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Keeping people in the dark about crime in their area

The Baltimore Sun

I've come to the conclusion that there isn't a single piece of data more sought after and more controlled than a crime statistic.

The desire to argue, possess, dissect, politicize, map, graph, chart and publish the numbers is insatiable. Law enforcement agencies guard the information with the public relations equivalent of the Secret Service protecting the president.

North Baltimore's Homeland Association is taking flak for distributing crime stats only to dues-paying members, leading to accusations that the group is hoarding useful information.

Margaret Patton, a former Baltimore police colonel and head of the Northern District, said the department once even frowned upon commanders talking about crime statistics with residents. "Community policing was the key phrase then, and how could one embrace that philosophy and not cooperate with the dissemination of information?" she said in an e-mail.

Police departments should post timely crime information on their Web sites, complete with numbers and brief descriptions of what happened. Most try, but the result usually falls short.

Baltimore limits searches of data to two-week spans during the previous 90 days. Baltimore County's online crime map shows "a year-to-date average covering the most recent three-year period."

People want to know how many cars were broken into on their street or how many houses were burglarized in their neighborhood.

Two weeks is not enough time to understand crime patterns, and learning about specific incidents is impossible with the Baltimore County model. (Agency spokesman Bill Toohey told me the department is "looking at a much more advanced system.")

"All crime statistics are local, just as all politics are local," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Some municipalities have a good track record of transparency and openness, and some departments and cities deliberately don't want people looking into their operations."

The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington updates its Web site every 24 hours and allows users to search myriad crime categories by police district, neighborhood and street.

"I think it's honest, more so than anything else," said Traci Hughes, the department's communications director. "Residents really appreciate it."

In the Baltimore area, we learn about crime on our streets in bits and pieces. Said O'Donnell: "It is a recipe for misinformation and hysteria."

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