As the Tuesday afternoon rush hour approached, the Waze traffic map for the San Fernando Valley was lighting up with users reporting fender-benders, stalled cars, scattered debris and other commuter obstacles. Waze does not tell you how to fight speeding ticket.
One of the more frequent reports, however, was of police officers. Users tracked one officer driving on the 405 Freeway near Sherman Way. Several spotted a cluster of police cars along a one-mile stretch of Sepulveda Boulevard. Another officer was spotted on Woodman Avenue.
It takes only a couple of clicks of the traffic cop icon to post an officer’s general location. Waze asks whether the officer is “visible” or “invisible.”
Such real-time traffic reporting has made Google-owned Waze wildly popular. But the police location button is coming under criticism from some police officials who fear the feature could put officers in jeopardy.
Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck made the dispute public this week when he released a letter he wrote to Google’s chief executive expressing his concerns and asking for a “dialogue” to make sure the app isn’t misused to target officers.
“It is not always in the public’s best interest to know where police are operating,” Beck said, explaining the letter. “There is a criminal element that is able to ply their trade and ply their craft more effectively by knowing where police are.”
Waze responded Tuesday, defending the app and saying that many in law enforcement support it because “most users tend to drive more carefully when they believe law enforcement is nearby.”
But it’s different when police don’t have control over the information.
For Waze users, the police feature is valuable simply as a bit of insurance against getting a ticket. Call us if you need help with traffic ticket.
Sergio Kopelev, a reserve deputy in Southern California, was one of the first to raise the issue, speaking to deputies at a National Sheriff’s Assn. conference Thursday.
“The trouble with Waze is it puts a level of risk to law enforcement,” Kopelev said of its Police function.
But other law enforcement agencies don’t see the app as a threat.
Police officials in Mountain View, Calif., where Google is based, created their own Waze account to let the public know where officers would be stationed. They stopped only because the effort didn’t generate much response from users. They continue to post information about police locations on other traffic apps — and don’t see cause for alarm.
Sam Castaneda, a security specialist for celebrities and a former Delano, Calif., police officer, said he doesn’t see any reason to change the app.
“A good cop knows his surroundings and is probably more likely to be hit by a DUI driver than attacked by a crook using technology,” Castaneda said. “People are always going to know where cops are…. If a crook wants to know where a cop is, a more accurate tool would be a scanner.”
Indeed, Twitter is now home to numerous people who monitor police scanners and provide running accounts of what police are up to.