replied. "I don't know what you are talking about." The resident used his cellphone to snap a picture of the guy before he took off.
The resident's wife subsequently relayed the incident on FPF and encouraged neighbors to keep local police apprised of similar incidents. Over the next two days, forum founder and moderator Michael Wood-Lewis kept other residents and police in the loop.
Thanks in part to those efforts, Burlington Police Department officer Mike Hemond was able to document related incidents involving as many as 20 homes.
Hemond himself later wrote on FPF, praising the resident's work as a "huge help" in the investigation - "truly exceptional work." He even urged him to consider a job with the police department. "We're hiring," he joked.
The officer did issue a few words of caution, though: "I do want to point out that it was very risky, as there's no way to control what the guy would do . . . It would have been fine to follow the guy in your truck while calling us on a cell phone, but I wasn't there, so I'm not going to second-guess your judgment, either way it was exceptional and really helpful to the cases."
Ten thousand Chittenden County residents subscribe to about 130 neighborhood Front Porch Forums. While most FPF users only see postings from their immediate neighborhoods, about 350 Burlington residents, public officials and police officers belong to "Neighborhood Volunteers," a citywide online forum where information is swapped across wards. According to a recent FPF survey, 60 percent of subscribers "feel that FPF makes local government more responsive to neighborhood needs."
Wood-Lewis said that the forum has always been effective as a "neighborhood watch" tool. At a basic level, it encourages residents to take a stand against speeders, burglars and other low-level offenders. As enrollment climbs, however, subscribers are becoming "more empowered and aggressive about being involved and finding out what's going on," he said.
Hemond, one of several Burlington police officers who keep in touch with residents via FPF, is cautiously enthusiastic about the crime-fighting potential of the online service. He said FPF enables communication between officers and residents and saves the department, which is short about 10 officers, ever-precious investigative time. Unlike departmental press releases, he explained, forum posts reach a targeted audience and are sometimes a more efficient means of gathering information than knocking on doors.
"We're going to use the Front Porch Forum as a tool - because that's what it is - to supplement our investigation," Hemond said. "But it by no means should be viewed as [an excuse] to not call the police."
Indeed, department chief Michael Schirling expressed ambivalence about the role FPF subscribers play in policing their own neighborhoods. Schirling told Seven Days that the South End resident's confrontation with the alleged tagger jeopardized the resident's safety and impeded further police investigation.
"Had we been called as the witness was following the person, we probably could've gotten the suspect directly identified," Schirling said. "But now we have to take a few extra steps."
Like Hemond, the chief encourages FPF subscribers to "get actively involved" in keeping an eye out for crime in their neighborhoods. At a recent public meeting in the Old North End, convened after a flurry of FPF postings on drugs and crime, Schirling announced that the department is revising its decade-old commitment to "community policing." It seeks to incorporate FPF and other "new media" into that evolving strategy to prevent crime through increased communication between residents and officers.
However, he said, online vigilance is no substitute for nuts-and-bolts police work.
"We don't want to defer our day-to-day operations to being virtual," he said. "We've got to have officers interacting directly with citizens, and we've got to be able to go to crime scenes to assess what's happening."