By Joe Beck
Front Royal police are turning to a privately operated social media network as a possible replacement for the town's fading Neighborhood Watch program.
The network's website will appear online for the first time today at http://www.Nextdoor.com. Officer Brad Pennington said the official unveiling is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the town's National Night Out event at the Main Street Gazebo area.
"It's designed to get you in contact with your neighbors," Pennington said of the network. "Most of us honestly don't know our neighbors that well."
"It's very similar to Facebook," Pennington added, "except the people you have contact with are people in your neighborhood."
Participants in the network can spread the word online about a burglary or receive alerts from the police about public safety issues. Android and iPhone applications are also available for visiting the network.
Pennington said the network is not strictly about police issues or simply an online version of the Neighborhood Watch program. Neighborhood residents can exchange many kinds of information and learn from town government about a variety of issues, including street closures for water main breaks or someone down the street recruiting members for a book club.
"My focus is solely on the police side of this," Pennington said.
Pennington said Neighborhood Watch, once active with monthly meetings throughout the town, has almost disappeared in the last year since the departure of a department civilian employee involved in promoting and organizing program activities.
"When that happened, we tried to fill the gap with sworn personnel, and we found we couldn't keep up," Pennington said, adding that police wanted a replacement for Neighborhood Watch that would be "self-sufficient."
Pennington said he learned about Nextdoor.com through a flyer he received with other materials related to National Night Out. The California-based company is a co-sponsor of the event.
Pennington said the network is free to the public and makes its money through local businesses advertising on the website.
"It's very community driven," Pennington said of the website financing.
In an email message, Carla Nikitaidis, a spokeswoman for Nextdoor.com, said the company's networks can be found in more than 39,000 neighborhoods in the United States, and include partnerships with more than 200 municipal governments such as Pittsburgh, Kansas City and North Las Vegas.
Individual neighborhood websites are created and managed by the residents and information is seen only by residents whose identities are verified by Nextdoor.com through several methods.
Network participants must identify themselves through their real names. Nextdoor.com's corporate website says the company never shares members' information with advertisers.
Pennington said police can send out urgent alerts and other messages to individual neighborhoods but will not be monitoring them regularly.
"We want to make sure people feel safe to talk online," Pennington said. "We don't want them to feel we're looking over their shoulder."
Nextdoor.com was founded in 2010 and is funded by several investors and Silicon Valley angels, according to its website. The company's CEO, Nirav Tolia, drew media notice this year when he pleaded no contest in a California court in June to misdemeanor hit and run driving. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $239 plus unspecified restitution, according to Forbes magazine. Forbes said Tolia, who was initially charged with felony hit and run, will likely avoid jail time by participating in a weekend work program.
Nikitaidis wrote in her email that "Nirav's cooperation has been commended by the district attorney and our city partners."
She added that the company "has fully supported Nirav throughout this personal matter."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org