Is your online neighborhood group watchful — or racist?


The way she saw it, she was just being vigilant, looking out for her neighbors and protecting against possible crime, when she saw a young black man walking down her block near 81st and Oak streets in Waldo.

She’s not racist, the aggrieved woman insists.

“Eighty-nine percent of my friends are African-American,” said the woman, who is white and declined to give her name. “I was raised in a black foster home. I was married to an African-American, black man for 30 years, 15 years after that with another black person.”

Concerned that the young man might be up to no good (her neighbor’s home had recently been burglarized), she followed and photographed him from her vehicle, posting on a Facebook neighborhood page to alert her neighbors. Only later did she learn that 27-year-old Brandon Robins had been in the neighborhood to pick up his son and stepdaughter from school.

His subsequent arrest on a traffic warrant sparked a social media outcry from members of the Waldo Tower Homes Association, which ended up raising money to help with his legal fees.

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“I was only trying to look out for my neighbors,” the watchful woman said. “I’ve been called every name you can think of to call somebody who you think is prejudiced.”

Another word may also come to mind: digilantism.

The term for digital, online vigilantism gained prominence following the thousands of false leads generated on social media sites such as Reddit and 4Chan after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and injured more than 260.

Before brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were identified as the bombers, amateur sleuths eager to help police pored over cellphone photos to identify “suspicious” characters. Almost all of the identifications were wrong.

On the neighborhood level, it often becomes debatable whether posts constitute helpful watchfulness or merely promote paranoia, finger-pointing and racial profiling of those who seem “suspicious.”

Kara Werner, an 18-year resident of Kansas City’s Volker neighborhood, knows firsthand that the answer is both.

In 2010, she started a neighborhood Facebook page after a violent crime in Volker, which is north and west of Westport. The idea, she said, was to foster a greater sense of community and neighborliness.

Since that time, she has had to monitor the site constantly, as well as update its posting guidelines, to prevent racial profiling.

“There have been real moments where I have regretted starting the group,” Werner said. “I know that, intrinsically, these groups can very often turn into that racial profiling. And I’ve seen it (on the site): ‘There’s a black guy walking down the street. Do I call the police?’ And, you know, I try to jump in and, like, ‘No!’

“We live in a very diverse community, and I have had neighbors of color who have reached out to me and say, ‘I’ve had to leave the group. I don’t feel safe.’ 

She continued. “I know a woman who was sitting in front of her own house, in a car with a friend. She was finishing a conversation. And the neighbor called the police on her. She lives there.”

Until she changed the criteria for posting, Werner said, she found that race too often was the only identifier used for “suspicious” behavior.

“No one ever points out race if it’s a white person that they think is up to something,” she said.

After receiving national criticism that its pages were becoming outlets for racial profiling, the hyper-local neighborhood website Nextdoor changed its policy on reporting.

Any user who now logs in to report a crime or suspicious activity is met with a box that reads, “Posting about suspicious activity is tricky, we can help.” It offers tips “to make sure all your neighbors feel safe and respected.”

▪ Focus on behavior. What was the person doing that concerned you, and how does it relate to a possible crime?

▪ Give a full description, including clothing, to distinguish between similar people. Consider unintended consequences if the description is so vague that an innocent person could be targeted.

▪ Don’t assume criminality based on someone’s race or ethnicity. Racial profiling is expressly prohibited.

John Williams of Kansas City is a friend of the woman who followed Robins. Williams, a 35-year-old African-American, said he grew up with the woman’s three sons. It hurt, Williams said, that she was labeled a racist on social media.

“She only did what she thought was right,” Williams said. “Anybody that is looking out for the best interest of their neighbors would have done the same thing.”

Williams wondered how the situation would have played out if the roles were reversed.

“If a white dude was in an all-black neighborhood, people would do the same thing to that white dude,” Williams said. “They would probably take a picture, too.”

A careful balance

And what do people on Nextdoor think about whether the sites promote watchfulness or veer toward paranoia and racial profiling?

“To the contrary,” said one response to a query by The Star, “I think, if anything, this forum allows an opportunity for a great deal of enlightenment on the subject of racial profiling. I believe there are people who actually learn what is and what isn’t considered that just by posting and reading here.”

Some said that where racial profiling appears to be present, it more often than not is an unintended consequence of the attempt to be descriptive.

“Occasionally there’s a post that shows some unintentional racism,” wrote a resident of the Westwood Park neighborhood. “Sometimes, of course, the race of the suspect is relevant if the suspect is still at large and a physical description might be helpful. … But to identify someone as merely ‘a black male’ is not helpful without some additional information.”

Others said that while they still see posts that use racial profiling or that seem racially insensitive, they also see those posters taken to task.

One post last week on Nextdoor — about children on the Country Club Plaza in the summer — does not mention race or color, but nonetheless has prompted more than 89 responses ranging from strong support to outrage.

One referred to the post and comments as “all of this backhanded racism…”

Another said, “It’s not so thinly veiled racist posts like this that made me deactivate my account before — and, again, now. Too bad. This could have been a helpful tool. Instead, it’s just one more place for people to spew their pathetically ignorant prejudice. For those who stick it out and fight the good fight, more power to you. I’m out.”

The original post:

Every year we hear of a pack of children marching down to the plaza and being idiots. I remember the last time I saw them harassing the city, I was at the plaza. The mayor was at the Cheescake Factory waiting on his table, I was cleaning tables. I live on Oak street and lately, small clicks if children and young adults have been creating more problems in our neighborhoods.

I am sure they have many reasons for their actions to the yearly marching of nuisance, sometimes leading to violence. Anyone ready to beat them at their game?

We know they are growing up in disadvantaged homes and living in environments that reflect violence, drug dealing, and hate. I know that getting away from the environment they have lived around for years must be one reason they all get together; we all need to get away from time to time. What are their options? A curfew, another reason that disciplines and instills the mindset that make them feel like doing it anyway. Rebels, I guess, or maybe they want to enjoy the summer the same way they see others, but all they can afford and have is friends and enemies. HOPEFULLY, we are ready to put smiles on these children and positively influence them by showing them a healthy, sustainable future is possible otherwise they will lead themselves right into addiction and crime.

Nextdoor user Becky de Wit said she has found some neighbors aren’t sensitive at all about racial issues and others are too sensitive, neither of which is much help in rooting out crime or suspicious behavior.

“I know somebody who mentions the race of any person she talks about (that is, if they aren’t white like her),” de Wit wrote and gave an example, “ ‘This black lady was walking across the street and she had a sheepdog just like yours.’ Why did she mention the lady was black? It’s not pertinent to the story at all. But if you ask her why, she’ll say, ‘Because she WAS.’ So, she just doesn’t get it.

“Then there’s somebody who says, ‘There was a guy going door to door and peeking in people’s windows. He was 18-20 years old, 6 feet tall, black hair, blue jeans, black hoodie, white sneakers. He was on foot.’ Neglecting to mention the color of the person’s skin or an ethnicity at all seems pretty glaring here, but they’re just so afraid of offending anybody.

“There are people who just don’t get the nuances or difference between saying, ‘There is a black male peeking in windows, so I called police,’ and ‘There is a black male walking down the street, so I called police.’ 

For their part, Kansas City police support neighborhood watch sites.

“We have seen these sites provide positive information,” spokeswoman Sgt. Kari Thompson wrote in an email. “These resources have helped get the word out on crime trends and assist watch groups in keeping their neighbors informed. We encourage those in our community to report suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.”

Ken Novak, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the sites offer a pro-and-con tradeoff.

The pro is that neighborhoods get involved in crime reduction. Neighbors keep an eye out for one another and report suspected crimes quickly.

“The fancy term is collective efficacy,” Novak said. “It is the idea that it is not just the job of the police to control and prevent crime; it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

On the other hand, the information that is reported is often unfiltered.

“Typically, the police will respond to suspicious behavior and then they have the ability to kind of define whether it is truly suspicious or just coincidental,” Novak said. “Here, we don’t have that. Here, we have anyone who gets on with the ability to report what they define as suspicious. So you’re going to have inaccuracies.

“…You run the risk of neighbors purposefully or inadvertently targeting each other. Maybe somebody looks suspicious because they don’t look like the majority here. That is the risk you run with this type of thing.”

The woman in Waldo said she regrets following and photographing Robins. She added she would be reluctant to look out for neighbors in the future. She’ll mind her own business, she said. Should a neighbor’s house get broken into, it won’t be her concern.

“I thought that I was doing the correct thing,” she said. “It eats at my heart that I even got involved.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

Toriano Porter: 816-234-4779, @torianoporter

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