Cops add cell phone alerts to arsenal

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN
  • Star Tribune
  • July 2, 2009 - 11:33 AM

A man with Alzheimer's disease wanders away from his home and can't be found. What if police departments had a way to quickly message thousands of people in a specific neighborhood or area to help find him?

Today, Minneapolis and St. Paul officially start Nixle, a service that provides information over cell phones by text message, e-mail and on the Web. More than 1,000 law enforcement agencies now use Nixle, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore. Unlike services such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, Nixle doesn't allow unauthenticated information to be communicated.

"We are dealing with the iPod generation, who get most their information in the palm of their hand," said Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia.

Minneapolis has been using Nixle for about six weeks, and about 1,100 people have signed up. Nixle is free, but standard text message rates apply for cell phone subscribers who do not have unlimited text plans. There is no spam.

St. Paul is the fourth Minnesota city to sign up for the service, following New Hope and Brooklyn Park. Nixle is a free service for law enforcement agencies because the company that provides it makes money through business uses of the service, said Matt Metcalf, director of community management and relations. In December, Chula Vista, Calif., was the first city to begin using Nixle.

Residents can provide home and work addresses to pinpoint what information they should receive. Garcia expects other agencies to join Nixle, so they could already have hundreds of people signed up by the time they start up.

Right now, Nixle offers traffic updates, crime alerts with pictures or information police want to make public. But Garcia said the city's Fire Department also is on board to participate, and information such as snow emergencies and weather reports could be included.

"If you knew the information was being sent to a specific neighborhood that had a large Somali population, you could send the message in multiple languages," he said.

Neither Garcia nor St. Paul Sgt. Paul Schnell see any pitfalls to the system, although departments have to be careful not to overload people with information, Schnell said.

"We want to send out timely, worthwhile and consistent information," he said.

Minneapolis and St. Paul police will register residents for Nixle at this week's Taste of Minnesota, as well as at National Night Out events and other community activities. And anyone can register at

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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