Officer Maria Evans blinks her eyes and makes gestures with her arms as she greets visitors with a pleasant voice. She then offers to assist them with filing police reports online.
"What can I help you with?" she asks people who visit the Winston-Salem Police Department's websites, www.wspd.org and www.wspdp2c.org.
"I can help you submit a report. But if the incident you are reporting is life-threatening or happening now, call 911 immediately," she says.
The police department added the animated police officer to its websites May 19, and she appears on the home page. The officer also helps users look at crime trends and statistics, get crime-prevention tips, contact police recruiters and search police reports.
The Winston-Salem Police Department is one of two governmental agencies in the country that uses a digital character on its website. The city of Colorado Springs, Colo., also uses one.
About 1,000 city residents have used the virtual police officer since mid-May, said Benjamin Tuttle, an information systems analyst for the police department, on Friday.
The officer guides users of the police website that has extensive text and links to other city websites -- information that can be confusing, Tuttle said.
"People like to use a website with a voice of a human being talking to them," Tuttle said. "Officer Evans helps them find what they are looking for."
With Officer Evans' help, residents can file reports of aggressive driving, fraud, identity theft, harassing phone calls, larceny, littering, illegal dumping, lost property and vandalism.
The reports are sent immediately to the police dispatchers, who can send an officer to help a resident that same day, if necessary, Tuttle said.
The virtual police officer costs the department $500 a month or $6,000 a year. CodeBaby, an Internet software company in Colorado Springs, Colo., launched the Officer Evans character on the police department's websites.
Officer Evans' skin and physical makeup can be viewed as either a black or Hispanic woman, Police Chief Scott Cunningham said.
"We are trying to emphasize the value of diversity in the Winston-Salem Police Department, and our efforts to continually enhance our representation of the community," Cunningham said.
Winston-Salem police officials selected Officer Evans' character from an inventory of 80 characters offered by CodeBaby, said Matt Filios, the CEO of CodeBaby. Many of the company's customers choose female digital characters for their websites because they feel comfortable using women characters.
Officer Evans will help the department reach out to city neighborhoods and "achieve our very high goals of mirroring the community we serve," Cunningham said.
He has made it a priority since he was hired as police chief in June 2008 to make the department more reflective of the city, which is 51 percent white, 35 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 census.
Of the department's sworn officers in 2010, 81 percent are white, 14 percent are black, and 3 percent are Hispanic.
Filios said that Officer Evans is designed to encourage more residents to file nonemergency reports online.
"At the end of the day, everyone knows that you are not talking to a real person," Filios said. "It's a digital character, [but] people respond to voice instruction and voice activation."
Filios said that local police administrators are pleased with Officer Evans.
"We think it has a very user-friendly voice," he said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service