Buffalo withholds crime details on online site

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – In this day and age of web-based technology, more and more police departments are taking advantage of a computer-savvy audience.

The idea behind crime mapping is to let residents see where crime is happening. But how much information should be made public?

“It could help people with trends. If garages are being broken into, maybe then you lock up your garage that night. If cars are being popped, maybe you’d check that out. It actually behooves us to give more information,” Buffalo Common Council Member Richard Fontana says.

The Buffalo Police Department offers a way for people to go online and check crimes in the neighborhood. If there are certain crimes and patterns developing in neighborhoods, some city lawmakers think that information could be useful.

“Now someone else in the community sees it, they begin to see a pattern, and then you get the help of your citizenry to help you in crime-fighting efforts, ” Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen says.

The city subscribes to the web-based CrimeReports.com. The program pulls crime data from the police department’s records management system and displays the incidents on a map, right down to the city block.

But if you’re looking for specifics about a crime you won’t find it on Buffalo’s mapping website.

“If this was a map and we were following it, we’d get lost,” a frustrated Fontana tells News 4.

Fontana had the same criticism back in July 2009 when News 4 first began asking the city questions about limited information on the CrimeReports.com site. At the time a police department spokesman told News 4 that adding more crime information to the website would mean changing the way reports are processed.

“There’s a lot of sensitive information in police reports,” Mike DeGeorge said in a 2009 interview. “The time involved. The manpower. Probably the cost would be prohibitive.”

But Cheektowaga Police, who also use CrimeReports.com, say once a determination is made about which data fields to display publicly the system runs automatically for the most part.

“Once you have the set up taken care of then more or less it’s run on a task,” Cheektowaga Police Lt. Patrick Chludzinski explains.

It’s been about five years since News 4 examined Buffalo’s online crime reporting system. We decided to take another look to see if anything has changed.

Here’s what we found:

Online users see a map of the city. Crimes pop up as icons on the map and are clickable. For example, there’s “A” for assault, “T” for theft and “R’ for robbery.

The problem is Buffalo’s mapping system does not give you any information about the crime committed. Just a crime category, the date, time and general location of where the crime occurred.

And that’s it.

In the narrative field it just states that police are investigating and the information is preliminary. There’s nothing about the actual offense or what happened.

Fontana, for one, says the online crime map provides very little useful information for city residents.

“People need to know, was it a garage that was broken into? Was it a car that was popped? Did someone get hit on the head by an unknown assailant or a known assailant?”

News 4 Investigates checked other police departments across the country using the CrimeReports.com mapping system. We discovered that places like Dallas, Chicago and even nearby Rochester give the public more information than Buffalo is providing.

For example, when we clicked on a robbery case in the City of Rochester the narrative shows that the suspect used a firearm and confronted the victim in the street. When News 4 checked the CrimeReports.com mapping system in Dallas we learned that a suspect pointed a handgun at person who was attempting to tow the suspect’s vehicle. In Boston we learned that a person walking across street became the victim of an assault and battery.

“I keep track of it here,” Lt. Chludzinski explains.

While it isn’t a whole lot more, Cheektowaga Police list the actual offense and to what degree, which is more information than Buffalo provides.

“That gives you an idea of okay is this a little larceny or did somebody get their whole car stolen. You would know the difference,” according to Lt. Chludzinski.

He says because the system updates automatically they’re careful not to include specifics that could expose a victim or tip off a criminal. Those are similar concerns that Buffalo Police officials have.

“We don’t want the guy that is responsible to be able to go on three hours after the crime and say, ‘Hey, they’re on to me,'” Lt. Chludzinski tells News 4.

Cheektowaga Police also use the CrimeReports.com system internally to examine crime trends and hot spots in the town. The agency hopes the public end of it can be a useful crime-fighting tool.

“Our department likes to be progressive and use technology to put the information out there and make it readily available to the public, ” Lt. Chludzinski adds.

Recently we showed Council President Pridgen the limited information on the Buffalo’s website. He agrees that names and specific addresses should be protected. But Pridgen says he would like to see police provide a little more than what the public is getting right now.

“I think that information is power, and I think that when you empower people with information they’re able to make better decisions,” Pridgen says.

So are police deliberately withholding certain pieces of crime information? And if they are, what is their reasoning for doing so?

News 4 Investigates went straight to Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda for some answers. He told us that an informed public helps the police department to solve and stop crimes.

“The more information we can give out the better,” he says.

If that’s the case, why not provide more information to the online crime mapping system? Derenda says he wants people to know what’s going on in their neighborhoods, but says there are limitations to the amount of information that he’s willing to share.

He points out that there are block club meetings every month attended by police representatives, and that residents can get crime information there.

But in response to our latest inquiry, Derenda says he’s willing to take a look and see if more information can be added to the CrimeReports.com program. He says his administrative staff is currently checking on that.

“We do want to protect the rights of the victims, not put out their names and addresses. So to add a little more information, I have no issue with. It’s something I’ll look at, and if we can do it, I have no problem.”

A spokesman with PublicEngines of Utah, which operates CrimeReports.com, tells News 4 the cost to subscribe for basic mapping is anywhere between $1,000 and $2,000 a year, depending on a municipality’s population.

According to the company’s website, PublicEngines has partnered with more than 2,000 customers in 20 countries worldwide and has mapped 90 million crimes since CrimeReports.com launched in 2007.

News 4 filed a Freedom of Information request with the City of Buffalo on April 2 for crime data going back to 2012. In response, the city indicated that it needs an extra month to compile the data, which goes beyond the 20 days required by state law.

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