In crime novels, detectives always look for "twitching curtains" when doing door-to-door investigations because people peeking out windows are the kind of neighborhood snoops who don't miss much of what goes on in their locality.
In this electronic age, community police officers in Shanghai are tapping grassroots eyes and ears in a more sophisticated way. They have initiated WeChat groups of "informants" who report anything that seems amiss in their neighborhoods — from criminal activity to safety hazards.
The groups include neighborhood committee members, community safety volunteers, property managers, security guards in residential complexes and local small shop owners.
Through the online groups, police officers communicate alerts about burglaries, thefts, fire hazards or suspected criminals in an area. Residents are asked to report anything that looks suspicious.
The reports from residents are collated and disseminated through the company version of WeChat, which is integrated into a larger police platform. That makes it easy for the supervisors of community police forces to monitor activities.
This is the latest innovation from the police force trying to adapt to the digital age.
Some 264 community police officers from 14 police stations around the city participated in a trial run of the program that began last September. They managed to recruit 4,413 residents, who have reported back information related to more than 400 cases, according to Shanghai police.
Wang Hurong, a community police officer from the Zhoujiaqiao Police Station in Changning District, works in Hongqiao Xincheng, a residential complex near Zhongshan Park. He was one of the officers involved in the trial run.
Wang said he started several groups on the daily-use version of WeChat, but the system became too cumbersome as anonymous people were invited in by group members and posts unrelated to police work took over.
"Now residents have to scan my QR code to join my group, and all group members are identified," he said. "Every group member understands that this is a serious working platform."
Wang said he has about 40 really good "informers" who send him five or six reports every month.
On January 11, a security guard reported that he discovered 16 firecrackers hidden in an electricity box on the 22nd floor of a residential building. The objects were instantly removed as a safety precaution.
Reports also came in about interior decorating discards blocking fire escape staircases.
In the app, Wang marks whether a case is solved or has been referred to another authority. All members of the group have access to the information.
Besides using WeChat, Wang still takes phone calls or personal visits from residents.
At the end of last year, he received a call from the son of an elderly woman in the residential complex, reporting that his mother had been approached by a scammer. Wang discovered that the alleged fraudster was on a wanted list, and he asked all security guards in the WeChat group for the complex to keep their eyes peeled for the man.
Police in Changning District said the online groups have reported clues related to prostitution, gambling and drug rings.
On January 10, a community police officer from the Xinjing Police Station received a WeChat report of gamblers inside a villa in a residential complex. Police raided the scene and nabbed more than 20 gambling suspects.
There are about 5,500 community police officers in Shanghai posted to neighborhoods administered by residential committees which are known as juweihui.
The police work platform, which includes the apps, provides a channel of communication among all law enforcement officers in the city, regardless of their departments or districts. The channel allows discussions about cases and a platform for forming interdisciplinary task forces to deal with specific cases. Police said it makes their work much more efficient.
Police still operate the hotline 110 for people to report suspicious activities.