US police department begins using Sina Weibo to engage Chinese immigrants

California's Alhambra Police Department is the first US law enforcement agency to use Chinese social media

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 1:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:12pm

While many law enforcement agencies in the United States have slowly embraced social media by releasing news alerts on Facebook and Twitter, the Alhambra Police Department in southern California is the first to open an account on Sina Weibo.

The department's Weibo page currently delivers local crime and community-related news in Chinese and has attracted a motley crew of followers, including overseas Chinese living in Alhambra city, their relatives on the mainland and curious onlookers who have decided to follow the page for the sheer novelty of seeing a US police agency operate Chinese social media.

“We’ve opened this microblog in order to better serve Chinese residents of the region – everyone from students to businessmen and tourists,” a description on the Weibo page reads. “We would like to eliminate misunderstandings and improve communication with Chinese residents so that new immigrants can integrate into the community as soon as possible…

“[Alhambra] is a cosmopolitan and diverse city, and [the Alhambra Police Department] hopes to help our community and maintain a close relationship with the public.”

Although this is the first time a US law enforcement agency has used Weibo, Alhambra seems to be the perfect testing ground for this experiment. According to US Census data from three years ago, over 50 per cent of Alhambra’s population is Asian, and about 30,000 of the city’s 57,300 residents are Chinese.

“I feel that we’re not reaching out to [Chinese immigrants] as much as we should,” Alhambra police chief Mark Yokoyama said during a December 9 press conference when the Weibo page was first revealed, local news portal Alhambra Source reported. “If we increase that engagement [on Sina Weibo], [and] if we increase that communication [and] that trust, I truly believe we’ll have an impact on public safety in our community.”

In an interview with Southern California Public Radio, the police chief added that this “increased engagement” would allow Chinese immigrants who might not be fluent in English to receive and contribute tips on crime prevention from Weibo.

“The more people have an element of trust and engagement with the police department, [the more] they’re likely to pick up the phone and get on the Weibo account and give us tips [on crimes] that have occurred,” Yokoyama reportedly said.

Aiding the Alhambra police in their Weibo crusade is Walter Yu, an Alhambra resident who emigrated from China at the age of 18 and now works as a court interpreter for immigrants.

Originally the author of an article in the Alhambra Source that encouraged police to use Chinese social media to reach out to the immigrant community, Yu was contacted by Yokoyama shortly after the piece’s publication. He now volunteers to translate content from the Alhambra Police Department’s Facebook page, posting it up on Sina Weibo afterwards.

Yu told Southern California Public Radio that he translates “several posts a day” and is already seeing a positive reception, with many Alhambra residents posting comments with questions about local issues such as road maintenance and traffic laws.

With no sign of slowing down, the Weibo page has already won over 5,000 followers – a number that completely overshadows the Alhambra Police Department Facebook, which only has 1,600 “likes”.

“A city in Los Angeles, California has started a microblogging service on Weibo?” one surprised mainland netizen wrote when the page first went online. “This is definitely worthy of praise!”

Other Weibo commentators voiced their hope that more US police agencies would follow Alhambra’s lead.

“Wow,” an impressed netizen wrote. “The Los Angeles police are so much friendlier than the New York police.”