Seattle refutes journalism professor’s criticism on data accessibility

Public accessibility of police data is a concern for everyone and a priority for the City of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department.  In 2010, almost all Seattle Police records were made available online to anyone with an Internet connection while at the same time safeguarding the privacy of crime victims and those accused but not yet convicted of crimes.  One has only to visit seattle.gov/police to view our robust menu of data and information.

Seattle University Professor Tomas Guillen submitted an Op-Ed to the Seattle Times in October advising the Seattle Police Department to return to its former “paper-based” system.  We believe that Professor Guillen’s Op-Ed article contains errors of fact, is misleading and needlessly disparages the City of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department.

Professor Guillen expresses preference for an antiquated system of paper reports that required individuals to physically go to a department facility and sift through hundreds of pages of redacted police documentation, sorted only by incident number.  Reports were only kept for three days, with old ones cycling out and new ones cycling in.  The department began copying these reports to compact discs in 2007 in an effort to reduce paper usage.  Still, information was often days old, rather than hours.  In reality, very few people accessed these reports.

In the new online system anyone can map the 911 calls and crimes in their neighborhood or anywhere else in the City.  They can choose any time frame.  They can view almost all crimes reported and officer initiated activity, not just crimes with a written police report.  Reports of all homicides, robberies, aggravated assaults and burglaries are generally available within two to three business days of occurring.  The public has online access to read a redacted narrative exactly as it was written by the responding officer at the scene.  These reports can be printed from a computer in their home, business, library or any other location in the world.  We know of no other major police department posting redacted reports online.  In October alone, there were 5,500 online sessions accessing our police records with 147,698 page views during these sessions.  Year to date, there have been 45,120 online sessions and 1,618,160 page views!

Admittedly, a few types of crimes are not in the online system. But the Seattle Police Department is trying to balance the public’s right to know against crime victim privacy interests.  The information is still available, it just isn’t pushed out into cyberspace.  Crimes not shown include sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.  Reporting these crimes could create potential danger or additional distress for these victims if their information was pinpointed on a map.  Raw numbers of sexual assaults are still reported by month by neighborhood, which still gives anyone in the community a sense of these crimes.  Most importantly, any of these incident reports are still available through the traditional public disclosure system. If a pattern of sexual assaults occurs which are a threat to public safety, the department will use a variety of community notification methods to alert local residents.

In addition to the online crime maps and reports, the Seattle Police Department uses Twitter (www.twitter.com/seattlepd) to send rapid notification of serious incidents, the online Seattle Police Blotter (spdblotter.seattle.gov) for longer narratives, and whole sets of crime data (in a spreadsheet-like format) on data.seattle.gov

Professor Guillen should reconsider whether or not he wants the Seattle Police Department to return to the old days when reports were kept on paper in binders inside of police stations.  Only those reporters and journalists who took the time to peruse the reports would decide what the public needed to know.

Instead, almost all the information about serious crimes and 911 calls is available online to anyone who needs it.  Seattle residents have immediate access to police data.  They can build their own block watch and have the information necessary to keep themselves, their children, their families and their neighborhoods safe – all from their computer.

In the age of facebook and Twitter, online neighborhood blogs and citizen journalists, with instant access to information on the Internet, Professor Guillen would have us return to sheaves of paper locked in a police precinct.   Is that transparency?