Times data­base lets read­ers track crimes

Users can fo­cus on neigh­bor­hoods and see trends, hot spots.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Raoul Rañoa Joel Ru­bin

For car thieves work­ing the streets of Los An­ge­les County, few stretches of pave­ment are more at­trac­tive than the two blocks of Alon­dra Boule­vard that run from the 605 Free­way to Stude­baker Road. At least 20 ve­hi­cles were stolen there in a re­cent six-month pe­riod.

Across town, a block of Wil­cox Av­enue just north of Hollywood Boule­vard has been the scene of more than a dozen bur­glar­ies. And the Mid-Wil­shire neigh­bor­hood, which typ­i­cally sees three vi­o­lent crimes a week, had a re­cent spike of nine as­saults and rob­beries.

These crime hot spots were culled from a new data­base and crime-map­ping pro­gram built by the Los An­ge­les Times that con­tains in­for­ma­tion on all se­ri­ous crimes recorded by the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment and the Los An­ge­les county Sher­iff’s Depart­ment, the two agen­cies that pa­trol the vast ma­jor­ity of the county.

Both agen­cies, like many other po­lice de­part­ments through­out the coun­try, have long used com­puter map­ping pro­grams in­ter­nally to de­tect crime pat­terns, de­velop strate­gies and de­ter­mine how to de­ploy of­fi­cers. In re­cent years they have been ex­per­i­ment­ing with ways to make crime data avail­able to the gen­eral

pub­lic in bulk, elec­tronic form — of­ten hir­ing out­side com­pa­nies to build on­line crime maps or, in some cases, post­ing raw crime data on­line that can be down­loaded.

The Times’ crime map­ping pro­gram, which de­buts Thurs­day, goes a step fur­ther, al­low­ing users to an­a­lyze crime statis­tics, search his­toric crime pat­terns and re­ceive alerts when sev­eral crimes oc­cur in an area over a short pe­riod of time. As is com­mon prac­tice when re­leas­ing in­for­ma­tion about re­ported crimes, the LAPD and Sher­iff’s Depart­ment pro­vide the block where a crime oc­curs, in­stead of the ex­act ad­dress.

In some ways, pro­vid­ing the pub­lic with large amounts of crime data jibes with com­mu­nity polic­ing — a driv­ing phi­los­o­phy in law en­force­ment cir­cles based on the idea that com­mu­nity in­volve­ment can as­sist po­lice in fight­ing crime. But when any type of data is made pub­lic, law en­force­ment and technology ex­perts say, there’s some po­ten­tial for mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“It’s al­ways bet­ter for po­lice de­part­ments to be as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble,” said Greg Ridgeway, di­rec­tor of Rand Corp.’s Cen­ter on Qual­ity Polic­ing. “But it can be hard for the pub­lic to un­der­stand some things. The im­pulse will be to see that two crimes oc­curred on the same block on the same day and to call that a pat­tern or a trend” when it may not be a sign of any­thing un­usual.

Ridgeway pointed out that a spike in the num­ber of re­ported crimes might be the re­sult of an in­creased po­lice pres­ence in an area, or it could be a sign of im­proved co­op­er­a­tion be­tween po­lice and res­i­dents who were once dis­trust­ful or re­luc­tant to share in­for­ma­tion with of­fi­cers.

The Times’ crime map­ping sys­tem also may help neigh­bor­hood lead­ers “bet­ter un­der­stand what’s go­ing on in our com­mu­ni­ties — not only to hold po­lice ac­count­able, but also to ap­plaud

‘Once it’s been de­cided that a piece of in­for­ma­tion is pub­lic, we don’t be­lieve it makes any sense for it to be kept only at a po­lice sta­tion some­where.’

— Tom Lee,

Sun­light Foun­da­tion di­rec­tor

them when they are do­ing a good job,” said Scott Camp­bell, pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral Hollywood Neigh­bor­hood Coun­cil.

As a com­mu­nity leader and a real es­tate agent, Camp­bell said he fre­quently fields ques­tions about crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity in Hollywood that are dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble to an­swer.

The ap­petite for crime data has re­mained high, even as lo­cal gov­ern­ments have posted on­line an in­creas­ingly broad range of data — such as pub­lic ser­vant salaries, res­tau­rant health vi­o­la­tions and prop­erty records — that pre­vi­ously could be re­trieved only with a trip to City Hall.

“Crime data are the first thing cit­i­zens ask for,” said Tom Lee, a di­rec­tor at the Sun­light Foun­da­tion, a non­profit that ad­vo­cates for greater trans­parency in govern­ment through the use of the In­ter­net. “It is some­thing that is re­ally very rel­e­vant to their lives.”

The Sun­light Foun­da­tion spear­headed an ef­fort to an­a­lyze the qual­ity of the U.S. govern­ment’s data on fed­eral spend­ing and iden­ti­fied more than $1.2 tril­lion in in­ac­cu­ra­cies. Some groups not will­ing to wait for govern­ment of­fi­cials to act have de­vised com­puter pro­grams to troll through pub­lic agency web­sites in search of data to ex­tract, a process called scrap­ing.

“Once it’s been de­cided that a piece of in­for­ma­tion is pub­lic, we don’t be­lieve it makes any sense for it to be kept only at a po­lice sta­tion some­where,” Lee said.

The Times first ap­proached LAPD of­fi­cials in the spring of 2008 with a request for an au­to­mated, elec­tronic feed of raw crime data. In Jan­uary 2009, it went to sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials with the same ap­peal.

The lo­ca­tion and time that a crime oc­curs, as well as the name of a per­son ar­rested, is pub­lic in­for­ma­tion un­der Cal­i­for­nia law and must be pro­vided by law en­force­ment agen­cies upon request. But cre­at­ing a re­plen­ish­ing stream of data on all of the roughly 8,500 se­ri­ous crimes each agency han­dles each month was a chal­lenge nei­ther had con­sid­ered be­fore and tested the lim­its of what they were re­quired to do un­der the terms of the state’s Pub­lic Records Act.

Al­though then-LAPD Chief Wil­liam J. Brat­ton and Sher­iff Lee Baca expressed sup­port for The Times’ request, prob­lems arose al­most im­me­di­ately. For the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment, sev­eral months passed as tech­ni­cal hur­dles, staff short­ages and bu­reau­cracy slowed the process. When sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials pro­vided the first set of data, thou­sands of crimes were omit­ted or in­cor­rect.

The case of the LAPD was more com­pli­cated. The depart­ment had been pay­ing a com­pany to pro­duce and main­tain a crime map fea­tured on the LAPD’s web­site. A Times re­view of six months of the LAPD’s crime data re­vealed that the ven­dor’s soft­ware pro­gram had taken more than 1,300 crimes with ir­reg­u­lar ad­dresses and wrongly lo­cated them at City Hall — mak­ing the Civic Cen­ter ap­pear to be the city’s most dan­ger­ous spot. The Times also found the LAPD’s map was missing roughly 40% of the crimes that had oc­curred.

The Times has taken nu­mer­ous steps to ac­cu­rately map the two agen­cies’ crime re­ports. Times staff man­u­ally placed more than 10,000 crimes that could not be mapped by a com­puter. Cur­rently, less than 2% of LAPD re­ports and less than 5% of sher­iff ’s re­ports are not mapped.

The Sher­iff’s Depart­ment posts crime data on its web­site, where any­one can ac­cess it. The LAPD, on the other hand, put its crime data on a web­site that re­quires a pass­word to gain en­try. Se­nior LAPD of­fi­cials have yet to de­cide whether they will fol­low the sher­iff ’s lead or grant ac­cess on a case-by-case ba­sis.

Joseph Hall, a re­searcher in in­for­ma­tion technology at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and UC Berkeley, called on the LAPD and Sher­iff’s Depart­ment to en­act rules that would ce­ment the re­lease of crime data — even af­ter Beck and Baca de­part.

“The word ‘trans­parency’ can be a trendy one that of­fi­cials toss quickly over the wall for po­lit­i­cal gain,” he said. “But are these de­part­ments think­ing about how to sus­tain the re­lease of data? Is there a plan for sup­port­ing this into the fu­ture?” joel.ru­bin@latimes.com Times staff writ­ers Ben Welsh and Doug Smith con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Ir­fan Khan

ARTE­SIA: Los An­ge­les County sher­iff’s deputies in­ves­ti­gate an of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ing on the 19000 block of Nor­walk Boule­vard in Fe­bru­ary. The Times’ data­base shows 30 vi­o­lent crimes and 162 prop­erty crimes re­ported in Arte­sia from Feb. 22 to Aug. 22 of this year.

Mark Boster

FLORENCE: LAPD of­fi­cers pre­pare to de­tain four sus­pects in a res­i­den­tial bur­glary. The Times’ data­base shows five prop­erty crimes in Florence that day.

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