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Keeping Residents Informed Electronically

Written by Albert Varga

“Why in the world would I want to do that?” a police chief responded when asked if he provides daily crime activity reports to the public. Fortunately, that chief is in the vast minority among police leaders. It’s a fact: citizens want to know if a crime is committed in their neighborhood. When residents are not informed, incidents can become exaggerated, rumors begin and anger eventually develops toward the police and the chief.

Keeping the public informed is an integral part of the “Protect and Serve” motto used by many police departments. Getting the information to citizens can be costly and time consuming, and getting a daily list of police incidents to each of your citizens is impossible. You cannot rely on the news media, printed lists, brochures or word of mouth. But hang on to your hopes—better and less expensive ways exist.

There are currently residents of many cities and towns that are informed daily about police arrests, crimes and investigations that happened yesterday and, in some cases, within hours of the event. This information is available to them every day, and some citizens actually receive a personal alert of incidents happening on their block. This is accomplished without police officers or civilian staff entering it into a computer or producing a list.

We contacted three of the many Internet companies that make this possible: CrimeReports.com, CrimeMapping.com and EveryBlock.com. They partner with police departments to provide crime information to the public on a daily basis for a monthly fee. From the police point of view, we wanted to see how the companies worked with the police, how the system worked, what the costs were and if their concept was beneficial.

CrimeReports.com

Ryan Lufkin, Director of Marketing for CrimeReports.com, said his company provides a daily report of criminal activity extracted directly from the police department-based Uniform Crime Reports, with basic information like streets and blocks where the incidents occurred. This service is free to the public and includes e-mails sent directly to residents to alert them of a nearby incident. The police department is charged about $200 per month for the service, though it may be less for small police departments. No hardware or software needs to be purchased or installed.

“The program is user-friendly; just go to our Web site or the police department’s Web site, type in your address and you will receive updated criminal activity in your municipality,” Lufkin said.

The program can be set up from one to six months, according to the police records management system used by the department. Greg Whisenant, CEO and Founder of CrimeReports.com, indicated that his Internet company serves more than 500 police departments and growing. The police agencies are throughout the United States. CrimeReports.com can be reached at (801) 828-2700 or info@crimereports.com. CrimeReports.com is part of Public Engines Inc.

CrimeMapping.com

The second Internet company interviewed was CrimeMapping.com. Director of Marketing Talal “Trip” Albagdadi, like Lufkin, was informative and eager to talk about the operation. His company also extracts daily police data from a department’s police records management system.

“The data is sensitive; no victims’ names are given out, and addresses are generalized by blocks on the street,” Trip said. When partnered with the police department, the service is free to the public and available on CrimeMapping.com’s Web site or can be accessed from the department’s Web site. CrimeMapping.com, like CrimeReports.com, also offers e-mails to residents.

CrimeMapping.com has been part of an Internet company for the past 17 years and works with crime mapping with police department internal records. Trip indicated the cost to the police was about the same as other Internet companies. Trip can be reached at (800) 228-1059 or trip@theomegagroup.com. CrimeMapping.com is part of The Omega Group.

Both CrimeReports.com and CrimeMapping.com referred us to many police departments using their systems for comments on the operation. Chief Tom Casady of the Lincoln, NE Police uses CrimeMapping.com and spoke with high regard of the company.

“The updated system gives our community members basic information in a short narrative of the crime, and e-mail addresses of individuals who subscribe to the free program. The neighborhood knows what’s going on, and it encourages them to do their part,” Casady said. Casady is impressed with the quality control of the daily information available to the public. “The public responds favorably and is more alert and helpful to the police when they are informed,” he said.

Captain Stephanie Burch of the Suffolk, VA Police, a 17-year police veteran in charge of criminal investigations, is an advocate for CrimeMapping.com. Speaking on behalf of her chief, Thomas Bennett, she reported that her agency wanted to put in a system like CrimeMap-ping.com for internal use, and The Omega Group provided the help and expertise. “Citizens no longer have to wait for police reports to be completed. They can look up the crime and not have to pay a fee,” she said.

San Jose, CA; Lyndhurst, NJ; and Lodi, NJ are three recent police agencies that have partnered with CrimeReports.com and have similar things to say. “It’s like a newsletter; it keeps everyone updated as to what is happening,” said Chief James O’Connor of the Lyndhurst Police. “They can view the data online and subscribe for free to receive emails or have a copy delivered to them. This is a great system. I have nothing but positive things to say about it.”

Chief Rob Davis of the San Jose Police is impressed with the way CrimeReports.com works for his agency. “It gives residents the ability to access crime information in their neighborhoods in real time. That makes them more informed and ahead of the curve when we meet them at the Crime Watch meetings.”

Deputy Chief Vincent Quatrone of the Lodi Police said, “CrimeReports.com is a positive program. We also use the program to track crime for the department. Residents help us by viewing the crime incidents and developing a better interaction with our department. Most crimes are solved based on tips from citizens.”

EveryBlock.com

A third Internet company, EveryBlock.com, is involved in more than releasing crime reports to residents of a community. EveryBlock.com offers a variety of reports on the Internet in three categories: civic news, news articles and fun things. The civic information includes building permits, restaurant inspections, police activity and more.

The news section includes blogs, TV and radio show excerpts, and regular news articles. The “fun” section features personal photos, restaurant reviews and postings from “Craigslist.” Daniel O’Neil of EveryBlock.com is the contact person for the police. He can be reached at (773) 321-8146. Or contact Adrian Holovaty, the founder of EveryBlock.com, at Adrian@everyblock.com.

Holovaty spoke of how his company reports crime and other local events occurring in a city block: “Our premise is for all news right around the neighborhood, including crime, building permits, local restaurant inspections, restaurant reviews, local events and other local things in the block,” he said.

According to Holovaty, EveryBlock.com currently covers 15 cities. If people want to receive information, they go to the EveryBlock.com Web site and choose the city they live in. If their city is not on the list, they can cast a vote on the Web site to have their city added. There is no cost to join EveryBlock.com for either citizens or the city. “We are funded by a grant and have some Web site ads to defray the cost,” Holovaty said.

How the System Works

The Internet companies developed their own software programs to extract crime incidents from police record systems. This is facilitated by a computerized system most police departments have for recording calls for service into a records management system. In some cases where a department is small and has only a manual system, a program can be created for that agency.

When a department partners with an Internet company, the extraction or importing of the police data will take place daily. The extraction process is data-sensitive and excludes information about victims. The operation reports crimes as they are reported in the Uniform Crime Report. Parameters are established, limiting the extraction of data shown to the public to six areas: date, time, location, type of crime, description of suspect and a brief narrative used to record the incident.

The data is extracted each day and placed into the program for view on the Internet. The data is also geo-coded, allowing residents to see where the crime occurred and read what type of crime it was and includes the description of the suspect. The Internet companies use the service of Google Maps or ESRI for customized geo-coding (location by map) of police activity as reported. No hardware or software needs to be installed by the police or residents. Any computer will work, whether a PC or a Mac.

To acquire this service, you “partner” with a software company that can provide the program. After the chief has made the contact and arranged for the “partnering,” the department goes on a publicity campaign to alert residents of the service and how they can access the information. Citizens will find they can receive e-mails, and there is no cost to them. Residents can go to the company Web site and look up their town and location, or any part of the town, for police activity.

Finding police information was easy on the CrimeReport.com and CrimeMapping.com Web sites. Costs to the police department for such programs vary, but the average is usually $200 per month. Some police agencies are provided funding by private groups interested in helping the police. In Utah, the attorney general’s office provides funds for agencies in the state to use such services.

The benefits are important to the police. The public is more aware of criminal and police activities. The public can see the police are doing their job and feel better about the department. The public will respond with additional information. Cooperation on all levels between the residents and the police is enhanced. More crimes can be solved. The cost of the program is minimal considering the manpower and time that would be required to produce similar results without such a program. Less reliance is placed on printed or electronic media.

The cost of the program is reasonable and relatively low. In some cases, local Crime Watch groups or local civic associations share the costs. For residents to receive e-mails, aside from viewing police activity, they will subscribe (at no cost) by giving their home address and e-mail.

Any chief or police administrator interested in partnering with an Internet company should avoid those that use “scrapping” of a business term to indicate that they have used second-hand information. A company that uses this technique sends out late information and is less reliable. Many other Internet companies in the country offer this service, and it is not our intention to recommend one over another. The chief or sheriff should look into such a program and consider this in the next budget.

Albert J. Varga is a retired Deputy Chief of Police with the Hamilton, NJ Police, and a past Police Director of the Lambertville, NJ Police. He is a Senior Manager Consultant for Jersey Professional Management, Cranford, NJ.

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2009

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