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Nixle messaging links public to law officers for alerts
Hall County Deputy Stephen Wilbanks and the new Nixtel computer program used by law enforcement to help keep citizens apprised of criminal activity in their neighborhood.

Sherrill Day likes to stay well-informed.

As a neighborhood watch leader for Hanover Place off Thompson Bridge Road, where she has lived since 1974, Day is plugged in to a wide range of computer-age information sources. The grandmother of six has e-mail, Facebook and Twitter accounts and receives instant message alerts on her cell phone from The Times and several Atlanta broadcast news outlets.

So when the Hall County Sheriff’s Office launched a new system of online updates in August, she was among the first to sign up.

"I think it’s great," Day said. "I like knowing what’s going on in the community."

Nixle, an online community information service that some have dubbed
"Twitter for law enforcement," is the latest tool for the Hall County Sheriff’s crime prevention division. On the Hall County Sheriff’s Nixle page, Deputy Stephen Wilbanks posts everything from lookouts for suspects or missing persons to crime prevention and winter driving tips. Depending on what option users choose, alerts can come across on their cell phones as e-mail.

While the service bypasses traditional news media outlets in delivering law enforcement messages directly to citizens, Wilbanks doesn’t see it taking the place of the news for its users.

"It’s not a substitute for a news outlet," Wilbanks said. "What the news outlets do is going to be more detailed. It’s more of a public safety instant message system."

Since Nixle launched nationwide in March 2009, more than 1,200 public safety agencies and municipalities have begun using the service, which does not require taxpayer money.

Nixle boasts a hacker-resistant server environment, with all servers located at Nlets, the International Justice and Public Safety Network. The free service has no ads and protects users from junk e-mail commonly known as "spam."

In recent months, the sheriff’s office has used Nixle to distribute surveillance images of burglars in North Hall and a composite sketch of a man wanted in an attempted child abduction.

So far the service has not directly led to crimes being solved locally.

"But I foresee that happening, as long as we keep using it and get enough people signed up to the service," Wilbanks said.

Day agrees that Nixle will eventually lead to some arrests. Her neighborhood watch already helped catch a burglary suspect before the service was online.

"We’ve got to get involved to help protect ourselves," she said. "We can’t just depend on law enforcement."

Michelle Ramsey, a business owner and neighborhood watch leader in South Hall, said Nixle is a great tool for passing information on to her neighbors.

"The more informed we all are, the better we keep our eyes open," Ramsey said.

Wilbanks is unsure how many Hall County residents are currently using Nixle. The service will soon allow local agencies to keep track of user information. But the more people who sign up, the more potential "eyes and ears" local law enforcement will have, he said.

"It’s an extension of not just the neighborhood watch, but of the crime prevention and public information efforts of law enforcement," Wilbanks said. "It’s basic, but it’s an effective tool."