It's a normal afternoon in New Orleans, and you've just picked up your kids from school. Your cell phone beeps, so you pull over to look at the message. According to the text, a shooting has just occurred 10 blocks away, on your normal route home. You turn the car around and go a different way.
It's 8 p.m. on a Friday night. You've been spending a few happy hours at a bar in the French Quarter. It's a cool, crisp fall evening, your apartment is only six blocks away, and you decide to walk. As you make your way to the exit, a friend grabs your arm with one hand while studying a crime map on his iPhone. In the past week, there have been three armed robberies in the neighborhood, all involving victims walking alone. The bartender calls you a cab.
These are just two of the possibilities in a 21st-century neighborhood watch: the computer age equivalent of two neighbors talking over the back fence, exchanging information. Some of the New Orleans Police Department's (NOPD) new technology is failing; the city has spent $2.8 million on crime cameras this year alone with the resulting video used in only three cases, and this week Mayor Ray Nagin asked the New Orleans City Council for another $1.6 million for maintenance. Online crime maps aren't updated, or are outdated, so concerned locals are stepping up, trying to let their neighbors know what's going on just beyond their front door. But it will take some cooperation from the NOPD, something the cops aren't always willing to provide.
Brian Denzer takes to heart the concept that information is power. As far as he is concerned, the current information outlook in this city isn't too promising.
"I don't think we're getting all the information we should be getting," Denzer says.
He is referring to available crime statistics in New Orleans. A computer expert who specializes in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and has worked as a GIS developer for the NOPD and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office (JPSO), Denzer wants to increase the public's awareness of neighborhood crime by showing exactly where, when and what crimes are taking place across the city. To accomplish this, Denzer has developed his own Web site, www.citizencrimewatch.org. Using Google Maps, he displays a map of the city and then uses pushpin icons; black pins are homicides, red are assaults, orange are rapes, etc.; to show where incidents occur in New Orleans. When a user clicks on a specific pushpin, a pop up will display information about the location, date and time of the crime and any accompanying description.
In order to keep his maps as current as possible, Denzer combs through news reports, tips from sources and NOPD email blasts, which are sent from police districts periodically. He says his site is usually about two days behind the present date, making it the most up-to-date publicly available New Orleans crime map. That fact doesn't reassure Denzer and does little to satisfy what drove him to become involved in mapping crime in the first place.
In November 1995, Denzer lived in a shotgun double on First Street, a block from Magazine Street. He was close friends with the family next door, Danna and Vorana Nachampassak and their two children, 11-month old Etienne and his 2-year old sister Vinaya. The Nachampassaks were putting their kids in the car so they could go to get a family portrait taken when a man with a gun tried to force the family out of the car. Danna, who was in the driver's seat, managed to drive away. As the car accelerated, the assailant fired, hitting Danna four times. When Danna Nachampassak came to a stop at Second Street, she saw her son bleeding profusely from a head wound. Two days later, Etienne died.
Denzer says he can't be sure the boy's fate would have been different if the Nachampassaks had more information, but he does know that Etienne's murderer, Clifford Deruise, had been wanted by the NOPD for questioning in a murder that had taken place two days before the attempted carjacking. Deruise was found guilty of the baby's murder and is now on death row at Angola. Denzer says today, with NOPD's assistance, that kind of information could be widely distributed via the Internet, perhaps saving lives.
"When people are informed about their neighborhoods, they can alter their behaviors to avoid problems," Denzer says. What frustrates him is that the problem is not the absence of technology, but the NOPD administration's reluctance or inability to release crime data in a timely manner. If police would release 911 call information shortly after it is received by dispatchers, then Denzer could create a crime map system that could be updated on a Web site every 24 hours. All it would take on NOPD's part, he says, is a competent computer programmer: "Google Maps' interface has reduced [the expense] to practically zero."
Through its Web site, www.cityofno.com, the city does provide its own searchable crime maps, which are maintained by the city's GIS department. The maps can be searched and filtered using a variety of parameters: address, street intersection, police district, ZIP code and date. When a user enters the search criteria, a map is created that shows the location of the incident and the alleged crime. Additionally, at the bottom of the page is a spreadsheet list of crimes, which includes an item number, street, block, a brief description of the crime and the date of the incident. All this information can then be exported to an Excel spreadsheet.
"I looked at other [police] departments around the country and nobody nationwide had anything close to what we have," says NOPD Maj. Mike Sauter, who is in charge of compiling data for the crime maps.
That's debatable. For example, the Chicago Police Department offers ClearMap: a crime incidents system that provides the same parameters as the NOPD system, but also gives more specifics and allows viewers to manipulate the map by zooming in or panning out. The biggest criticism of the NOPD maps, however, is that the most up-to-date information is at least 15 days old. A mid-October report by WWL-TV revealed that the system hadn't been updated in more than two months.
'The problem was, as far as I know, only for a short period of time," Sauter says, adding that the mistake was City Hall's responsibility.
He says the reason the map data are more than two weeks old is because of the time it takes to get police reports into an electronic format. NOPD still does its reports by hand â€” Sauter says this will change in 2009 â€” and then the report has to be either approved by a supervisor or returned to the officer for corrections. Following approval, the report is sent to the records room, where it is scanned and put into a database, then sent on to City Hall.
The procedure infuriates Denzer, because it means NOPD is delaying the release of crime information that the public has a right to know. He says on Nov. 4, the night of the presidential election, he heard a semiautomatic weapon fire 10 to 12 bullets and, later, the sound of an ambulance arriving at the scene.
"Nothing about it has been reported [as of Nov. 7], and I'm sure somebody went to the hospital with serious injuries," Denzer says.
Sauter says the reason NOPD relies on police reports is accuracy. According to Sauter, the reports mean an investigation is underway and, unlike 911 service calls, the incident has been properly identified.
"[By using 911 service calls for crime information] you're really not doing what the public would like you to do. You're doing no investigation," Sauter says.
Capt. Mike DeSalvo with the JPSO sounds almost apologetic when he discusses his department's crime maps. DeSalvo, who heads up management information systems for the sheriff's office, says the maps could "use some updating and tweaking." They are not as defined as the NOPD version; the zoom features don't work and the icons don't indicate the type of crime. While NOPD makes no apologies for the 15-day lag for the Orleans crime maps, JPSO's crime maps are updated every 24 hours, and DeSalvo isn't satisfied with the turnaround time.
'We work off of calls for service, our 911 calls, so this is as real-time as we can make it," DeSalvo says.
Every morning at 3 a.m., the 911 calls from the past 24 hours are massaged into JPSO's Crime Tracker system, www.jpso.com/crimetracker.htm. DeSalvo considers the calls to be an accurate but imperfect method for mapping crime, and says 911 operators can make adjustments (condensing duplicate calls and making address corrections) before the data is entered into the tracker. Reporting immediacy should improve dramatically when JPSO gets a new 911 computer system within the next two years: "When the new system goes into place, it will be real time," he says.
Adrian Holovaty is the founder of EveryBlock, a Web site that collects news â€” including crime statistics and mapping â€” and local activities and disseminates the information in a format that can viewed by neighborhood and by block. EveryBlock began in January and now offers block-by-block information for 11 American cities (New Orleans is not one of them). Holovaty, a journalist and Web developer in Chicago, says there's no real standard for how cities provide civic information and that cooperation with local police is on a case-by-case basis.
"It doesn't make sense for them to withhold it, but, at the same time, I can understand that this is a relatively new concept, just making the data available," Holovaty says. It can require a police department to hire a computer programmer to format the data. As for when EveryBlock can get the most recent crime stats, Holovaty says that varies; Chicago police have a week's delay, while Charlotte, N.C., uses service calls, like JPSO. He laughs when he hears of NOPD's two-week lag between crime and mapping. "Wow," he says. "That's a lot."
French Quarter resident Thom Kahler, who runs the Web site N.O. Crimeline (www.nocrimeline.com), finds nothing funny about NOPD saying the police reports are delayed in order to ensure accuracy.
"That's a crock of crap," responds Kahler. "It really is because of what the 8th District was giving to me."
Kahler is referring to a previous arrangement he had with Maj. Edwin Hosli, the commander of NOPD's 8th District. In early 2007, Kahler proposed that Hosli give him the district's daily crime reports so he could post them on his site and send them out to his email list of more than 1,000 subscribers. Hosli agreed, and Kahler says for about nine months he received the reports every morning, rewrote them into a more compelling narrative (often with editorial comment) and sent them out. NOPD brass ended the agreement in January of this year.
At first, NOPD told Kahler they ended the arrangement because The Times-Picayune asked them for the same reports for all NOPD districts, and the police didn't want that much access to reports. During an April interview with Gambit Weekly, however, police Chief Warren Riley said it was Kahler's fault: "We appreciate what Mr. Kahler was doing earlier on, but it seemed to grow into something comical and it shouldn't be that way."
Kahler defends his reporting, saying he thought it necessary to include a perpetrator's race as part of the report, as well as making the reports more readable.
"These police reports can be deadly boring without spiking them up," he says. "But it didn't diminish [them]. I'm so proud of the fact that no one's ever said, "Hey Thom, you got the facts wrong.'"
Kahler still provides his sardonic narratives about crime in the Quarter, but now he gleans his data from a number of sources, including local media, tips from readers and email updates from the 8th District. Kahler says at first the 8th District updates were frequent. Lately, however, he says the reports have dwindled, but not the number of crimes. People from other districts have asked him to create similar Web sites for their districts, but Kahler says he has a hard enough time just keeping up with crime in his own neighborhood. He adds, though, that NOPD needs to understand that public interest isn't a morbid curiosity with crime.
"[Residents] want to know the dangerous areas, when the dangerous times are, so they can adjust their schedules a little bit, if need be," he says.
In what would appear to contradict the stance that reports are the only method police will use to provide the public with data on crime in neighborhoods, some NOPD districts are transmitting "email blasts," short email messages that are sent out or "blasted" to citizens concerned about crime in their district. Anyone can sign up for the service or get the messages through Google Groups. The messages are usually a short paragraph that relates recent arrests â€” which include the perpetrator's name, crime, where and when the arrest took place â€” or emerging crime patterns in a neighborhood.
Sauter says this isn't a contradiction, because the blasts are only sent to a small number of people, whereas the crime maps are available to the entire public. Besides, Sauter concludes, "Email blasts are not as official as the crime maps are." Currently, district commanders at the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 8th districts are distributing the blasts. An NOPD spokesperson says the rest of the districts will offer the service within the next two weeks. (To sign up, contact your local NOPD district.)
Denzer thinks the blasts are a great idea.
"I wholeheartedly embrace that openness," he says. "There are some people at NOPD that are really forward in their thinking. Why it hasn't been embraced citywide is a mystery."