- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2008


The inspiration for CrimeReports.com came a decade ago when Greg Whisenant made the mistake of letting a stranger, who turned out to be a burglar, into his apartment building in Arlington.

At a neighborhood meeting that soon followed, Mr. Whisenant was inspired when he heard a woman say she was followed in a parking lot. Mr. Whisenant pondered how technology could make a difference.

“Why can’t we have some kind of alert system that would tell me something like that?” he wondered.

Now he has created it. A new service on CrimeReports.com, begun last year and expanding nationwide, overlays police reports on maps, so people can view where arrests and other police calls have been made. Users can configure e-mail alerts to notify them of crimes in locations of interest within a day.

The free site relies mainly on police departments paying $100 or $200 a month, depending on their size, to have CrimeReports.com extract the information from their internal systems and publish it online. Public Engines LLC, Mr. Whisenant’s seven-person company in Salt Lake City, pledges to post no ads on the site.

About 40 law-enforcement agencies have signed up, including police in San Jose, Calif., and several Utah jurisdictions. The site also captures and posts information from departments, such as the one in Chicago, that do not pay Public Engines because they built their own links into their records.

But these internal records generally do not come in a uniform, Web-friendly fashion. Even Web sites with crime maps, like the one operated by police in Washington, don’t reveal details on individual reports. Instead, such details often are made available in police logs sent to local newspapers.

What’s new in CrimeReports.com is its system for extracting the files from disparate police databases. Then it maps them online in one central location through an easy Web trick known as a “mashup.” Since Google Inc. opened its mapping software to third-party applications, free mashups like this have sprung up to enable people to plot everything from photograph locations to the sources of campaign donations.

One participant in CrimeReports.com, Sheriff Jim Winder of Salt Lake County, said the $200 monthly fee will be worthwhile, mainly because the site provides a new way to increase his agency’s public transparency.

“For people to have faith in and continue to be supportive of law enforcement, they need to feel we’re divulging all we possibly can,” he said.

He added that the site’s ability to make use of his department’s “byzantine” records system is “almost revolutionary.”

This flood of information could have a downside.

CrimeReports.com lists only the block on which a crime occurred or was reported, not the actual address, so as to protect victims’ privacy. Even so, the Salt Lake sheriff noted that neighbors on a tiny street might be able to figure out, say, which house on their block had a domestic incident that the participants would rather keep quiet.

“It’s not our job to censor or to limit or preclude the information we give out,” Sheriff Winder said.

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