Living in Northern Virginia, lobbyist Greg Whisenant couldn't believe how difficult it was to get information about local crime. So last year he did something about it, launching CrimeReports.com, a Web site that works with local governments to post free crime maps online.
"I think there is an expectation on the part of the public to see this data," said Whisenant, a lobbyist turned Internet entrepreneur.
About the same time in California, Gino Sesto and a friend were swapping stories about experiences with police officers who gave them traffic tickets. An idea came to Sesto: Why not offer a site where people can rate individual police officers? RateMyCop.com was born.
The two Web sites are part of a fast-moving online trend that's helping to satisfy America's insatiable appetite for news and information about crime and policing. Such new tools provide immediate answers to questions about personal security: How safe is my block? My neighborhood? The downtown area where I work? Where my college-age son or daughter lives?
Increasingly sophisticated, yet relatively inexpensive to create, such Internet-based mapping applications are being used by dozens of municipalities and companies to disseminate crime information to the public. Web sites also are helping the public monitor police behavior, as a check against possible abuses of authority.
Their popularity is growing quickly. RateMyCop.com attracts about 200,000 unique visitors a day; in Washington alone, 20,000 people have signed up for CrimeReports.com's localized crime e-mail alerts, officials for the companies said.
Such programs can fill a gap for many small police departments that haven't had the resources to use electronic, interactive crime-mapping in their own enforcement strategies, said Julie Wartell, crime analyst administrator with the San Diego County District Attorney's Office.
"To really do [community policing] effectively, you need the community as a partner. How do you take them on as a partner if you don't give them information?" said Wartell, who helps run the San Diego County crime map that has been around since 1999.
San Diego officials have supported community-oriented policing for years, she said, and the desire to keep the public informed online through crime mapping arose from that approach. San Diego County's site had nearly 800 visitors a day in May, she said.
Still, some government officials may fear that their data aren't "good enough" to release to the public, or they may be stuck in the "traditional mind-set of telling people what to do and how to fix things," said Wartell, who has compiled a list of more than 100 crime-mapping Web sites, most built by local governments. "You would think that with roughly 17,000 police departments [in the country], there would be more."
Sesto said the historic watchdog role of mainstream media has dwindled as newspapers, television and radio stations have struggled financially and downsized. But his site - where visitors can use a color code and a five-star system to rate interactions with officers - and others are starting to fill a void, he believes.
"Now people can get together and share information in a way that the media used to do for us," he said.
To assemble extensive lists of officers, Sesto is using public information access laws across the United States - the same laws that journalists historically have used to obtain government information. So far, his site has the names of 170,000 officers - and has attracted heaps of criticism from police supporters.
Most police departments and local governments have typically not had the expertise, the money, or a philosophy of openness to push crime data out to the public. CrimeReports.com is trying to fill that need, says Whisenant. His site automatically compiles crime data from its client police departments each day, and gives Web visitors several ways of mapping the data, including date range, crime type, and location. It also provides a short narrative of the crimes.
Similar sites are becoming more common across the U.S. A mix of large and small companies, including many newspaper Web sites, offer some type of crime-mapping feature. The Sun, for example, has a map of Baltimore homicides on its Web site.
Vivek Kundra, chief technology officer for the District of Columbia government, which is among the leaders in making municipal data freely available on the Web, said government should not guard data that does not contain private information about its citizens, because "corruption can fester."
"We believe in participatory democracy. ... In order to have people participate, it's very important to have information that the government has," Kundra said. "A lot of it is not private. It's public. I've made sure we put as much data out there as possible."
Until recently, few Maryland localities have offered crime data to the public through interactive maps. The Baltimore city and county police departments offer online crime maps, but most other jurisdictions do not. Giving local governments the capability to offer interactive crime maps - both for residents and police officers to use - has been one of the law enforcement goals of Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, according to Kristen Mahoney, head of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
Mahoney said Maryland State Police officials were seeking a way to map crime data for the public when they learned that Montgomery County Police had struck a deal with CrimeReports.com. A plan quickly developed for the state police to encourage small towns to sign up with the Web site; the state police and the governor's crime control office reimburse localities for monthly fees paid to CrimeReports.com.
Whisenant, CrimeReports.com's chief executive officer and president, said the company charges $99 a month to small municipalities and $199 for larger ones, depending on the amount of data made available. So far, police departments from 175 jurisdictions contribute data to CrimeReports .com, and the site is working to integrate 100 more agencies, he said.
"We got involved with it because there's a lack of regional crime information-sharing tools in the public domain for police," Mahoney said. "For the smaller departments, they don't even have to do their own personal crime-mapping."
The Cumberland Police Department in Western Maryland was among the small-town agencies that lacked mapping capabilities - until a few weeks ago, when it signed up with CrimeReports .com. Lt. Larry Gyger, crime supervisor and Web site administrator, said the department had been searching for crime-mapping programs that it could use in daily enforcement efforts, but found them too expensive. One cost $60,000, a high price for Cumberland's 49-member police force.
The department jumped at the opportunity to make crime data available on CrimeReports.com, fully intending it to be used not only by Cumberland residents but also by police officers.
"Our shift supervisors are instructed to take a look at it themselves. If they're having problems in a certain area, we're expecting them to concentrate their efforts in those areas," Gyger said.
Converting the department's crime data into a Web-friendly format turned out to be a "piece of cake," he siad.
Structuring government information in Web-friendly formats and making the data available to third parties are key factors in the quickening dissemination of crime data. Washington's Web site is regarded as one of the most progressive in terms of sharing of raw data. The district government publishes regularly updated feeds of crime incident and juvenile arrest data, housing code enforcement data, public space permits, and vacant property registrations.
"D.C. is definitely in the top three and may even be the best" local government that makes data freely available to the public, says Adrian Holovaty, a journalist and Web developer whose latest project is EveryBlock.com, a site that feeds up-to-the-minute news and information to residents in Chicago, New York City and San Francisco. He said searches pertaining to crime are the most popular activity on EveryBlock.com.
Holovaty, who several years ago used crime data from the Chicago Police Department to build ChicagoCrime.org, a pioneering crime-mapping site, said he is seeing "little pockets" of progressive thinking as local governments approach data-sharing issues. A lack of financial resources and technical talent contributes to governments' hesitation to embark on complicated Web-related projects, he noted.
Still, getting governments to turn over crime data and other vital information about where and how people live is important, according to Holovaty.
"If you don't have the data, you don't know the truth," he said. "You might feel like you live in a sketchy neighborhood, you might live in a super-safe neighborhood. But there's no way of knowing without the raw data."
For a searchable map of Baltimore homicides since 2007, go to www.baltimore sun.com/homicidemap