Plotting Crime, Street by Street

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the Web site allows residents to get involved
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the Web site allows residents to get involved "so they can be even stronger partners in community policing." (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

D.C. police have launched a new crime-mapping tool on the department's Web site, allowing anyone to create a map of a sliver of the city and immediately see what crimes have happened there this year.

Cartoonish icons are used to pinpoint crimes. If you map your neighborhood, you do not want the Zorro-like mask to pop up -- it indicates an armed holdup. Or worse, the red figure of a person lying in the street, which denotes a homicide. The site also features goblin-looking masks for muggings, money sacks for thefts, gas cans for arsons and cracked houses for burglaries.

But it's the easy access to the information, not the symbols, that authorities believe will draw people to . For example, it takes only a few clicks to discover that during the past six months there have been 15 robberies, 72 thefts and 18 vehicles stolen within 1,000 feet of Chinatown's Verizon Center.

Most police departments make crime numbers available to residents, and many have Web sites that allow people to search for the number of crimes in specific areas. But few can match the District's new site, with its searchable fields that include museums, stadiums, gas stations and check-cashing locations. The site's level of detail rivals or surpasses those of departments in Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles.

"Some people may think that if you tell people about crime in their neighborhood, they will be scared off," said D.C. police spokesman Kevin Morison. "We think if we give people information, they will be prepared."

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he believes increasing the level of crime awareness will make neighborhoods safer. The information gets residents involved, he said, "so they can be even stronger partners in community policing."

When Long & Foster Real Estate agent Michael Dillon learned of the online maps yesterday, he joked that he might prefer to stay in the dark about crime. "It's kind of scary," he said. "Maybe I don't want to know."

But Dillon quickly noted that it will be useful for him to direct home buyers to the Web site when they ask the inevitable question: "Is it safe to live here?"

"We can't answer that. They have to look for themselves," Dillon said. "Everybody has a different threshold for crime."

Like most law enforcement agencies, D.C. police have been mapping crimes internally for years. They have used the information to look for trends and to help with officer deployment. Additionally, D.C. police have shared the data with residents at community meetings. But the department just started making the information available to the public on a widespread basis, largely in response to demand.

"They really wanted to handle inquiries about crime data," said Barney Krucoff, director of geographic information systems for the District and one of the creators of the online maps. "The benefit to them is they don't need to handle those in e-mail and paper."

Most crime information is updated daily, but homicides can take up to a week to appear. Most major crimes are included in the search using the department's preliminary data. Crimes such as drug dealing, prostitution, disorderly conduct and vandalism are not included.

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