A crusading newspaper takes on the NYPD

At question is whether cops should release granular crime data

Topics: The Crime Report, Crime, Law enforcement, NYPD, The Bronx,

A crusading newspaper takes on the NYPD Alex Kratz, Editor-in-Chief of the Norwood News, a Bronx, NY-based bi-weekly newspaper. (Credit: Graham Kates)
This article originally appeared on The Crime Report, the nation's largest criminal justice news source.

The Crime Report“It took all of two minutes to print out” sector-by-sector crime statistics the first time Bronx, NY journalist Alex Kratz asked Deputy Inspector James Alles of the New York Police Department (NYPD) for an in-depth readout of his precinct’s crime.

Kratz’s non-profit bi-weekly newspaper, theNorwood News, used the information in February 2008 to publish maps and a series of stories that illustrated crime trends in specific neighborhoods within the paper’s coverage area—the north Bronx’s 52nd Precinct.

Reader response in the roughly 130,000-person precinct was overwhelmingly positive.

Until that point, few locals had seen crime statistics beyond the NYPD’s weekly COMPSTAT reports, which track precinct-wide major crime trends.

“Although I feel safe in my neighborhood, evidently our autos are targets,” one reader commented on the paper’s website.

“Is it possible to receive these reports on a sector basis each month?”

As the free broadsheet hit the streets with the new data, two opposing forces were set in motion: one inside the paper’s newsroom and the other in the NYPD.

Deputy Inspector Alles, the paper would soon find out, was being told by his superiors never to release sector statistics again.

Meanwhile in Norwood, a working-class predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, the editors were realizing just how valuable the information was.

“Every (precinct) is a city-sized place,” said Jordan Moss, founder and then Editor-in-Chief of the Norwood News.

“So hearing that crime is up or down in the precinct does not necessarily tell you about crime in your neighborhood.”

Kratz returned to Alles’ office about six months later to request sector stats again.

This time the answer was “No.”

Alles, who retired in late 2009, told Kratz that from then on, if he wanted sector statistics he needed to file an official Freedom of Information request with the NYPD.

The first time Kratz filed such a request, he waited several months to receive the statistics.

They came the day after the Norwood News published an editorial calling the delay “unacceptable.”

The second request, filed in June 2010, took over two years to fulfill.

It became a fight for transparency that would become the newspaper’s calling card and eventually inspire legislation that will completely transform the way the NYPD reports crime to New Yorkers.

Intro 984

On April 25, the New York City Council voted to pass “Intro 984,” which requires the city to maintain an interactive online map that will display monthly, yearly, and year-to-date totals for each class of crime that is reported to the NYPD—searchable by address, zip code and NYPD patrol precinct.

The bill’s two-year-long journey to passage began with an encounter between Kratz and Greg Faulkner, chief of staff for the bill’s sponsor, Councilman Fernando Cabrera.

When it became clear he was going to have a long wait, Kratz appealed to the local community board—a neighborhood body that makes discretionary allocations and recommendations to the mayor—for support.

The Community Board requested the stats and shared them with Kratz. But after the paper published an article based on them, even the board was cut off.

Kratz kept going to the board meetings, hoping to rally support for the paper’s cause.

Faulkner was at one of the meetings. He was intrigued.

Councilman Cabrera had recently decided to devote nearly $1 million in discretionary funding for new surveillance cameras in his district. Faulkner remembers being told that even though the councilman was providing the funding, he’d get no say in where the cameras would be put.

The reason? Sector stats were a key factor in deciding camera location and only the police had them.

“I got the sense that this was some sort of big secret, and it got me thinking, it makes sense that we should know where the crime is,” Faulkner said during a recent phone interview with The Crime Report.

“So I spoke to the councilman and he said if we can’t get it done administratively, let’s do it legislatively.”

The original proposal called for quarterly reports of sector statistics to be released to local community boards. It never made it out of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

For more than a year, the committee debated with Cabrera about whether or not the NYPD had the resources to file that many reports.

As days turned into months, Cabrera tried to move the legislation forward while Kratz regularly checked up on his Freedom of Information requests.

What had once taken “all of two minutes,” according to Kratz, seemed lost in a bureaucratic black hole.

The first Freedom of Information request had been filled the day after the Norwood News slammed the NYPD in an editorial, but this time around, no amount of opining got the paper the response it wanted.

That’s when the paper turned to its popular and now-defunct Bronx News Network blog.

From the Norwood News’ second floor office in a small stone cottage known as The Keeper’s House, Moss and Kratz ran the News, two local sister papers (also both now-defunct) and the blog, which often served as a sounding board for the borough’s political movers and shakers.

Starting the Countdown

“It had been about a year and they just weren’t responding at all,” Kratz said. “That’s when we started the clock.”

Attached to an editorial on the blog, Kratz and Moss posted a simple counter, marking each second, minute, hour and day since he submitted his request to the NYPD.

“We’ve waited long enough,” the editors wrote at 350 days.

In the following months, the counting clock garnered the paper a lot of attention from other media outlets.

NBC filed a two minute segment on the sector stat fight; another Bronx newspaper, The Riverdale Pressissued an editorial in support of the Newsthe Village Voice headlined a piece: “Hey Ray Kelly, NYPD Commish, Norwood News Wants to Know Why You Won’t Release Crime Stats.”

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But the attention seemed to harden the NYPD. Even NBC was given a boilerplate response when it asked why the sector stats couldn’t be released.

Chris Glorioso, a reporter for the network, quoted what he called a “terse” e-mail written to him by the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information.

“The New York City Police Department has received a F.O.I.L. request which is being worked on,” was all the NYPD would say.

In October 2012, the Norwood News finally got its sector statistics. A haul of data for each of the 52nd Precinct’s 15 sectors, detailing all reported crime from 2005 through 2011.

The six-year snapshot confirmed what many in the 52nd Precinct had suspected.

While COMPSTAT reports during that time period showed a precinct where crime remained relatively low, the sector statistics revealed that certain neighborhoods remained among the city’s most persistently violent.

A November 2012 article penned by Kratz honed in on Sector G: a five-block-wide and seven-block-long stretch known for its violence.

More than one in four of the precinct’s murders and roughly one out of every five rapes occurred in Sector G between 2005 and 2011, Kratz reported.

“The area also led the precinct in felony assaults, which include shootings and stabbings.”

But the fact that Sector G reported the most crime, did not mean it got the most resources, Kratz realized.

‘Impact Zone’ Policing

Part of the 52nd Precinct is an NYPD “Impact Zone”—an area flooded with rookie cops in an attempt to keep crime down—but not the area that seems to be in the most need of it.

“What’s happening in the five-two is Sector G has the most crime by far, but the impact zone is all right around Fordham Road,” Kratz told The Crime Report, referring to the corridor that has historically been the Bronx’s central commercial nerve.

The chunk of statistics had provided Kratz and his readers with a deeper glimpse into community crime—and perhaps a theory as to why police didn’t want more localized crime reporting.

But the data was more than a year old, and didn’t answer persistent questions about recent crime trends.

Meanwhile at the City Council, Cabrera’s legislation still hadn’t found its way to the floor. Questions about the police department’s ability to comply with a mandate to report localized stats continued to dog the bill.

“We sat down with Speaker (Christine) Quinn’s office, and we flushed it out,” said Faulkner. “We said, ‘Why couldn’t this be something that’s done with technology that’s already in use?’ ”

Cabrera’s office contacted New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), the department that runs a continuously updating online map of 3-1-1 service requests.

“We asked if doing the same thing with police reports would be difficult, and they said, ‘Oh no, this would be easy,’” Faulkner said.

In fact, the nation’s largest police force is actually trailing behind cops in other major cities, such as Chicago and Baltimore, where detailed geographic crime information is already made available.

Suddenly the legislation morphed from a mandate to provide quarterly reports to community boards to Intro 984, nicknamed “The Crime Mapping Bill.”

While the bill calls for monthly updates, Faulkner said the DoITT expects the system to work at nearly real-time speed.

Neither Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor the New York Police Department has expressed opposition to the bill. It’s likely to be signed into law within the next few weeks and Kratz said he’s hoping to get the pen used to make it official.

It would be a lasting reminder of the Norwood News’ biggest victory.

And perhaps its last.

When the paper’s crusade began, the tight quarters of the News’ office teemed with activity. At press time every two weeks, Moss, Kratz and the 20-year-old paper’s publisher, Dart Westphal, watched over a team of reporters, editors, an ad sales person, and interns who pushed out three newspapers and multiple daily blog posts.

Calling it the “best little newspaper that beat the odds,” in 2009 the Village Voice hailed the Norwood Newsand its sister papers for “some of the finest and most clear-eyed reporting” in the borough, “all done on a shoestring.”

But in the last four years, a series of funding cuts have shrunk the newspaper family to just one publication, the News, and the staff to down to just Kratz, a freelance photographer and a few interns.

Moss now works for the magazine City Limits and is gearing up to re-launch the Bronx News Network blog after a 17-month hiatus, as the magazine’s newly coined “Bronx Bureau.”

Kratz now reports, edits, designs and sells ads for each bi-weekly issue. Even on his own, he’s still pushing for updated sector statistics.

And he’s still waiting for a response to his most recent request—made in January—for 2012 figures.

Over lunch last month at a small Mexican restaurant two blocks from the office where Kratz’s computer is the only one of five that still sees regular use, he acknowledged he’s not sure how long the paper will last.

Right now the goal is to get through its 25th anniversary in September, he said.

But even if it barely makes it past that touchstone, the crime mapping legislation represents a lasting legacy.

“It’s kind of like a journalism Holy Grail,” Kratz said, “Getting to see your journalism impact public policy.”

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