TAMPA — First, they created their own websites. Next, they took advantage of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Now law enforcement agencies are adding phone and tablet applications, also known as apps, to connect with the communities they serve.
“It’s just the direction our community is going,” said Andrea Davis, a Tampa police spokeswoman. “It’s going with the flow of technology. We need to keep up with technology, and this is just the next step.”
This summer, the Tampa police department created its own app; the agency already has more than 3,000 downloads. Several nearby agencies are researching or in the process of developing their own apps.
Police departments and sheriff’s offices say the move toward apps is a natural one as they follow the habits of a population that is increasingly using hand-held devices like smart phones and tablets.
“We want to communicate with the community,” Davis said. “We want to have ... many options out there.’’
The Tampa Police Department’s app has Apple and Android versions, each with a host of menu options. From the app, citizens can submit crime tips, either anonymously or with contact information. They can watch videos and photos of suspects in unsolved crimes and see a list of the local most wanted criminals.
Other features include a police department directory and contact information for school resource officers. Want to send an anonymous tip to a school resource officer? It’s easy through the app. Police also can post timely information on the app such as updates for a school lockdown, major crash or weather advisory
The app also allows residents to list valuable items in their home, along with serial numbers and photos. The information is stored on the phone. If the home is robbed, the list of items can be forwarded to police and the insurance company.
Next year, the Tampa police app will include GPS locations for the homes of registered sexual offender and predators and a list for calls for service.
The app already is proving useful, Davis said. Through the app, police have received drug complaints, notices of illegally parked cars, suspicious students hanging out at a park during school hours and men knocking on house doors and looking in windows.
Tips sent through the app go to the dispatch supervisor’s email, who then submits it to the correct department.
Though useful, the app isn’t meant to replace 911 emergency calls, Davis said.
“We don’t want emergency situations going through the mobile app,” Davis said. If there’s an emergency, that’s what 911 is for.”
The app for the Tampa police department was developed by Cloudspace Mobile in Irvine, Calif. The company’s first app came three years ago for the Santa Ana, Calif., police department, and Cloudspace’s 14 employees have been busy ever since, said owner Rudy Sanchez.
The company focuses on apps for law enforcement agencies and also created an app for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, which debuted its Apple app version in October. An Android version is expected soon.
Sanchez said Cloudspace Mobile has designed and launched 18 applications and has 61 apps in development for agencies throughout the country. Next year, he hopes to increase to 200 to 300 clients, he said.
“It’s about accessibility,” Sanchez said. “People are not in front of their computers anymore. They want to do everything on their phone.”
Cost is about $7,900 for for both the Apple and Android app platforms.
Sanchez said the apps help law enforcement connect with tech-savvy students and young adults.
“Kids have a ton of information,” Sanchez said.”That’s a tough demographic for the police department to engage.”
Mobile development, which started three and a half years ago, is in its early stages, Sanchez said.
“It’s really going to grow,” he said. “Just like websites, every police department will have a mobile presence. The majority of the public wants to interact with the police department. They just want it to be easier.”
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office plan to have an app in 2014. St. Petersburg police say the department has discussed adding an app but hasn’t made a commitment.
Kevin Doll, spokesman with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, said the apps are useful because they can be used to both send out and receive information from users.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s free app already has an option that allows users to see where sexual offenders and sexual predators live in Pasco County. People can also send tips and photos. The app has safety tips, most wanted list, unsolved cases and school resource officer information.
People in the community want to easily be able to communicate with and receive information from local law enforcement agencies, Doll said.
“We are getting feedback from citizens,” Doll said. “We are getting tips from citizens. We are informing citizens.”