Weibo: California city's latest weapon in fighting crime is big hit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 9:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 4:26am


An estranged daughter tearfully confronts her family at a restaurant in Alhambra, California, and refuses to leave.

A few minutes later, a 911 call dings into the laptop in Alhambra Police Sergeant Eddie Rodriguez's cruiser. He steps on the accelerator as his partner for the day, police volunteer Walter Yu, fires up the department's Weibo account.

"Alhambra police are en route to handle an incident of customer harassment," Yu writes in Chinese, and taps send.

Within minutes the post is deluged with likes and comments. Yu's fingers dance over his iPhone trying to respond.

In a city with about 30,000 Chinese residents and just four sworn officers who can speak Chinese, police hope Weibo, the world's largest social network, can help to bridge the cultural divide.

Late last year, the Alhambra Police Department became the first police agency in the United States to launch a full-time Weibo account.

Weibo sources are starting to produce useful tips - information from users helped Yu shine a light on a fake rental-car-voucher scam targeting Chinese nationals. But most of the time, Weibo commenters just have questions. Is my landlord supposed to have a key to my apartment? Are police officers in the US supposed to carry guns all the time? Do pedestrians really have the right of way?

Yu, who joined Rodriguez on patrol for a social media "ride-along", was born in China and moved to the US during high school. He spends up to 20 hours a week monitoring the account and answering questions.

The idea occurred to Yu during his day job, working as a contract interpreter for the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Weibo, Yu thought, was a way for public agencies to reach Chinese immigrants. Last July, he wrote a newspaper article encouraging local agencies to join.

The police department's account now has more than 12,300 followers - three times as many followers as its Facebook and Twitter accounts combined.

It's difficult to measure the impact of the experiment.

But Corporal Bob Torrance says he's noticed a few differences on patrol: more people waving back to him on the street, and friendly questions at Starbucks instead of fearful stares. Tony Xu, head chef at Chengdu Taste, a popular Sichuan restaurant, said reading about crackdowns on car thefts and loitering made him feel safer.

"You can see them at work," Xu said. "You can see that police here are not scary like they are in China."