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Inside Criminal Justice

Mapping Crime: The NYPD Falls Behind

February 27, 2014 06:44:27 am

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton (Photo by Graham Kates)

The New York Police Department (NYPD)— which prides itself on its forward-thinking approach to fighting crime — has fallen behind when it comes to providing the public a glimpse at what crimes are reported in city neighborhoods.

A municipal law passed in 2013 required New York City to create an online public crime map that should be updated with data "in no case more than one month after a crime complaint has been filed."

But for most of the time since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office on January 1 — and since Police Commissioner William Bratton took the helm of the NYPD — the map has not been in compliance with the law.

After multiple unreturned requests for comment on the delay, this week the NYPD updated the map with stats through January 31.

The data lag raises questions about the mayor’s pledge to deliver more transparency in government—one of the cornerstones of his election campaign.

The department's longstanding policy of releasing a limited amount of data through PDFs is not only pre-digital, but prehistoric.

Delays aside, the map—widely criticized since its launch in December for its limited information and because it will not let users download the data—is ancient compared to crime mapping in other major U.S. cities.

Of the 10 most populous cities in the United States, only Phoenix, which does not have a public interactive map, releases less information on crime data to the public than New York City.

New York is the only one of the remaining nine big cities with an interactive map that does not include dates and times of incidents. San Diego and New York are the only two cities that do not provide an identification number for each report.

Most have data fed directly into the maps on a daily basis. Thus, the crime reports are one or two days old—unlike New York's map, which includes data that is currently almost a month old.

'Bare Bones'

Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology and open government group, said New York City's public safety data is, "right now, at the bare bones of what the public needs to know."

Many cities, including Chicago, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose and Indianapolis, release crime report data outside what are known as the "seven majors" (murder, rape, felony assault, burglary, robbery, grand larceny and grand larceny of a motor vehicle.)

The crime rate in New York City has been defined by these seven crimes since Bratton instituted CompStat in the mid-1990s during his first stint as commissioner. However, the new map is supposed to include more than that. 

The legislation that required the NYPD to create the public crime map states that the map should include reports, "for each class of crime that is reported to the New York City Police Department, or for which an arrest was made."

In recent years, the NYPD has been under fire from critics who argue the department's reliance on CompStat's "seven majors" has created a culture of crime manipulation.

Other cities— even those that employ CompStat, such as San Francisco and Austin— have decided to release lower-level crime statistics. In contrast, New Yorkers have no open access to statistics on the alleged downgraded crimes (misdemeanor assaults, petty larcenies, criminal trespassing).

Chicago is the opposite of the Big Apple when it comes to releasing crime data to the public.

In 2011, Chicago set the bar for transparency for a major U.S. city. Shortly after Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office, the Chicago Police Department released 4.6 million crime incident reports dating back to 2001 and began releasing detailed crime incidents on a daily basis.

The Chicago PD releases raw data so the public, journalists and researchers can create their own maps, but they also feed that data into their own public map.

The difference between policies in Chicago and New York is clear when looking at each city's public map. In a 12-block area of Roseland in early January, Chicago's ClearMap includes 59 reported crimes. New York City would not include 41 of those types of reports on its map, including complaints of petty larceny, vandalism, simple battery, child abuse, prostitution, disorderly conduct, selling drugs, unlawful possession of a handgun, reckless firearm discharge and a violation of an order of protection.

Even the incidents that the NYPD would include on its map would not provide details such as noting that a larceny occurred in schools or public buildings, or which robberies were with handguns, and which involved a carjacking.

Mayor Emanuel said his decision to release the massive amount of data was intended to allow "community organizations to more effectively collaborate with the Chicago Police Department and better understand where crime is happening in their neighborhoods, streets and corners," according to a press release.

Three hundred miles to the east, the Detroit Police Department is trying to regain Detroit residents' trust by releasing more information on crime. In January, the Detroit PD started mapping crime reports through a third-party site, www.crimemapping.com

"I think it's going to really jettison our community relations," said Chief James Craig after he spoke in Manhattan at the 9th Annual John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America in February.

NYC's Push for Data

For many transparency advocates in New York, putting more information on the map is not as important as releasing raw data in spreadsheet form.

"...[The NYPD] needs to take the seven Majors and all lower-level crime data — including address field — and publish it online in the city's open data portal in an open format where others can map it," wrote co-chair of The New York City Transparency Working Group, John Kaehny, in an e-mail.

Currently, the data fed into New York’s crime map is not available to download. CompStat numbers by precinct are released on a weekly basis in PDF format.

"With all of the resources that are there, this data as presented through PDFs just doesn't make sense in the 21st century," said Hidalgo.

Seeing NYC's tech community complain about the new map because the raw data was not released, one hacker decided to "scrape" the raw data from the map and post it on his website for anyone to download.

Going to those lengths for data might not be necessary much longer. There is an effort in the City Council to open the NYPD's books through legislation, but Bratton says even that might not be required.

"I don't think we need City Council legislation requiring it, we're more than happy to do it," Bratton said after speaking at the Guggenheim Symposium.

When pressed for details of what the NYPD would release, Bratton would not go into specifics.

"Eventually we could be in a position to release just about everything we do once we are able to find a way to format it appropriately and push it out," he said.

Hidalgo said he's hopeful that the new administration will honor its transparency commitments. But he wants to see action.

"[The NYPD] should be number one, but it doesn't even need to be number four or three," he said. "Right now, New York City is nowhere near the top of its game."

Adam Wisnieski is a freelance writer from the Bronx. You can follow him on Twitter @adamthewiz. He welcomes comments from readers.

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