If the DMV is the physical manifestation of an inefficient and needlessly bureaucratic government, the websites of most government agencies do a fine job of bringing that frustration into the digital world. The overwhelming majority of them are disorganized, unsightly, and bursting at the seams with sections, sub-sections, buttons and links (often times in underlined blue text, betraying how hopelessly dated the pages really are). But the new website for the Milwaukee Police Department is different. It has a striking design, with vivid background images that stretch across the screen. A parallax scrolling effect makes photographs of officers and squad cars slide dynamically into place. And in perhaps the most radical departure from a typically labyrinthine police department site, Milwaukee Police News has only five different sections, and you don’t have to click any buttons or links to get to them.
The project began about a year ago, when Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn visited the local office of design agency Cramer-Krasselt to talk about building a new site for the force. The idea was to create a destination for accurate, up-to-date information about the work his officers were doing in the community. "The police department—" explained Chris Jacobs, a senior vice president at Cramer-Krasselt, "they’re in stuff every day. Bad stuff usually. Some of it very good stuff. But the public out there only really sees it in quick clips or snippets on the news, and they don’t really get the whole story. So there were a lot of facts and things that weren’t being told correctly. Yet, when the police department puts up the real interview or the real facts, it’s usually in locations and places that nobody’s going to see." On the most basic level, the site had to provide police news in a clear and coherent way, whether the user was a concerned citizen or a member of the press making sure he had the facts right.
To figure out what he was trying to avoid, Jacobs and his team printed out the entire online existence for the NYPD, LAPD, and Boston PD, including their sprawling websites, Facebook and Twitter accounts. "We put that whole world up on a wall," he said. "It was pretty awful." The sites were not only deficient aesthetically, but organizationally, too. They all suffered from the problem I mentioned above: too many buttons; too many pages.
The new site’s answer to these problems is "The Source," a direct feed from the department to the community. As it’s described on the site, it offers "genuine, unfiltered information" about what officers are up to. "We’ll correct the news stories that got it wrong," the section’s description reads, "and we’ll highlight the ones that got it right. Most importantly, we’ll create our own content, so you can see what the Milwaukee Police Department is really accomplishing in the community." Such a feed is undoubtedly a valuable resource, but the danger is creating a system that’s too ambitious to be updated consistently and accurately by an already overburdened police force. Their solution is a clever one: Any time Anne Schwartz, the department’s communications director, updates the agency’s official Twitter or Facebook pages, The Source is automatically updated with that new information.
Scrolling down from The Source reveals the other four sections of the site (you can use a hovering menu to jump to your desired area, but the entirety of the site is arranged in one continuous column). There’s a section that displays some departmental statistics in nice big type, a section dedicated to publicizing Milwaukee’s Most Wanted, another highlighting the heroic acts of the officers on the force, and a final page providing some relevant links for common concerns like how to pay a parking ticket or how to get an accident report.
What it all amounts to is a police department site that’s as informative as it is eye-catching. And that latter aspect—the idea that the site serves as a way to extend the department’s visual brand—is certainly not lost on Jacobs or Chief Flynn. In fact, Jacobs told me, Flynn has been mindful of his force’s design details from the moment he took the job. One of the first things he did when he arrived in town to head the department was to change the look of the police cars, repainting them in a handsome black and white and hand-picking a new typeface for the text on their doors. When he first saw those redesigned cars around four years ago, Jacobs told me, they looked so good he thought it had to be accidental. "It’s rare to run into a police car and say, 'Damn, that type has taste.'"
But soon thereafter, the new chief paid a visit to Jacobs’s agency to talk about how they might be able to enhance the department’s visual presence in the city. During the conversation, Flynn explained that the police cars’ new look was, in fact, entirely deliberate, and it was then that Jacobs realized what good fortune he’d had: He was living in a major metropolitan city in which the guy in charge of keeping people safe was enthusiastic about the possibility of good design to help him do so. What followed was a campaign of flyers and television commercials that greatly increased the department’s visibility in the community. The new site, which was designed pro-bono by Cramer-Krasselt and developed by LISS Interactive in New York, is only the latest product of this relationship.
Of course, a police department with a flair for design might find its detractors. Jacobs pointed out to me that beautiful design can create a sense of premium, and "tax payers don’t like premium-looking government things." Schwartz, the communication director, presented the new site at a recent conference for chiefs of police in San Diego, and if other cities want to follow the MPD’s lead and create their own swanky digital destinations, the premium issue is something they’ll have to keep in mind. In this case, the citizens of Milwaukee didn’t have to pay a dime for their new website, and, as far as other cities go, Jacobs is convinced that departments would find their own local designers willing to help out, if only they’d ask.
So far, the new site’s traffic is up 2,000%, though a good deal of that can probably be attributed to the buzz the site’s been getting amongst designers around the world. Still, Jacobs says overall the reaction from the community, from citizens and reporters to the officers themselves, has been very positive. His hope is that the site will eventually develop into a place where information flows not only out of the department but into it as well—an online hub where police and citizens can interact more fluidly. "If this site can eventually become not just informative but an actionable tool to help the police do their work, that’s huge," he said. But even as it exists now, Milwaukee Police News shows how good design can be a sound investment, even for government agencies. At a time when police departments across the nation are suffering from budget cuts and struggling to recruit qualified new officers, a stronger visual brand, online or otherwise, will only help amplify their presence in their communities. And when you consider how central technology is to crime fighting today, a functional website hardly seems frivolous. In addition to helping citizens find the information they’re looking for, such a site can go a long way to making the public familiar with their protectors and confident in their abilities. I’d take a force with a premium site over one with blue hyperlinks any day.