On Tuesday June 23rd the Chicago Sun Times ran a story titled “The Second Most Dangerous Neighborhood in America”. The story detailed a list of the 25 most violent neighborhoods in America. The City of Chicago had the privilege of having 4 neighborhoods, the most of any city, on the list. The only problem with the story is that the analysis used an unorthodox way to predict crime and not the actual number of violent crimes in the neighborhoods listed.
The story was written by Mark Konkol and was based off of an analysis conducted by geographer Dr. Andrew Schiller for his commercial real estate site. The analysis run by Schiller, according to a letter in the editor by Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis, used a “variety of census variables to project crime based on the total violent crime that occurred in the city of Chicago as whole. When a story as inflammatory as this one makes it into a paper, one would think that all the mathematical calculations would have been verified and proved sound. It seems like in this case, the Sun Times ran with a story before they understood the analysis behind the numbers they were presenting. A faux pas to be sure, but one of the factors contributing to these types of stories making it into our local press are the restrictions on access to data that would eliminate the need for searching out such poor sources.
Who is to blame and how do we guard against future occurrences of this type of journalism? In his letter to the editor, Superintendent Weis talks about how the census tracks named in Schiller’s report are not even in the top 25 most violent in the city. If the Chicago Police Department (CPD) made that type of information available to the public over the Internet then media outlets would not have to seek out other means of finding information regarding crime in Chicago. While the CPD’s CLEAR site looks very nice and is probably at the forefront of the use of technology to inform citizens for police agencies, the level of access to actual data from the CPD is very limited. For journalists, advocates, academicians, and community organizations to be empowered, the data must be released in bulk to allow for outside analysis of the data the CPD site offers.
While I have no doubt that what Weis said in his letter to the editor about the census tracks is legitimate, we are left with only his word to verify the claims. Community members and the policy makers that serve them should not have to rely on the generosity of the CPD to release information upon request. With the application of information technologies raw data could be available for easy download for all that are interested. If the CPD would provide the public with raw data on a regular basis Schiller’s report could have been easily debunked by Konkol who could have conducted his own analysis based on the real numbers reported by the CPD.
In a recent scandal involving the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and their web site, the LAPD was caught failing to list significant numbers of crime on their site, including murders and rapes. The practice was exposed because the Los Angeles Times continued to receive raw data from the Department and checked to see if all the crimes detailed in the raw data were making it on the LAPD’s web site. They were not. In 2009, data from governmental agencies should be released in ways to make it the most empowering of the people they serve, not disempowering. Very little analysis can be completed with the information that is currently provided on the CPD CLEAR site. Not to mention that the data is from a single agency and there is really no end to how much that really limits how the community understands the criminal justice system’s response to crime and violence in their community.