Online Crime Reporting Takes Off in Many Cities, but not in NYC

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Chicago PD

From the Chicago PD website.

 

This article was reported by members of the City Limits Fall 2016 Bronx Investigative Internship Program. Click here to see other journalism produced by that initiative.

New York might be the safest large city in the United States, but it’s far from the easiest place to report a minor crime. In many cities and smaller towns around the country, police departments have moved toward permitting some crimes to be reported online.

These include Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Diego and Denver. El Paso, San Antonio and Fresno also offer online crime reporting, as does Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Lincoln, Neb. Smaller municipalities like Pittsfield, Mass.; Jacksonville, N.C.; Auburn, Wash.; and Westport, Conn. also permit it, as does Baltimore County in Maryland.

Many of those police agencies use online systems developed by the firm CopLogic, which was acquired in 2014 by the news and legal database company LexisNexis. At the time of that deal, the owners reported that CopLogic’s approach was “actively deployed in 450 law enforcement agencies across North America, including six of the 10 largest U.S. cities, 60 of the 100 largest U.S. cities and nine of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in Canada.”

A 2014 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 82 percent of agencies that responded were planning to increase their use of online crime reporting in the next two to five years. No other technology garnered as much interest.

There are two reasons why departments incorporate online crime reporting. One is to focus police resources like 9-1-1 on more serious crimes. Another is to make it easier for people to report minor crimes. When St. Paul, Minn., adopted the system in 2015, local police spokesman Steve Linders told the Pioneer Press: “It takes some pressure off the officers who are working on the street, and it allows people to file the reports on their time.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2015 an estimated 35 percent of property crimes like burglary and motor-vehicle thefts were not reported to the police nationwide. BJS derives that estimate by surveying U.S. residents about victimization and comparing the results to official crime data reported to the FBI.

The NYPD website does offer an online “submit a tip” tool operated by the CrimeStoppers program. Since 1983, that program—which also operates a phone tip-line—claims a role in bringing people to justice in nearly 1,500 murders or attempted murders and more than 1,900 robberies. But Crimestoppers is chiefly a method for providing information on serious crimes in return for cash rewards and is funded by the Police Foundation, not the department itself.

Compare that with the San Antonio Police Department, which allows victims of some thefts to list their contact info, information about the time and place of the incident and a list of the property taken and its estimated value. Chicago’s online crime-reporting system takes reports of graffiti, trespass, identity theft, harassment and simple assault, as well as larceny.

Not every police department that accepts online reports offers the same scope. Pittsfield lets you report animal-related complaints, which many other departments do not take, and Dallas accepts reports of arson and attempted arson, which does not appear to be common.

Online crime reporting has had its share of problems. Vancouver restarted its system last fall after a hiatus of several years because the earlier system had trouble tracking multiple reports of the same crime. A 2015 investigation by a FOX affiliate in Denver found that fewer than 1 percent of crimes reported online were actually solved, although it was unclear how that figure compared with the resolution rate for crimes reported via more traditional means.

There is also the possibility of fraudulent reports, something that many police departments try to deter with prominent warning language. Chicago’s online crime-reporting tool, for instance, reminds visitors: that filing a false crime report “is a Class 4 Felony which can result in fines and/or imprisonment.”

With Jarrett Murphy

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