The city of Alhambra, in Los Angeles County, is home to one of the largest group of Chinese immigrants in the nation. Fifty-three percent of Alhambra’s 85,000 residents are of Asian descent, including 30,000 of Chinese decent.

One of the challenges of living in a diverse population with a limited English proficiency is implementing public safety services that will reach the entire community. Socio-cultural barriers can create a weakened state of community policing. These barriers can include language and an absence of community engagement, trust and understanding of municipal government and communication of police services.

The Alhambra City Council tasked the Alhambra Police Department with developing a social media outreach plan to engage and communicate with the Chinese community. The department contacted several Chinese community members and discovered that Facebook was the most used, understood and followed English-language social media platform. It still lacked the ability to communicate to those with limited English proficiency, however.

Having gained a better understanding of the community’s demographics, the department set up an account on China’s largest social media network, Weibo: China’s hybrid Facebook and Twitter page that is entirely in Chinese. As China’s biggest social media platform, Weibo has more than 500 million followers, about 1 million of them in the United States. Many immigrants, travelers and businesses are known to rely on Weibo to stay connected with clients, friends, and relatives while overseas in the U.S., and many Chinese immigrants living in the U.S. also maintain a Weibo account to stay connected to mainland China.

Prior to launching its Weibo account, the Alhambra Police Department recruited a community volunteer who is well versed in Chinese and social media, in particular with Weibo, to serve as its Community Engagement Coordinator. The coordinator’s primary role was to build the police department’s Weibo page — a free and readily available open source service — and share updates from the city’s main Facebook page. The goal of this initiative was to reach out to Chinese residents, businesses and visitors to Alhambra in an attempt to increase communication, engagement and trust, while simultaneously building partnerships and enhancing community policing.

Within 24 hours of its December 2013 launch, Alhambra Police Department’s Weibo page attracted more than 1,500 followers — almost as many as the department’s Facebook page had at the time. Over 9,500 people followed the Weibo site by the end of March 2014.

The city expected that a majority of the initial following would be from mainland China. However, what cannot be quantified is the percentage of followers who are immigrants to the Alhambra area and have kept their registered Weibo account in China. Based upon posts, comments, messages and communications maintained with the followers, the city estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the followers live locally, with the balance residing overseas. This is equivalent to the 3,000 followers on the department’s Facebook page. In addition to its 9,500 followers on Weibo, analytics show that the daily view count for the Alhambra Police Department Weibo site averages more than 30,000 views per day. A post providing information about driving with a foreign driver’s license while in California has drawn more than 290,000 views.

More importantly, the police department has seen increased engagement with the community regarding local issues. Tips regarding crime issues, reports of local victimization, and photos submitted by followers pertaining to various local nuisances, such as graffiti and traffic problems, have been received through the site.

The site has also been a valuable resource for daily posting of public safety information about policies and procedures, city resources, disaster preparedness and inquiries from followers interested in volunteering for the department. In fact, as a direct result of the Weibo system, a team of Chinese speaking volunteers have recently joined the Alhambra Police Department.

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Originally posted at the League of California Cities.