NEW YORK – Across the country, some communities are putting more crime-fighting responsibility in the hands of citizens — not with the traditional CB radio and nightstick, but with a mouse and keyboard.
Los Angeles County is the latest area to put a digital spin on crime prevention, launching a Web site, LACountyMurders.com, that takes statistics from reported crimes, which police departments are required to make public, and represents them graphically on maps to show where the crimes occur.
Chicago, Tampa, San Francisco, Atlanta and Baltimore are among more than 50 American cities that use some form of crime-mapping.
"We want to educate the public and also solicit their help," said Deputy Ramiro Juarez, public affairs officer for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (search). "Our site includes photos, wanted posters and things like the clothing of unidentified victims. We're putting it all out there and hopefully this will be more empowering for people than just looking at numbers."
The crime-mapping Web sites use the crime statistics already provided to the public by police departments, but present it in a different format.
Since 1930, police departments have been required to submit crime statistics, in the form of a Uniform Crime Report (search), to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (search). Jim Glass, the manager of the Strategic Analysis and Mapping Office at the San Antonio Police Department (search), said that isn't the only reason police departments keep criminal records.
"The San Antonio Police Department uses crime statistics to monitor crime levels, identify emerging problem areas and as a resource in manpower deployment decisions," Glass said.
In Los Angeles County, the sheriff's department hopes that by raising awareness through online crime maps, citizens can take on a more active role in identifying violent criminals.
LaCountyMurders.com publicizes homicide stats and spreads specific information about suspects and victims by using raw data and evidence on their site. Other sites geographically map the locations of crimes around the community.
Jan Schaffer (search), executive director of J-Lab, or The Institute for Interactive Journalism, at University of Maryland (search), said sometimes crime-mapping sites are able to present crime information more effectively than standard news stories.
"They don’t require you to watch an appointed television show, or read a news report about a neighborhood that you may not care as much about as you do your own neighborhood," Schaffer said.
The National Institute of Justice (search) (a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice (search)) is also pushing for the development of geographical crime research. The NIJ explained that "crimes are human phenomena; therefore, their distribution across the landscape is not geographically random." Because the geography of a community is directly related to areas of high and low crime, understanding where crimes occur is critical for police and residents, according to the agency.
ChicagoCrime.org was one of the first crime-mapping websites. Visitors can view all of Chicago's crime incidents and locations within the past 90 days.
"Sites like this are needed for the same reason good journalism is needed: because a more well-informed society is a healthier one," said Adrian Holovaty (search), a Web journalist and the creator of ChicagoCrime.org.
Holovaty uses Google Maps (search) and the Chicago Police Department's (search) reported crime database. The map allows citizens to see which crimes are most reported and which locations have higher rates of crime. ChicagoCrime.org is not affiliated with the Chicago Police Department, but police officers say that doesn't necessarily mean it is a less reliable source.
San Antonio's Glass agrees. "It is immaterial whether this information is developed by a local police department or by a private citizen, as long as the information is correct," he said.
Usually private citizens form their own crime-mapping sites because their police department doesn't have the program. But in Chicago, there are two crime-mapping sites — the police department's site and ChicagoCrime.org.
"There's an official site provided by the Chicago Police that has the same information, but if you choose to go to that one [ChicagoCrime.org] so be it," said Patrick Camden, spokesman for the Chicago Police Department.
"A number of other police departments from across the country have contacted me to ask whether I could help them set up similar sites. Officials from the Chicago Police Department have also said they appreciate the site," said Holovaty.
Schaffer said the Web sites make crime data easier to understand and benefit a variety of users.
"They demonstrate how new information technologies can deliver a lot of useful information — to realtors, to neighborhood watch groups, to parents, to prospective home buyers, to new business prospects," said Schaffer.
But could the Web sites that are designed to help actually be a disservice to some?
Lawrence Travis (search), a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati (search), said that the potential for abuse of the technology doesn't lie in the data itself, but in the interpreters and users of the data.
"The police may not be using as precise neighborhood boundaries as the private site, or may be defining 'burglary' differently. The consumer may not be savvy enough to recognize the impact of definitional differences and come to the conclusion that the data are untrustworthy," said Travis.
Travis also pointed out the potential for crime-mapping data to be used by businesses or to influence housing values.
"I can envision mortgage companies 'redlining' areas of high crime, or insurance carriers basing premiums on local crime rates," said Travis.
However, Travis points out that targeting areas of high crime could be helpful or harmful.
"If we improve public sanitation, street-repair, lighting, and police patrol in 'at-risk' areas, this might be seen as good. If we send in the SWAT team or some tactical squad to frisk everyone on the streets and begin all sorts of crack-downs, it might be bad."