City Council Prods NYPD to Map Crime Data … Except Traffic Crime

Last week, the City Council passed a bill that should revolutionize the way New Yorkers access NYPD crime data. For the first time, crime stats will be mapped, and will be searchable by precinct, area code, and street address. The data will be filed with the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which will update the map each month.

NYPD transportation chief James Tuller thinks the public lacks the capacity to comprehend traffic crash data.

“The bill will enable elected officials, community organizations, and the general public to localize current high crime areas and use resources more strategically and efficiently,” said sponsor Fernando Cabrera, council member from the Bronx.

The interactive crime map will offer the same tools that City Council members and street safety advocates were aiming for with the Saving Lives Through Better Information Act. But two years after that bill passed the council, NYPD is still releasing traffic crash data as a series of PDF files. Meanwhile, council members seem to have stopped pushing the department to publish crash data in a format that would readily enable advocates and the public to target dangerous locations for improved engineering and enforcement.

Crime data maps are nothing new. As the New York World points out, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities have maps like the one ordered by the council. But NYPD is notoriously secretive, and guards traffic crash data even more closely than other violent crime data. While Cabrera says NYPD took no official position on the mapping bill, which was prompted by difficulties encountered by the Norwood News in obtaining Bronx precinct stats, the department fought the council tooth and nail to keep traffic crash data under wraps.

“This information is only valuable to those with the training, knowledge and experience to understand its context and interpret it correctly,” said NYPD Chief of Transportation James Tuller at a council hearing in 2010. “That is the role of the police commander.”

Though the council forced NYPD to release crash data, the department did its best to circumvent the law by publishing it in a way that renders it useless to all but the most tenacious advocates and citizens. Six months from now, when the crime data map is expected to go live, anyone with Internet access will be able to get an instant picture of where assaults and burglaries are happening in their neighborhood — by month, year, and year-to-date. That same resident would have to devote hours to get an in-depth look at where people were injured and killed by motorists on the streets where they walk or bike every day.

The Norwood News reports that making the crime data map will only entail a one-time expense:

DoITT officials say it would take about six months to get the website and map up and running and wouldn’t require much extra work on their end or from the NYPD, which is often the agency’s excuse for not being more forthcoming with information.

The NYPD compiles this information and inputs into a software program already.

This is all the more reason for the council to demand that crash data be given the same treatment.

At a February 2012 council hearing on traffic safety and NYPD crash investigation protocols, Jessica Lappin confronted NYPD brass on the half-hearted compliance with the Saving Lives Through Better Information bill, which she sponsored. When NYPD counsel Susan Petito said the department believes data released on a spreadsheet could be manipulated “to make a point of some sort,” an incredulous Lappin assured officials that the public wants to analyze the data to improve safety, not use it for “evil.”

This was the last we heard from the council on the subject until January. At a presser convened by Lappin and council transportation chair James Vacca to scold DOT for being late with a report on dangerous intersections, Streetsblog asked about NYPD crash data dumps. “We don’t like the way they’re complying, but at least they’re putting information up,” Lappin said. “They are complying with the letter of the law. We just don’t think they’re complying with the spirit of the law.”

It seems now that if they truly want NYPD to release traffic crash data in a useful format, council members can make it happen. Will they?