Thursday, January 12, 2012

6 ways to prevent crime and murder with digital tools

34 people were victims of homicide in New Haven, Conn. last year.

That's a near-record number for the city. And that's a lot for a city of this size (129,559 population, according to 2010 U.S. Census). So I was curious enough to see how New Haven's homicides compared to similarly-sized cities across the country. I looked at the recently released preliminary crime report for the first half of 2011. Of all 30 U.S. cities in the population range of 20,000 - 40,000, New Haven had the most reported homicides from January to June of last year with 18. Hartford was a close second with 17. No other city in this population range had more than 8. Six of those cities had zero homicides.

In talking about this with New Haven Register crime reporter Bill Kaempffer, he warned that the problem with viewing homicides like this - as a statistic - is the conversation shifts to how dangerous a place like New Haven is. He's right. You can't truly know a city by comparing a murder stat or crime rate to that of another community or city.

This is why Kaempffer and I created the New Haven Homicides Report - to go beyond that annual homicide statistic and individually document each victim and crime. Maybe then the New Haven community could draw more informed conclusions about the trends, neighborhoods and circumstances leading to these disheartening pockets of crime, and explore ways to help prevent more from happening.

So, instead of comparing New Haven's homicide stat to Topeka, Kan. or Simi Valley, Calif., what I should be doing is outlining ways newsrooms, police departments and community bloggers can work with their communities to help prevent crime and murder.

Read on for six things you can do now to help prevent crime and murder in your town.

Write a community-focused blog devoted to a crime topic, such as homicides

Media outlets in your community already publish police reports and crime stats. But are there newsrooms, bloggers or even police departments doing something similar to New Haven Homicide Report or D.C. Homicide Watch? Are there bloggers reaching out to the community for details news reports might be overlooking because they are simply re-writing a police report?

If not, start one. Call attention to the problem. Create a repository for all the info on the crimes, victims, and perpetrators of a particular crime type (homicide, shootings, burglaries, car break-ins, arson, etc). A newsroom can do this on their website, or a devoted community member can create one with Wordpress or Blogger.

Use Google Maps to pinpoint crimes over time and illustrate problem areas

Kaempffer created a Google Map to track the locations of New Haven's homicides in 2011 before we developed the Homicide Report. It's become a deeply valuable resource for our coverage of homicides since, and an integral part of the Homicide Report. All you need is the address or area of the crime to create a marker on the map. If you're dealing with a lot of addresses to uploaded to the map, you can do that with ease by using web tools like ZeeMaps or BatchGeo.

Prevent crime with SeeClickFix

Obviously, you should call 911 or directly contact the local police department in the event of a crime or emergency. But you should encourage locals to use SeeClickFix as a method of calling attention to suspicious or dangerous areas, and having something done about it to improve the quality of life.

Use SeeClickFix to submit a request for better lighting in poorly lit areas, as well as ask for police patrols or video surveillance in high crime areas (which you could pinpoint with your Google Map from the step above).

Last spring, a prostitution ring in New Haven was broken up thanks to a SeeClickFix report. Think of how many other illegal activities could be broken up and how many crimes prevented, simply by the community working together with rad digital tools like SeeClickFix.

Use anonymous online 'tip' submission forms to prevent crime

If your local police department doesn't have an online form for submitting tips, like the FBI's or West Haven's, ask them why the heck not? In this digital age, some people are simply more comfortable volunteering information from a computer screen. It's important to have as many doors open for the community to speak up as possible.

If the police don't have the resources to host something like that on their website, news outlets can step in and create their own or use SeeClickFix, and serve as a relay point between concerned citizens and the police.

The Register recently launched an investigations tip form which could be used for such things too. It's ridiculously easy to set up and customize such forms these days, thanks to Google Forms.

Track down crime suspects with an online 'Most Wanted' page

Thanks to Ivan Lajara at the Daily Freeman for this one.

Work with the local police departments to upload copies of the wanted posters they circulate for crime suspects that remain on the loose. Use tools like Scribd to upload them all on a single page and share them with readers, like the Freeman does.

If the police can share such documents with you, it's a matter of clicks to digitize and spread it around the community with social media and your website. The more people who see the faces on the wanted posters, the greater the chances of someone recognizing a face and calling in a tip. Perhaps even with the tip form in the previous step.

You could also tie a Google Map into this idea, and plot areas where the suspects were last seen. We tried something like that last year before the alleged "East Coast Rapist" was apprehended.

Use Facebook and other social media

There's no way around it -- it's 2012, and Americans of all ages and races are on Facebook every day now. Think of how many people are willing to "like" and comment on a cause they support. Create your own pages devoted to particular causes or start a group for a neighborhood watch.

Create a discussion area for people to discuss ways to improve the safety of their neighborhood, and who knows what you might prevent or solve? And if the police departments aren't on social media, ask them why they aren't. Kingston, NY is! Doesn't look like New Haven is.

But certainly, this is just a start. These won't end murder or crime, but every little bit of prevention and community awareness helps. What ideas do you have for preventing murder and crime, digital or otherwise? Post some thoughts and other tools worth exploring in the comments.


  1. Good post on getting communities involved. Your analysis of "similarly sized" areas is faulty though. See, where there is more information including links to city reports on this subject.

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