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Capitol Hill Listserv Faces Unclear Future

It seems pretty simple, really: an e-mail listserv telling people what’s going on in their neighborhood.

But as simple as it is, officials call it crucial to crime-fighting efforts in Police Service Area 102.

It is NELink, a community listserv addressing crime and an eclectic mix of issues in PSA 102, which includes portions of Capitol Hill.

For seven years, Hill resident John Wirt has maintained NELink using software he developed specifically for the listserv. Now Wirt is preparing to step down as NELink coordinator, and officials say it is important to find a replacement.

“I believe that it’s absolutely critical to our neighborhood organization, as far as communication is concerned,” said Roger Mattioli, who serves as PSA 102’s citizen coordinator. “It’s a good, quick way to provide a fantastic vehicle for all of these people, and, especially in the last six months or a year, several of the police inspectors … have taken to reading it and responding to it.”

Mattioli just recently announced his decision to step down from his post as citizen coordinator, which he has held for almost three years. Mattioli used NELink to inform the community about his decision and also to advertise for a replacement.

NELink addresses community problems from the inside, allowing residents to speak out about what they believe needs to be fixed in their neighborhood, Wirt said.

There are usually 450 to 500 people who subscribe to NELink at any one time (there were 467 listed subscribers as of Monday). While this equals only a fraction of the more than 10,000 residents who live in PSA 102, its ability to reach the community is unmatched, officials said.

NELink spreads the word about “hot spot” areas where crime appears to be thriving. It lets residents know about upcoming community meetings. It provides a forum for people who want to know how to solve problems such as getting an abandoned car towed.

“You can sort of advise people on how to work with the government and get things done and problems fixed,” Wirt said. “It lends somewhat of a sense of community, at least among those that participate.”

For the Metropolitan Police Department, such volunteer-run listservs have become part of the crime-fighting arsenal, said Inspector Andrew Solberg, who oversees the 1st district. Officers pay attention to NELink and similar listservs in other PSAs, he said, and there are also Yahoo Groups for each community linked off MPD’s Web site.

“The value of the listserv, from our point of view, is that it really heightens people’s awareness of crime going on around them,” Solberg said.

In the future, Solberg said he would like to see more specific items on the listserv, such as descriptions of suspects. Wirt, for example, regularly sends out information on specific incidents and forwards crime statistics to subscribers.

Beyond community issues, the listserv also works to strengthen the police department’s reputation in the community, especially during times when the force might be the target of negative press, Solberg said.

“We take a lot of hits, because what we do is very public,” Solberg said. “The value of the Northeast link, in some ways, is if … an officer out there responds to somebody on the listserv, people start to gain confidence in the police system.

“Now they can touch base with a real-life police officer. They can say, ‘Hey, there’s a realistic shot that if I have a question about something, I’ll get an answer.’”

But as valuable as NELink is, Wirt worries that many in the neighborhood do not speak out because they fear intimidation or retaliation from “negative elements” in the community. Thus, people don’t join the listserv or come to monthly community meetings because they think speaking out might cause more problems.

It’s a view Wirt doesn’t buy into.

“I think frankly, people should speak up more, and speak out,” he said.

Crime is lower when people speak up to their neighbors to let them know how life could be better in the community, Wirt said. Problems must be solved from the inside, and residents must seize the day, he said.

“We need to speak up for dignity and right behavior in our community and let the bad actors know they should go elsewhere,” he added.

That’s exactly what NELink can help do, and why it should continue, officials said.

“I can’t imagine us surviving very long without it,” Mattioli said.

Wirt said he would assist in helping his replacement set up the software to run the listserv. Once that process is complete, the actual work would likely amount to a few hours a week, he added.

“It would be important to find somebody to carry on,” he said. “It’d be really simple.”