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What Every Chief Needs to Know About Web site Development

Written by Jody Kasper

Over the past decade, Web sites have become an essential marketing, advertising and communication medium for most organizations. When a person needs contact information, has a general question or is interested in working for a specific agency, the vast majority of people will go online and search for the organization’s Web site.

Web sites have become a critical means of communicating with the general public and are both expected and essential. Professional police departments that emphasize access to information, community partnerships, efficiency and pride, need to maintain well-designed and well-organized Web sites.

While the majority of law enforcement agencies do have Web sites, many are poorly designed and have been left unattended since their creation. A quick review of existing police Web sites reveals a bad and consistent trend across many agencies. Sites are often poorly organized, out of date, contain inappropriate material, do not adhere to basic Web site design standards and simply lack professionalism.

Some police department Web sites have pictures of animated flying pigs, cartoons of police officers eating donuts and the theme to COPS as background music. While these images and sounds may be funny to some, one should consider what image the department is conveying by having this type of material on its Web site.

Many existing sites require an update or complete redesign. While this may seem like a daunting task to some, it is actually a fairly simple process that requires minimum training. Many new recruits coming onto departments bring with them a solid understanding of computers, computer programs and a generally high comfort level with technology. Some officers may be very interested in this area, and the additional duty of Web site development may be a desirable opportunity for those people.

When assessing the needs of a department’s Web site, first examine the existing site to see if it needs to be completely replaced or just updated and augmented. This analysis should include a review of at least 20 other police Web sites to establish a norm. It is a good way to get a feel for the general setup of a site, to see what information other departments have included on their sites and to see what works and what doesn’t.

After reviewing your current Web site and those of other agencies, the next step is to plan out the general architecture of the site. Most Web sites have a homepage that includes a menu to help users navigate through the pages. For example, a site may have “Operations,” “Administration” and “Community Services” included in the site menu.

Under each of those general titles, there should be additional options that narrow down what the user is searching for. These options are usually included in drop-down menus that appear when the user rolls the mouse icon over the title. Using the above titles, here is an example of what the general architecture should look like.

Operations: Overview of Operations, Patrol, Detective Bureau, Traffic Bureau, Crime Scene Services. Administration: Overview of

Administration, Records Bureau, Employment Opportunities, Training.

Community Services: Citizen Police Academy, Ride-along Program, DARE, Other Services.

Each topic should be a bullet that represents what the user would see in the drop-down menu if they scrolled over the general categories in the main menu. Most menus are located on the left side of a page or along the top under the header. The key to any good Web site is a solid architectural design that is well-organized and well-planned.

When it comes to police Web sites, there are some areas that should always be included in the main menu. The more obvious categories are illustrated above, but other relevant categories include: Report an Incident Online, About PD, Frequently Asked Questions, Crime Statistics, News/Events, Crime Alerts, Forms, Sex Offender Information and Contact Us. Each of these could have additional sub-categories that would appear in a drop-down menu under each heading.

The next step is to get in contact with a web designer. Some departments may find that they have employees who feel comfortable designing and developing sites, but this is not a job for amateurs, and it is recommended that a person who specializes in Web site design is used. Meet with the developer with your architecture in hand and explain the expectations of the site.

It is recommended that several proposals are sought out from multiple businesses. A department can expect to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000 depending on the complexity of the site, the total number of pages and the ability of department personnel to build the site once the basic framework has been developed.

The next step is to choose a design layout. The design usually involves a header with the agency’s name and information as well as images that may include a badge, shoulder patch, city seal, cruiser, police station or any other image that is representative of the agency.

This header should appear on the top of every page within the Web site. In addition to the header, a footer also needs to be developed. This should include the department’s basic contact information including the address, phone number and fax number. Finally, the background color and general appearance of the page need to be established. Backgrounds should never contain images, as it is very difficult to read text over pictures.

Next, select the text color, font and size. It is recommended that all text be in one simple color, such as black. The font should be traditional and the size of the text should be comfortable for general readers. Text should never be written in all capital letters. Select a light background color that clearly contrasts with the text. All of these design elements should be consistent across every page.

There are some basic rules to follow when it comes to Web site design. The site needs to be well-organized and easy to navigate through. There should be a link back to the homepage and a menu on every page. Sites need to be clear and should not be too busy or chaotic. Users do not want to go to a site and be overwhelmed with flashing advertisements, pop-up boxes, running banners, animated cruisers driving across the screen or flashing lights.

The pages should be neat and orderly, and the options and links should be easily identifiable. It goes without saying, but spelling, grammar and punctuation need to be correct. Grammatical errors are sloppy and not representative of a professional agency. Also, hyperlinks (Internet and e-mail addresses that are usually underlined or in blue) that are included on the Web site need to be periodically tested and updated to avoid dead links.

It is important to be aware of some technicalities regarding the design and development of a Web site. There are a variety of different Content Management Systems (CMS) available. These are programs that designers use to create Web sites, and some are better than others. A web designer may prefer working with Drupal or Joomla! The best practice is to do a little online research and talk with members of other agencies to find out which CMS others are using, which one is best and which one may be problematic due to updated browsers or changes in technology.

The most important factor with the CMS is that it is a system that allows agency personnel to manage the site from any computer that has Internet access. These Web-based interfaces are generally easy to use, and a brief 1- to 2-hour training session will provide personnel with enough knowledge to move through the program and add and delete information.

In addition to the CMS, there are other technical issues that should be considered such as screen resolution, compatibility with the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, ease of location through search engines and compression of image files. These issues are best left to the Web site developer, but it is important to be aware of them and anticipate having to make some technical decisions.

Once the site architecture has been laid out, the general presentation of the pages has been designed and the essential technical questions have been answered, the next step is to wait. It may take a web designer anywhere from one to four months to complete the Web site.

The expectation with most Web sites is that it will be created by the designer and the reins will then be turned over to specific personnel from the organization who have been selected to be responsible for the site. One of the major problems with so many sites is that they are left unattended and the material on the site becomes outdated and irrelevant. To avoid this, an agency needs to have a small group of personnel that is charged with maintaining and updating the Web site.

Once the site is ready, the designer should meet with the site maintainers to teach them how to navigate comfortably through the site’s development pages and enter and delete text, images and hyperlinks. Essentially, general maintenance duties will be learned. Significant changes to the design, layout or the addition of new pages (changes to the architecture) would generally have to be done by the site designer.

Once the site is up and running and personnel are trained to do daily maintenance, the last step is to choose a Web hosting company. This may be affiliated with the original design company that was used or may be a new company. The Web host maintains the server for the site and conducts general maintenance and updates to ensure that the site will be safe, fully functional and accessible. Average Web- hosting fees are about $20 a month but could vary by geographic region. This fee is the only real on-going cost associated with a Web site.

For administrators who may be contemplating a Web page update or a total redesign of an existing site, it is imperative that the site be well-planned, well-organized and that it is as user friendly as possible. To be user friendly, one should consider who will be visiting the department’s site and what information they will be looking for.

For example, a great feature to include on a department’s Web site is a section titled “Frequently Asked Questions.” Questions in this section might include topics such as firearms permits, sex offender information or obtaining incident and accident reports. This will make a site more helpful to users and may reduce the number of incoming phone calls to dispatchers, officers and records personnel.

One of the most frequent visitors to any police Web site is the potential employee. The goal of the site is to successfully attract people to the job and to provide them with basic information about applying and working for the agency. The large majority of interested police candidates will visit a department’s Web site.

Those candidates will assess the department based on the overall presentation of the site and will be looking for specific information in the employment section. Basic job qualifications are necessary, but information on daily duties, special assignments and images of officers engaging in a variety of activities are also essential.

Another frequent visitor to a police department Web site is a person who is seeking to contact the department in some way, either by mail, phone or e-mail, and is looking for contact information. One page should be committed to an agency’s contact information and would include the main business line, emergency numbers, fax numbers, the mailing address of the agency, e-mail contact information and voicemail information for individual officers that a user may be trying to contact.

Victims of crime may also use the site to report an incident or to locate a form. More police agencies have successfully reduced their call volume by having online reporting of minor incidents. One link on the department’s homepage should connect users to the online reporting pages, if the agency has such a system. Links to common forms should also be available.

Another visitor is a person who is dealing with a serious personal event and is seeking specific information but is afraid to formally reach out to a police department. Specifically, victims of domestic violence or sexual assaults may have questions and may go to an agency’s Web site looking for answers. Direct links regarding sexual assault and domestic violence should be considered to meet the needs of these special victims. Each of these pages should contain information on local resources that may be able to best assist the victim.

Finally, people who are interested citizens or visitors in a community may go to an agency’s Web site to learn more about that agency. They may be seeking information on crime statistics, department size, total calls for service or a wide variety of other information.

Ultimately, it is up to the agency to determine what information is included on the site, but in most cases, the more the better. Curious Web surfers might be surprised to learn the number of calls, arrests or motor vehicle accidents that officers respond to, and making that information accessible may bolster community support.

There are many people who may go to a department’s Web site for any number of reasons. Police departments rarely have the opportunity to create the means by which they connect with the public. A Web site is a great way to establish positive communication and to advertise the high production, extensive training and many accomplishments of the department as a whole and of its individual members.

Police Web sites are a bridge between the police and the people they serve. They are an invaluable tool in creating and maintaining positive community relationships, improving efficiency and effectiveness by reducing call volume and attracting potential employees to an agency.

Jody Kasper is a 12-year veteran of policing and currently a sergeant with the Northampton, MA Police. Kasper is also an adjunct professor at Elms College. She can be reached at kasp160@netscape.net.

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2009

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