The crimes they are a-changing.
  • The crimes they are a-changing.
After a year of planning, tomorrow morning the Seattle Police Department will launch an interactive crime map on its website that allows people to track a variety of crimes citywide and in their communities.

"The system empowers people who are interested in public safety to get a real grasp of what’s going on in their neighborhoods," says Detective Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for SPD.

The launch couldn't be better timed—Georgetown and Belltown residents are fed up with escalating neighborhood crime and weak communication from their officer liaisons. The new map is a proactive tool that allows them to track crime without relying solely on police, neighborhood blogs, and monthly SPD crime reports for information.

"It used to be that you had to go to the precinct and look at a giant stack of police reports that covered the last 72 hours if you wanted the complete narrative on crime in our city," says Whitcomb. "Virtually nobody but reporters did that. This puts the power—the information—straight into the hands of the community."

The map is generated from police reports processed throughout the city, with a lag time of 12 hours after incidents occur. "We're trying to find the balance between being more responsive to the community without jeopardizing crime investigations or the safety of citizens," says Whitcomb of the 12-hour lag, "which is why we can't provide a real-time map like the fire department does."

Even with the 12-hour lag, viewing the crime map can be overwhelming. The system shows color-coded icons detailing violent crimes, drugs and vice crimes, property crimes, and transportation crimes that stack on top of each other, blotting out streets, parks and other city features. You might contemplate buying a gun and loading it with bear mace, just to keep on hand.

But while it looks like your neighborhood is being eaten alive by the warring lusts of men, it's not, says Whitcomb. He says that "Seattle is ranked the ninth safest city in the country" among cities of comparable size. He says that the FBI states this as fact, not just him. This is good news.

The better news is that the map lets people customize which crime subsets they're tracking, if they like, to keep panic from setting in (for instance, if you want to track prostitution busts, follow the 'XXX' icon; for assaults, track the fist icon, etc). When you click on an icon, it gives you the incident's report number, where it occurred, and in some cases, a link to the police report. (Online reports include homicides, assaults, burglaries, and robberies. An assortment of other crimes, such as car prowls and miscellaneous police calls, are still not available online.)

Whitcomb warns that "this system's not perfect, it's just version 1.1." He says that SPD is still discussing how to automatically redact names, street addresses, and other identifiable characteristics on police reports so they can all be available online.

In the meantime, the crime map provides incident report numbers for all crimes, which allows people to submit public disclosure requests to access specifics report for lesser crimes—like car prowls—if they choose.

The map is sure to be an asset for neighborhood activists, community members, and crime bloggers. It's got links to city-wide crime statistics, police reports. The only glaring thing that's missing in the launch are boundary markers for Seattle's five police department precincts.