IN the digital age, people are turning to social media to keep their neighbourhoods safe. HELENA VESTY speaks to the residents behind online crime prevention communities.

A SOCIETY more connected than ever before has seen residents gravitating towards their phones and computers to solve problems, big and small. In the wake of crippling police cuts and people voicing frustrations about the response to local crime, people are now turning to their screens to tackle crime.

Facebook and WhatsApp have become magnets for people reporting criminal behaviour among their neighbours. Community groups set up on the platforms have gained thousands of followers, who post pictures and tip offs about suspicious behaviours, warning their fellow residents to lock their doors or stay away from certain streets.

Straying from traditional Neighbourhood Watch methods, one community group has set up its own private WhatsApp group for residents to report their crime concerns and information.

The idea began after the success of the Over Hulton Community Group Facebook page, where residents quickly began to share incidents in the area. Hosting more than 1,600 followers on their Facebook page, group leaders decided to create a dedicated WhatsApp group for discussing crime, naming the experiment OHIO — the Over Hulton Information Outlet.

The new group describes itself as a ‘crime prevention and awareness community’ for residents within the Over Hulton boundaries alone.

Community group chairman John Bullen told The Bolton News how OHIO started: “Our Facebook page has been extremely successful and we have such an impact with people posting things.

“A policeman in the area told me to link it to a WhatsApp group, then it could be even more successful.”

WhatsApp groups are limited to 256 members, so the Over Hulton group made eight groups for their purposes. Each group has an administrator, with all eight administrators reporting to one central WhatsApp group to connect network. The volunteer administrators on working on the WhatsApp network come from a range of backgrounds, from IT people, serving police officers and an entrepreneur.

Concerns have been voiced in the past about people taking the law into their own hands, with some similar groups trying to detain offenders. But this community group insists its network is not for ‘vigilantes’, only for information sharing and advice.

Mr Bullen said: “We launched it about seven weeks ago and we’ve got more than 300 people on it now.

“It’s not a vigilante thing. The purpose of the group is that if you spot something suspicious, you alert the group you are in. If the administrator thinks it’s sufficient enough to post on the other groups then they will.

“Movements can be monitored. We had a burglary a few weeks ago, within three minutes of the lady letting us know it had happened to her, everyone knew about it.

“If something suspicious is going on after dark, you put it in the group and everyone gets up and turns their lights on, it will show suspicious people they have been spotted. If it’s daylight, you go and stand at the window, they’ll know we’re onto them.”

While the Over Hulton Community Group is acting outside of the Neighbourhood Watch scheme, groups who participate in the national project still see the value of taking their activities online.

Tom Atkinson, the chair of Astley Bridge Neighbourhood Watch, has seen its Facebook group flourish, gaining more than 300 members in just over two months.

He said: “Social media is massive, most people us it now and it’s the best way of reaching everyone if people are concerned about anything.

“It gives the residents a voice, I know the frustrations of the 101 system and trying to contact the police.”

This neighbourhood team not only gives home security advice and spreads safety information, but passes information sent in by residents to the area’s police officers. The leaders are hoping to establish a more direct relationship with crime-fighters in the area and encourage people to get back to reporting incidents where they might have been put off in the past.

Mr Atkinson said: “We’re trying to give people more ways to contact the police so they’re not on the phone for hours. The information is going directly to the officers, it could cut the number of calls to the police.”

Giving people an option to speak up on social media seems to be popular and Mr Bullen is hoping that the movement will continue to grow at the same breakneck speed: “Everybody is very enthusiastic about it. There’s strength in numbers, this is all about neighbours helping neighbours. We want to be in a position where everyone in Over Hulton who has a mobile phone has signed up. It’s about crime prevention.”

Despite fears that residents could take dangerous matters into their own hands, police have praised Neighbourhood Watch schemes and groups promoting community safety.

A spokesman for Greater Manchester Police said: “The aim of the Neighbourhood Watch Network is to ‘bring neighbours together to create strong, friendly, active communities where crime and anti-social behaviour are less likely to happen’. Neighbourhood Watch is about making sure that fewer people feel afraid, vulnerable or isolated in the place where they live — and GMP actively encourages community members to join this valued voluntary movement.

“By sharing crime prevention information and guidance, in whatever method these schemes choose — this also helps GMP achieve the widest possible audience and encourages people to report crimes so we can work together to prevent crime and keep communities safe.”

The police say that social media can be key for bringing people together: “Neighbourhood Watch is owned by its members and not by the police — it is the individual members that make any scheme successful. The ways that these groups communicate amongst themselves in extremely varied — from more traditional methods of communicating such as face-to-face meetings and phone calls to social media platforms. It entirely depends on what suits the members of each Neighbourhood Watch scheme, and how they want to communicated.”

“Having a social media account lets people know there is an active Neighbourhood Watch scheme in the area, and generates connectedness amongst members.

Mr Atkinson says the first port of call during an incident is still the police: “We do not advocate that residents approach people, it’s not safe for people to do that themselves, especially with all the dangers around knife crime. Any information we get, we pass to the police.”