City Council loosens NYPD grip on crime data

The City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to approve a bill that will create a crime mapping database, allowing the public for the first time to view and search reports of criminal activity at a neighborhood level.

The measure, sponsored by Councilmember Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx, requires the New York City Police Department to provide monthly data on criminal complaints to the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT), which would create and maintain the map.

Councilmember Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx pressed for neighborhood crime stats after journalists could no longer get reports from their local precinct. Photo: Beth Morrissey

The public would not only be able to see the total number of reports citywide but also search reports by street, address, zip code or NYPD patrol sector — districts within precincts. Currently, the information is only available at the precinct level, in PDF format.

Councilmembers say that the creation of the map will help them and their constituents improve public safety by highlighting hotspots of criminal activity.

“As a councilmember I need to know where to allocate my resources, into which organizations,” said Cabrera. He noted that other decision-makers would also be able to make ample use of the information. “Businesses make decisions based on data,” he said. “Community boards should be able to do that as well.”

Before the vote, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn voiced support for the crime map.

“Open data embraces the beauty of a more transparent government,” said Quinn. “It is the building block of the digital age.”

Chicago is one of many U.S. cities that already puts crime report data online.

The City Council developed the measure in part because of testimony at community board meetings from journalists at the Norwood News, a newspaper in the Bronx, who complained that the 52nd Precinct stopped providing data on crime reports. The NYPD was also not complying with Freedom of Information Law requests for the data.

According to a just-released “Transparency Report Card” from Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the NYPD was one of only two agencies to receive a failing grade. Along with the New York City Housing Authority, the NYPD ignored nearly one-third of all FOIL requests submitted.

The office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg declined to comment on the measure, but even if he were to veto, the council has enough votes for an override. During testimony in March, a representative of the city agency charged with building an online crime map offered support in principle.

“The overall intent of the bill would seem to fit with the Bloomberg Administration’s long-held commitment to making more City information available, to more people, in more easy-to-use ways,” said Nicholas Sbordone, director of intergovernmental affairs at DOITT, in his written statement submitted to the council.

New York is hardly a frontrunner in mapping crime online. Numerous other cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore, already make detailed crime data available to the public through online maps and downloads.

Law enforcement watchdog groups hailed the crime transparency bill as a move toward greater public accountability for the city’s police department.

“The NYPD is a notoriously closed institution and holds onto whatever data it gathers with a fierce grip,” said Robert Gangi of the Police Reform Organizing Project. “So this is a positive step toward more openness and more accountability.”

Enabling citizens to have an objective view on the level of criminal activity in their communities is important, said Gangi. “And who knows — it could take a step towards breaking the department’s habit of saying no to even the most reasonable requests for information.”

Councilmember Gale Brewer, who last year championed the city’s groundbreaking open data law, concedes that the police department can be reluctant to share information with the public. “The NYPD does need to be pushed,” she said.

According Brewer, mapping criminal activity could encourage community organizations to reach out to local precincts with proposals to improve public safety. “I’m a big believer in community input on crime solving,” said Brewer. “If you don’t know where crimes are, it’s hard to be helpful.”

The bill requires DOITT to launch the map within 180 days of enactment. Sbordone testified that this is ample time to create map — provided the NYPD cooperates.

“Six months development time should be enough, but that’s from the point at which we have everything we need to start building,” he said during the hearing.

The legislation does not explicitly require that the data used for the map also be made available to the public for download. But the new open data law does require that all of the city’s public data — including that which is only available through FOIL requests — be posted online in a machine-readable format by 2018.

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.

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