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SAPD's New Text Alert System: Transparency Or An Unchecked Narrative?

 San Antonio Police Department patrol vehicles are parked downtown on May 30, 2020.
Dominic Anthony Walsh
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio Police Department patrol vehicles are parked downtown on May 30, 2020.

A new San Antonio Police Department text alert system has been applauded by some criminal justice and criminology experts for bringing increased transparency and communication between police and the public, but there were also concerns about its potential to circumvent the media.

The program will notify residents who opt in by texting “SAPD” to 39987 about crime trends, upcoming events in their area, and updates on critical incidents among other information.

“It could be from the police department’s point of view, they just want citizens to feel that they’re being involved in the process and being given information,” said Alex Piquero, the chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Miami. “You know a lot of people always clamored for police departments to give them more information, so I think the more they can give, the better everyone will be.”

But Howard Henderson, the director of the Center for Justice Research in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and a fellow at the Brookings Institute, expressed concern over how the program could be used to undermine the media.

“I think that we understand the role that media plays, and it’s a very important role, and I think that by not using the media to disseminate information, you miss the benefit of having media fact-check what’s coming out to the general public, so I think there’s a natural risk,” Henderson said.

The alert system could give the department an early chance to establish certain narratives unchecked, according to Jarret Lovell, professor of Criminal Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

“If they’re sending out a counter narrative to a story that’s already in the news or they’re sending out brand new information about something that potentially has multiple angles, then that’s a problem because you don’t have the neutral party to interrogate authority,” Lovell said.

SAPD insists the program isn’t intended to cut out reporters.

“We understand the important role that journalists play not only in getting information out to the public but also in accountability and this isn’t a tool that is intended to circumvent or replace journalism,” SAPD spokesperson Mariah Medina said.

Instead, she says, the goal is to get information to the community that “might not otherwise make it into traditional media.”

Medina said the process of implementing this system has been ongoing for more than two years. It began with a 2019 demonstration from SPIDR Tech, the company responsible for designing the system, where it showed how text alerts could be used to respond to people who called 911 to let them know when an officer would arrive or give them updates about their case. That system has been in place since last year, according to Medina.

It was after feedback from the community about wanting more ways to connect with SAPD that Chief William McManus went back to SPIDR Tech to find another way to engage with the public, which resulted in the newly launched program. As of now, more than 10,000 residents have opted in to receive alerts, Medina said.

Piquero said that in spite of the risks, it’s worth the effort to improve the relationship between the public and the police.

“I’m all for much better citizen-police relationship, and those are built on trust and legitimacy, and the only way you increase trust and legitimacy is by increasing transparency, and these are movements in that direction,” Piquero said.

“Now the question,” Henderson added, “will be whether or not the media will be able to keep up with how fast information is coming.”

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