Public crime data is hard for the public to get

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February 16, 2004 // UPDATED 2:56 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Robyn Repya
Robyn Repya

Staff tries to change Byzantine process and inertia that keep citizens in the dark

Information about most crime is public, but that doesn't mean it's easy to find. That burglary down the street? The police report is most likely public -- but it's only available at one computer in City Hall's basement.

And that's just the beginning of the sometimes-arduous task of attaining public crime data.

Twenty-first-century cops may target their forces using detailed maps of crime hotspots, but neighborhood-level crime maps are rarely available to citizens. You can look up your neighbors' property-tax assessment online, but it's impossible to find out what crimes have occurred on your block.

"They're just giving me the runaround" -- it's a phrase Michael Ridgley, manager of the Minneapolis Police Department's Criminal History and Records division, says he's intimately familiar with. Ridgley says citizens looking for public crime data often complain to him about how hard it is to find.

Ridgley agrees that the process is often cumbersome and confusing.

Citizens are sometimes directed to the Police Department's Web site -- only to find outdated and vague stats.

Involved neighbors are used to asking their Community Crime Prevention/SAFE teams for specific crime details -- but city budget cuts nearly halved those teams last year, so such help is harder to come by.

The picture is complicated because some crime information -- for example, ongoing investigations -- truly is off-limits to the public.

Still, some police employees want to make public crime data accessible to the public. While bureaucratic resistance and tight budgets have slowed such efforts, progress is being made to make crime information timelier and more available online.

What's public?

Ridgley said that while all Minneapolis police records are public by default, state statutes specifically classify some data as private and protected.

The same incident can have differing levels of disclosure. For example, Ridgley said detailed accident report information is available to those named in the report, but anyone can obtain names and addresses (explaining those postaccident solicitations from lawyers).

Police also don't have to release most information in an ongoing investigation so as not to compromise it.

Some information that is clearly public is just plain inconvenient to get or out of date.

Public crime incident and accident data, and Minneapolis driving and criminal records, are only available by visiting Ridgley's staff in City Hall room 31. This office also contains the single public computer linked to the city's crime-record database.

On that system, people can search for a crime report using a case number, which they can get with a date and address from an office attendant. The Department recently debuted the technology to file a crime report online; however, users can't obtain the data entered on the Web.

The police, who use a statistical analysis tool called CODEFOR to pinpoint crime hotspots, make such statistics available on their Web site, but the data is often several months old.

The public's traditional crime-data resource has been human: SAFE teams, made up of a sworn police officer and a civilian community crime-prevention specialist (CPS).

However, 2003 city budget cuts reduced SAFE teams from 25 to 14, so each team must serve more neighborhoods with less time for each inquiry.

Data crusader

CPS Shun Tillman, who has covered southwest and southeast Minneapolis, said residents could sign up for e-mail crime alerts. However, citizens must do more legwork to get incident specifics.

Tillman believes releasing already public information, such as online maps showing neighborhood crime, would help SAFE's prevention mission by getting residents timely information.

"It would probably take away between 2 to 3 percent of our calls," he said.

First Precinct (Downtown) Community Crime-Prevention Specialist Luther Krueger has done just that. His boss, Precinct Inspector Rob Allen, approved training Krueger on a specialized system called ArcView, part of the GIS mapping system that allows Krueger to post weekly online crime maps for the public interested in his specific sector to see.

These maps are more specialized than the precinctwide maps generated by CODEFOR. (Krueger's maps are available by signing up for his Crime Alert e-mail list at luther.krueger @ci.minneapolis.mn.us. You must also provide your location and contact phone numbers.)

Krueger said publishing the data allows SAFE units to concentrate more on crime prevention.

He said he's found tons of valuable crime data exploring city and county systems. For example, he said, there's a lot of information on Hennepin County's crime database, which could be pertinent to Minneapolis crime activity. However, the two governments' crime databases are separate and can't easily mesh information.

Krueger adds that Minneapolis just hasn't invested the money to develop the technology, leaving it far behind other large cities. Krueger said his training to improve just the mapping, which included ArcView mapping software and updating his computer, cost $7,500.

Krueger -- who got his crime-fighting start as a neighborhood activist -- has turned his frustration into a sort of crusade. He's pursing a master's degree at Metropolitan State, focusing on strategic Minneapolis information system possibilities.

Since seeing the benefit of Krueger's training, CODEFOR Business Applications Manager Doug Hicks said the police just finished training six more people to create the CODEFOR crime maps, compared to one employee who maps now.

Hicks said the Department, especially CODEFOR, is slowly but surely improving its information systems, but public demand for neighborhood-specific crime statistics is extremely time-consuming; the current software is only available to city staff and can't be automated to easily make neighborhood-level crime maps. Financial and staffing constraints have also been issues.

Money and fear are hurdles

City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), who chairs the City Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, said it would be great to make crime data and all public information more accessible -- but it is not a top city priority.

Niziolek said the city's budget problems have made such funding hard to come by. He added that the city is in a holding pattern, waiting for the new police chief, William McManus, to take the wheel this March.

Even if the new leader is motivated, he will have to overcome fear among the troops.

Ridgley said that police departments are wary about making more data public because if employees inadvertently release private information, they could be hit with a hefty fine. Minneapolis Police Communications Specialist Officer Ron Reier said penalties also include misdemeanor and felony charges.

(According to state statute 13.09: "Any person who willfully violates the provisions of this chapter or any rules adopted under this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor. Willful violation of this chapter by any public employee constitutes just cause for suspension without pay or dismissal of the public employee.")

City government isn't fined if it releases private information, such as the name of a juvenile rape victim -- but it could be sued. However, the state can fine the city if it doesn't release public information in a timely manner, the amount depending on the circumstance.

According to Reier, Minneapolis wasn't fined in 2003.

Ridgley takes no chances, referring all questionable cases to the police chief's office or to the Hennepin County Attorney's office.