Online chat group helps a neighborhood stay clean and safe

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Online chat group helps a neighborhood stay clean and safe

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Officers from the Daerim Police Precinct and neighborhood residents in a trash clean-up chat room group make the sign for “citizen” with their hands. By Kim Seong-ryong

Choi Geum-mi, 42, spends her days immersed in a group chat room on the mobile texting app KakaoTalk.

The chat room group includes 29 residents from her neighborhood, Daerim-dong, in Yeongdeungpo District, southwestern Seoul, as well as officers at the Daerim Police Precinct, Yeongdeungpo District representatives and several others.

The group chat room serves as the chosen virtual location for daily neighborhood meetings, but it is also frequently used for another primary purpose - to rat out litterers in the area.

Online communication between community members and authorities was an idea courtesy of Choi Seung-cheon, 55, chief of the Daerim Police Precinct, who was appointed in February.

In an open meeting held in the neighborhood’s community service center, Choi previously proposed that residents and police create an online group to call attention to the areas in which trash had been dumped illegally, clean them up and crack down on violators.

The basis for his suggestion was what is known as the “broken windows” theory, a criminological idea stating that small crimes, such as broken subway train windows, going unnoticed often pave the way for larger crimes to be committed.

“According to the broken windows theory, unclean streets can contribute to creating an atmosphere of crime,” he said.

The neighborhood’s response was enthusiastic and the system they enacted through the group chat room was simple.

Residents may send messages in the chat room any time they spot litter, which notifies everyone in the group of the location of the illegally disposed trash. The texts are specific, detailing the street and house numbers of the resident who improperly disposed of their garbage.

Some members even send pictures along with their messages.

Once they receive a message, the police immediately visits the scene, disposes of the trash properly and seeks out the culprit. Places frequently reported are deemed “clean zones” and thereafter patrolled in the morning and in the afternoon.

In the last three months, the amount of weekly litter alerts has decreased, from two or three per week to one, and crime in the neighborhood has plunged substantially.

From March to May 2014, there were 29 break-ins in the neighborhood. This year, there were just 10 such cases in the same period of time.

“Before, there were whispers around the neighborhood of homes being burglarized, and now such comments have drastically decreased,” said resident Lee Mi-gyeong, 46. “I think we’ve proven that the broken windows theory is true.”

Choi also weighed in on the success of the system.

“If there’s trash all over the streets, criminals will think that the area isn’t under patrol and be more comfortable with committing crimes,” he said. “Crime has decreased because the police have been working day and night to keep the streets clean.”

Residents and other group chat participants have also been working to keep the streets clean.

They worked together with the police to put up signs that read, “No Trash Disposal” in places that frequently fall victim to litter. Taking into account that many neighborhood residents are Korean-Chinese, they also posted signs side-by-side that read “Please Do Not Litter” in both Korean and Chinese.

“I wrote the Chinese for the signs,” said Nam Myeong-ja, 57. “As I continued to participate in this effort, I found myself taking more ownership of my neighborhood and becoming more attached to it.”

Others have also come to share that renewed sense of community.

“In the past, I never said anything when I saw people throw their trash into the streets for fear of retribution,” said Jeong Hae-I, 60, a flower shop owner. “Now that my sense of duty has increased, I notify the police immediately.”

“Before, I wasn’t really aware of what was happening in the neighborhood,” Yeongdeungpo District assemblywoman Ma Suk-ran, 57, added. “Nowadays, communication is vigorous. There are residents picking up litter themselves and most feel comfortable reporting crimes when they occur.”

“I think the citizens have really matured into good citizens with a sense of solidarity,” she said.

Resident Choi Geum-mi echoed that sentiment.

“We’ve become closer to the police and have grown to really cherish our neighborhood. Now we’re coming up with all sorts of other ideas.”

The concept of keeping local streets clean has also spread to neighboring communities.

On Tuesday, a resident from a neighboring apartment complex said that residents did not have their own group chat room, to which Choi, the police chief, responded, “We’re planning on adjusting personnel at the precinct so that we can add that community to our group chat room as well.”

BY KIM MIN-KWAN [enational@joongang.co.kr]

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