The crime scene

What good is a site that lets Oakland, Calif., residents check on neighborhood crime stats if the people in those neighborhoods aren't online?

Published March 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The view from my home office in Oakland, Calif., is rather boring: a quiet street, a vacant lot, a few parked cars. Now and then a pint-sized pack of kids goes running by. I spend more time than I care to admit staring out this window -- and until Monday, I could confidently say that nothing much happens in this neighborhood of mine.

But on Monday, while pointing and clicking away at the computer next to this window, I learned that more than a crime a day takes place around here. Some 516 crimes occurred in the vicinity between February 1999 and February 2000, including 198 cases of larceny; 95 cases of burglary; nine rapes and two attempted rapes; 59 cases of auto theft; two car-jackings; 35 armed robberies; 11 cases of child abuse; 40 assaults; seven cases of arson; 17 reports of domestic violence and one homicide.

I found these stats on CrimeWatch, a one-of-a-kind application on the Oakland city Web site. Basically, an interactive map, CrimeWatch lets anyone select an area of the city and find out how many crimes have been committed there over a specified period of time. Originally created for internal use by the police department and city officials, the site allows users to create maps, graphs and spreadsheets, which can then be downloaded for personal use -- or activism.

"It was really [Oakland Mayor] Jerry Brown's decision to push this out to the public," explains Frank Kliewer, project manager for the Oakland site. "As we say, democratize information and improve public awareness and get them into a partnership with the police department. In Oakland, having the capacity to see police data geographically projected, allows citizens to focus on [improving] neighborhoods and blocks."

It's a familiar Internet refrain: better democracy through the free exchange of information. But there are a few problems with this particular expression of the ideal. "Crime is focused in pretty much the same area where we're experiencing a digital divide," Kliewer says. In other words, a lot of my blue-collar neighbors are not online; so while they might benefit from this great, open flow of information, for now they are out of its reach.

Even if every resident of Oakland could access CrimeWatch, Barry Kriberg, president of the National Council on Crime Prevention, doubts the program would make any difference. "Most of the crime mapping technology essentially reproduces what seasoned policemen know already," he says. "It produces knowledge that isn't new or different ... Who doesn't know where the high crime area is?" Rather than help neighborhood groups attack crime problems, Kriberg says the site will probably prove most useful to people deciding where (and where not) to buy homes or to insurers looking for an excuse to raise rates.

I spoke with a police officer a few days after my Web discovery, only to be told that the few blocks near my house were indeed "very quiet"; the view outside my window was not as deceptive as I'd thought. It turns out the site had not made me a better citizen, just a more fearful, distrustful one. And even if my neighborhood had been a den of iniquity, CrimeWatch offers no suggestions for what I might do to change that.

Nevertheless, the site is being heralded as a communications breakthrough by city officials and the media alike. According to Kleiwer, civic leaders from other parts of the country are coming to Oakland to learn about the site, which is, he concedes, a work in progress. "The functionality and the display, the ubiquitous nature of it are all still being worked on," he says. "Like the Internet, it's a work of art in development."

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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