Vexed tracker: Crime-spotting site denied cop reports
UVA grad Colin Drane had what he thought would be a solid-gold idea: A website where you could see all the crime in your neighborhood or on your street. What he didn't foresee: How reluctant police are to give out that information.
"SpotCrime has the largest accessible crime database in the world," says Drane. And by accessible, he means available to Joe Citizen.
Drane, an economics/philosophy major who graduated from the University of Virginia in 1992, now lives in Baltimore, which he says has the second-highest per capita crime rate of any city in the United States. "That's kind of where my interest in tracking crime came," he says. "I live in the city and want my family safe."
He launched Spotcrime.com and UCrime.com here October 8, shortly after Charlottesville police declined to provide him with the daily incident report it emails to local media. "The logic was, you have ads on your site and we're not going to share," relates Drane, who notes that the Hook, which receives the daily report, has ads on its website. He says city police plan to launch their own crime-tracking site on Google Maps.
City spokesman Ric Barrick says that the Charlottesville police daily incident report is available online, and that Drane "can go onto the website like anyone can."
He admits that Drane's request "kind of caught us off-guard" because "we didn't know who he was." And in checking with other police jurisdictions on the SpotCrime website, says Barrick, some were unaware that Drane was mapping crime information.
Barrick cautions that information on the daily incident report is raw, and what someone calls in as a crime may, upon investigation, turn out to be something completely different. "You have to be very careful in comparing this data," he warns.
"I do feel like we're more willing and transparent to get that to the public," says Barrick. "Other jurisdictions don't put it out at all. We do have a website. Other jurisdictions don't. To say we don't share isn't fair– but we don't put out every bit of crime data."
Drane fared better in obtaining UVA crime reports because of the federal Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to disclose crimes on and near campuses after Jeanne Clery, 19, was raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dorm in 1986. UVA Police posts that information on its site.
For incidents such as the recent shootings at U-Heights, SpotCrime uses media accounts, which Drane says can be much faster than police reports. And his websites, which use icons (such as a fist for assaults), cite the source of the information.
"We provide email alerts," says Drane. "Sign up, and we'll send messages about crimes in your neighborhood radius." SpotCrime/UCrime also use text messages, RSS feeds, iPhone and Facebook to get the word out for free– applications Drane suggests would take police years to be able to offer.
"We're going to keep it up forever," he says. "Data is so cheap." That's why he's still pondering why Charlottesville police won't put him on its distribution. "There's no actual cost to add us to the email list," he muses.
AAlbemarle County Police Department does not make its daily incident reports available to the media or public. "It's not a report that we generate," says Lieutenant Todd Hopwood. "We'd have to hire someone to do it."
Charlottesville is the smallest city where Drane has launched SpotCrime, largely because he went to school here. He says he's having better luck with other, larger cities. "We've mapped over 2 million incidents since we started," he says.
"I see this for the good," he says. "Quicker information to people makes a safer society."
This story was last updated October 14.