Plotting Crime, Street by Street
D.C. Police Web Site Offers Detailed Views Of Criminal Activity

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.

Krucoff said he thinks he has a good "first version" of the technology but is working on updating the program to include more information, such as arrests. The program took about four months to develop and was made by the city's technology department without specified grant or funding, Krucoff said.

Other cities that have crime mapping technology generally use colored dots to differentiate among crimes. Krucoff said his team decided to use the icons, which look like they are straight out of a 1980s video game, simply because they could.

"Maybe we're more creative than the other cities," he said. "We're a little prettier."

Police said they have not gotten any complaints yet about the symbols being too flippant for the serious subject matter.

The crime maps, which are not accessible using some browsers, are mostly tailored to home in on a neighborhood and will only show crimes in chunks of the city, rather than citywide. The largest area that can be queried online is a police district, and data can be searched as far back as two years.

And there are other limitations. The system will not map an area if a search draws more than 500 crimes, meaning that it is impossible to map a month of crime in the entire 3rd Police District, because there were 607 reported crimes there in the past 30 days. Instead, clicking on that district, which includes neighborhoods north of downtown such as Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and the U Street corridor, will turn up a list of crimes broken down by offense.

Some police departments in the region want to add technology similar to that used in the District.

In Montgomery County, police spokeswoman Melanie Hadley said that the department is gearing up to provide crime data on online maps, but the system will not be available until the agency fully transitions to a new crime reporting system.

D.C. police said they have gotten positive feedback since the maps went online, and the suggestions they have gotten mostly have had the same theme.

"People want more data, presented in more sophisticated ways," Morison said.

Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Tom Jackman, Ernesto Londoño and Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company