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Is crime as bad as it seems on Nextdoor?

<p>Social media site Nextdoor is like a neighborhood watch for the digital age. Does the prevalence of crime-related posts reflect increased danger, or do they just incite fears?</p>

Kyle Iboshi

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Portland, Ore. — Scroll through the social media site Nextdoor and you might think criminals were taking over your neighborhood.

“Likely burglar in neighborhood,” read one headline on Nextdoor.

“Potential prowler,” warned another post.

Nextdoor is a hyperlocal online community forum where neighbors must verify their home addresses before creating an account.

People post about topics including lost and found, community events, and recommendations for landscaping and home repair.

They also post about crimes. One in six posts in the Portland area are crime and safety related, according to Nextdoor. Often, those crime warnings generate more comments than other topics.

Criminologists say Nextdoor neighbors may be fueling fears of increased crime.

“It can have the effect of heightening the fear of crime,” said Dr. Bryan Rookey, criminologist at the University of Portland. “These are our neighbors we are talking about and that personalizes it. The natural response is, I could be next. My family could be next.”

Portland Nextdoor users agree.

“It does make you a little more fearful when all you read is this person stole something,” said Kate Robinson of Northeast Portland.

Rookey said it’s not surprising that people post crime-related concerns.

“Crime has always been one of the top issues that Americans are concerned about,” said Rookey.

But more crime-related posts don’t mean that crime is actually increasing.

FBI data for the Portland-metro area shows that crimes like the ones typically reported on Nextdoor, such as burglary or property crime, have declined over the past 20 years.

There were 101,615 property crimes in the Portland-metro area in 2015, compared to 142,435 in 1995.

Police reported 14,998 burglaries in 2015, down from 24,949 burglaries in 1995.

“We have a heightened awareness and that increases our perception of crime,” explained Rookey. “We think it is increasing when maybe it is not.”

Nextdoor says it enables neighbors to share updates and concerns about criminal activity in their neighborhood.

“The activity on Nextdoor is not necessarily directly correlated to crime in an area,” explained Nextdoor spokeswoman Kelsey Grady.

Nextdoor posts could actually help reduce crime.

Police and crime prevention coordinators have created a partnership with the website, which allows officers a direct line to reach neighbors through crime prevention notifications.

“I’m able to put out information almost instantaneously to my nearby neighbors and up to six, seven or eight nearby Nextdoor groups -- thousands of people,” explained Mark Wells, crime prevention coordinator for the city of Portland.

Nextdoor has also helped solve crimes in Portland. In March, neighbors shared surveillance images of a man breaking into a condominium on Hayden Island.

Days later, Portland Police officers arrested Ryan Stephen Hentz.

Like any online forum, neighbors need to think before they post. Rumors, misinformation and vague descriptions can sometimes do more harm than good.

“Those kinds of things can pit neighbors against each other and can create stereotypes, especially when we are talking about race and ethnicity,” explained Rookey. “It can lead to finger-pointing and really tear at the fabric of our communities.”

In the face of public criticism about racial profiling, Nextdoor made changes earlier this year on how members can report suspicious activity. Nextdoor users must fill out several forms before their post is published. The forms ask users to describe a suspect from head to toe, not just by race.

Nextdoor provides guidance on its website on how to share information on crime or suspicious activity with neighbors.