Officer Rudd serves in the Orange, Connecticut, Department of Police Services and is the list owner for POLICE-L.
Imagine what could happen if law enforcement officers from around the world could communicate with one another quickly and easily. They could consult with their peers about emerging crime problems, effective policing techniques, the best equipment, up-to-date training, and thorny management issues.
The Internet has made such communication possible. In recent years, electronic mail (e-mail) has had a dramatic effect on how ordinary people communicate with one another, and officers have been as drawn to it as any other segment of the population. Those who have backed their colleagues numerous times in the field now are assisting them in cyberspace, sharing experiences, research, opinions, and contacts.
The relatively recent increase in the use of the Internet reflects a broadening of Internet demographics. No longer the exclusive domain of college students and technological whiz-kids, the "net" has become accessible to anyone since the advent of home computers, commercial online services, and a proliferation of local Internet service providers. Police officers have seized the moment; more and more of them are finding their way online off-duty and on their own time. Many also are taking advantage of the opportunity for professional growth that the Internet offers.
One such opportunity developed during meetings with library staff at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the administration of the computer center of the City University of New York (CUNY). In the fall of 1994, they agreed to sponsor a new law enforcement resource on the Internet. John Jay College offered a computer account and the CUNY computer center provided the necessary hardware and software resources.1 In November of that year, The Police Discussion List, POLICE-L, appeared, and it has grown steadily ever since.
What It Is
POLICE-L is an e-mail-based forum for nonreal-time communication over the Internet. Any current or former law enforcement officer who has an e-mail address capable of sending and receiving mail on the Internet may subscribe.
It works this way. A list member sends an e-mail message to the list address. The message, in turn, is distributed to all the list's subscribers. If someone responds to the message, the reply, too, is distributed to everyone on the list.2 In this manner, discussions ensue.
Because what is sent, or "posted," is distributed to the entire list membership, everyone benefits from the exchanges, even if they do not actively participate. Additionally, all posts are archived, enabling list members to search for and retrieve any prior post. The list archives have proven to be one of the main attractions, allowing subscribers to search for information on specific topics previously discussed on the list.
What It Is Not
One way to understand the concept of POLICE-L (and similar discussion lists) is to understand what it is not. The popular media often focus on the Internet's more colorful features. As a result, in the minds of some people, the World Wide Web has become synonymous with the Internet. In reality, the World Wide Web, a multimedia information format, is but one of several utilities available on the Internet. There are a host of others, including those that allow users to converse, or "chat," in real time using keyboards or their voices.
Newsgroups, sometimes known as Usenet or NetNews, are very popular, and resemble discussion lists in that users post messages that are distributed and then read later. Unlike discussion lists, though, newsgroups do not require users to subscribe, nor is access easily restricted.
POLICE-L is neither a site on the World Wide Web nor a Usenet newsgroup. Posts to POLICE-L arrive daily, and monitoring the list is as easy as reading e-mail.
Why It Was Created
Most police agencies in the United States employ a very small number of officers. Although job-related information is available to these employees through in-service training, magazines, books, and videotapes, relatively few opportunities exist for direct contact with other practitioners outside their local areas. Chances to compare and contrast practices and procedures usually are scant and infrequent.
POLICE-L was founded on the basic premise that professionalism in policing should be a goal, and the exchange of information with peers is a necessary component of achieving that goal. The list owner3 created POLICE-L to make such exchanges universally available to law enforcement officers at all levels of policing.
Only sworn law enforcement officers, including retired, reserve, and auxiliary officers, may subscribe to POLICE-L. Personnel from the largest municipal and state agencies to the smallest rural departments have joined the list. All ranks from chief to rookie patrol officer are represented. Federal agents and military police officers, as well as former officers who now serve academia and the private sector, also subscribe. The list owner verifies the law enforcement status of all new subscribers prior to their admission.
The diversity of list membership has resulted in contacts that otherwise might not have been made. Not only have officers reached out to one another for some unofficial help on cases, but real friendships have developed. Occasionally, officers in different countries are surprised by the procedures used by, or restrictions imposed on, colleagues elsewhere, and everyone learns from the variety of perspectives and experiences offered.
Perhaps more important, line officers and upper-level managers have the opportunity to exchange views. The participants in these discussions often work in different agencies, and the relative anonymity eliminates the political considerations that might hamper such communication within a workplace. As a result, line officers are exposed to some of the motives and rationales behind managerial decision-making processes. Upper-level managers are reminded that the environment in which their officers work, and which they help shape, affects the officers' perspectives, morale, and productivity.
POLICE-L membership is geographically diverse as well. The vast majority of the list's subscribers, approximately 90 percent, reside in the United States, and all states are represented. In addition, because the Internet is a worldwide network of networks, list members also hail from a number of other countries, representing every continent except Antarctica. As the Internet extends its reach and becomes more readily accessible to those in other countries, international participation on POLICE-L likely will increase.
What Is Discussed
POLICE-L members themselves dictate what gets discussed on the list. Topics have ranged widely and have included commentary on local events, sharing of personal techniques, discussions of legislation and its impact on the criminal justice system, and much more. There is no explicit requirement that discussions be police-related, though members usually stick to law enforcement themes. When a topic arises, it is not unusual for subscribers who are police instructors or experts in the area to join the conversation and offer their expertise. Many members devote a great deal of thought and, often, research to their contributions to the list. The exposure to differing viewpoints reminds list members that law enforcement officers do not think with a single mind nor speak with a single voice.
In addition to fostering routine conversation, POLICE-L serves as a clearinghouse for information requests. List members seek help or guidance with local issues that might have been addressed by others already. For example, a small southern department sought an evaluation form to assess its supervisors' performance. A subscriber from a European police association sought details of legislation in other countries designed to address the crime of stalking. A university officer in a western state, scheduled to testify before his state's assembly regarding a bill he authored, wanted to know what to expect. An officer from a small department in the Midwest was looking to start a bicycle patrol and wanted advice on the best way to begin. The chief of an agency on the East Coast sought experiences to help him decide whether and with what nonlethal weapons to arm his plainclothes personnel. All of these requests received responses, either on the list or directly to the subscribers concerned.
List members also are involved in various projects of general interest to law enforcement, and POLICE-L gives them a way to spread the word. For instance, members routinely announce training courses and professional conferences. Several police union or association representatives subscribe, and they occasionally have used the list to notify officers of pending legislation. Subscribers involved with police-related organizations have posted to introduce those organizations and recruit members. Even an occasional job announcement makes its way to the list.
How To Subscribe
Subscribing to POLICE-L is a two-part process.
First, an interested officer must compose e-mail to LISTSERV@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU. The subject line can say anything (or nothing), but the main body of the text must contain the single line: SUB POLICE-L FirstName LastName. LISTSERV automatically will send directions for the second part.
The second portion of the subscription process involves mailing the list owner a short letter and photocopy of documentation verifying the intended subscriber's current or former law enforcement status. This procedure successfully deters fraudulent applications and keeps the list restricted to law enforcement.
POLICE-L is not the only electronic forum for police professionals, but it is unique in its delivery, general appeal, and international composition. As with many such resources, POLICE-L has a well-developed sense of "electronic community," in which "users can freely exchange information that otherwise might not be available, or would be too time-consuming to obtain through conventional channels."4 This sense of community enables police professionals to "debate ideas, share data, publish their work, identify areas of agreement, and find solutions to common problems."5
Technology has made the world a smaller place. Through the Police Discussion List, officers from departments throughout the world can take their place in the global law enforcement community.
1 POLICE-L is managed using LISTSERV list management software running on an IBM 3090 mainframe computer. For more information about LISTSERV, visit http://www.lsoft.com/ on the World Wide Web. 2 Replies also can be addressed specifically to the person who posted the message, without going through the list. Members usually reserve personal responses for topics outside the realm of general list interest. 3 The author is the list owner for POLICE-L, with the assistance of associate list owner T.A. Sunderland, a lieutenant in the New York City Auxiliary Police and doctoral candidate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The list owners can be reached via e-mail at POLICE-L-Request@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU. 4 Seth F. Jacobs, "On-Line Criminal Justice Resources," JCJE: Journal of Criminal Justice Education, Fall 1995, 260. 5 Ibid.