Location information is imperative for effective and informative policing

Typically, when a police agencies releases CAD or RMS data, they release block level address locations.

SpotCrime will ask police agencies for latitude and longitude coordinates, block level addresses, and even exact addresses. Lat/long coordinates are a part of our SpotCrime Open Crime Data Standard (SOCS).

This level of location information helps plot a crime as accurately as possible on a map. 

Recently, we’ve noticed two trends that are disconcerting to the public - reporting crime by intersections, and Marsy's law (or any related law) that bans the release of crime locations all together.

Intersection reporting

First, the San Francisco Police Department has decided to publish crime locations by the intersections citing privacy concerns. 
We reached out to San Francisco PD and their reasoning was 
‘...to ensure privacy all parties involved, minimize re-identification risk, and still provide as much useful, informative data as possible, the department made the decision to geocode crimes to the nearest intersection. We believe that this method balances both the public’s need, and right, to know about crimes in their area, while protecting the privacy of individuals involved.’

Making the locations intersection level gives the public a very substandard picture of where crime occurs in a city, and it can show relatively safe areas as high crime areas distorting the view of crime in the city - something that is most likely not the intention of police agencies.

The farther the point moves from the actual crime location, the more it makes the data inconsequential - especially for mapping and neighborhood alerting. 

Check out the illustrations below. The first map is address level reporting, the second is block level reporting, and the third is intersection. Watch how crime seems to disappear from view because all of the incidents pile on top of each other. Also watch how one street appears to become a very crime ridden street. Which crime map would you prefer to have access to?

Full address reporting
Block level reporting
Intersection level reporting

What are the privacy issues police agencies are trying to protect? We asked for specific examples of re-identification or re-victimization, but didn’t get a response from SFPD. San Francisco has been transparent with crime data in the past so we were very disappointed to see this decision made (what seems like arbitrarily). 

Our fear is that inaccurate locations can make certain areas look more dangerous or safer than what they really are. Check out the illustration as an example. A corner store or apartment building in San Francisco will look like has more crime than one in the middle of the block.

Marsy’s Law

Marsy’s Law was created with the intent to help protect victims from re-victimization. Florida’s version of Marsy’s law passed last year makes victim addresses and locations not public - meaning if a crime occurred at a victim’s address the crime can not be reported to the public.

Tallahassee police won’t release any information that could identify a victim - which is fine, even if the victim is dead. Leaving it almost impossible for police to collect tips that could lead to solving murder cases.
Comic by Nathan Archer for Tallahassee Democrat
especially because information that might expose a victim or their family to intimidation to criminals is typically held by police agencies even without Marsy’s law. However, with Marsy’s law, Tallahassee will not release any information

Our fear with laws like Marsy’s law is that some bad player police agencies may use victim privacy concerns as a way to wipe their hands from reporting this information to the public all together.

Good intentions backfire

Things like Marsy’s Law and SFPD’s privacy concerns are both in good faith, however, there is a bad trade off. 

SpotCrime has been at this for almost 12 yrs now, and we try to keep our ear to the ground. We still don't have a concrete example of a re-identification problem. However, we have come across residents being upset when a crime is pinpointed to their house when it really did happen down the street.

Safety begins with knowing, and if the police can no longer share information with the public, the public does not get an accurate picture of crime in their area. If residents can’t know about crime, how can they help prevent it from happening.

Finally, not letting the public know about where crime occurred makes it harder for police to do their job. Transparency with crime data creates trust and better, more efficient community policing. Without accurate and timely crime data, it’s nearly impossible for a police agency to connect with residents to learn about and help solve crime.


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