The Tampa Police Department now conceals neighborhood crime data. A national crime tracking group says it’s a public safety risk. | Tampa Bay News | Tampa

Dave Decker

A Tampa Police vehicle taken in Tampa, Florida on July 31, 2020.

Colin Drane’s national crime-tracking company, SpotCrime, has mapped Tampa police calls for service and crimes since August 2008. Its website monitors the information, which comes from a public feed, and places the incidents on an interactive map so people know what type of incident happened and where.

But last weekend, the specific whereabouts information his company, as well as the general public, received from the Tampa Police Department (TPD) suddenly changed.

Reported crime locations have moved from specific blocks to a less traceable grid format, which can encompass several square miles around where the incident occurred. Previously, the SpotCrime map showed the block on which the crimes occurred, for the benefit of public safety.

Now, TPD changes make it difficult for SpotCrime’s Tampa map to work properly.

“I immediately wondered, why would they have [TPD] restrict access to information that could help protect its citizens? Drane told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “Hiding this data makes no sense. Our goal is never to sensationalize this data or harm any person or service, it’s just to inform.”

Drane, president of SpotCrime, said the information can be very important for public safety, such as when tracking child predator activity in an area. He gave the example of other cities he follows, where suspects were allegedly caught attacking children.

Click to enlarge An image from the Spotcrime website from January 8.  - SCREEN CAPTURE VIA SPOTCRIME

Screenshot via Spotcrime

An image from the Spotcrime website from January 8.

“We want this information out there, so that if there is an abuser who is preying on young children, we want the community to know and protect children in this area,” Drane told CL.

Drane says the company has 30,000 subscribers in Tampa who rely on crime information for their safety. The company sends about 300 million emails a year to people in the United States about specific crime details and trends, using data from thousands of police departments.

But he and SpotCrime Vice President Brittany Suszan can only do their jobs properly when police departments transparently report their crimes.

In major US cities, the TPD is one of the only police departments to deliberately become less transparent, Suszan says.

“Asking for this kind of data is not a new idea,” Suszan told CL. “Newspapers have long used this data for crime blotters.”

The nearby cities of St. Petersburg and Orlando still report block crimes, and the SpotCrime map works fine in those cities.

Nevertheless, the TPD suddenly chose not to share block crimes, and one of its main arguments for not doing so is Marsy’s Law, which was passed in Florida in 2018. Under the law, identities and information about victims of crimes are protected. Police departments have also used the law to protect the identities of officers involved in incidents such as fatal shootings, classifying cops as victims in some cases.

The TPD said that because of Marsy’s Law, it had to change crime reporting from the block level to the grid level.

A city “grid” encompasses several city blocks, making it less transparent as to where a crime occurred.

“We were working with the developer of the program to resolve a technical issue discovered on the site last week, to improve protection for victims of Marsy’s Law,” TPD wrote to CL in an email. “The interactive crime map has since been restored.”

TPD then confirmed that data is now presented at the grid level, as opposed to the block level. The Public Service Calls website reflects this change, effective Friday afternoon.

Click to enlarge An example of the new way TPD reports the location of crime by grid on its public calls for service stream.  - TAMPA CITY

City of Tampa

An example of the new way TPD reports the location of crime by grid on its public calls for service stream.

The legal problem here is that, as Suszan points out, in Marsy’s Law there is no provision that says that general public information about crime should be affected by law. Marsy’s Law for Florida, the group that pushed to pass the bill, even said so in a press release in 2019.

“There is no provision in Marsy’s Law for Florida that prevents the disclosure of details of a case, including general information about where the crimes took place,” Marsy’s Law wrote for Florida.

And while protecting the location of victims is certainly important for their safety, block-level reporting does not give a victim’s exact location. And there are reasons block-level reporting is important for community safety, as Tampa attorney Mark Caramanica told CL.

Caramanica specializes in media law, copyright and civil litigation. He also expressed concern about the new mapping process.

“It’s very problematic because it removes vital crime information from the public, people who rely on this data to keep themselves and their families safe, or even decide where they want to live when they move here.” , Caramanica said.

Caramanica called the TPD’s decision to map “overbroad” and said that even on proprietary mapping software like LexisNexis, crime locations are currently cleared. When he opens the LexisNexis map and visualizes a specific point marking a service call or a crime, the system clearly indicates that the crime did not actually occur in that area, as part of the changes made by the TPD.

Click to enlarge A screenshot from LexisNexis, tagged by Colin Drane, shows that crimes are now being reported miles away from their actual location.  - A/S COLIN DRANE

c/o Colin Drane

A screenshot from LexisNexis, tagged by Colin Drane, shows that crimes are now being reported miles away from their actual location.

“The public only suffers because of this,” Caramanica said.

The TPD isn’t the only Florida law enforcement agency to have improperly used Marsy’s Law to conceal previously public data. In a guest column from the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, Suszan pointed out that three sheriff’s departments — Polk, Lake and Pasco — have used the law as a defense to conceal data.

In the same column, she pointed out that a 2017 decision by the North Dakota Attorney General ruled that a victim must register to prevent any disclosure of information related to their case.

The AG’s decision also limited the type of location information that can be withheld at the victim’s request primarily to identify address numbers and building names, and even went so far as to state that the names are not secret. Now, in North Dakota, Marsy’s Law no longer hides the facts of a crime.

CD Davidson-Hiers, program coordinator for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonpartisan 501c3 that seeks transparency in government, said the group is seeing an “alarming lack of uniformity throughout Florida” in how law enforcement reports crimes.

“Some agencies publish street names but redact house numbers. Some agencies redact entire addresses, even if crimes occurred in public places where the address would not disclose the victim’s home. Some agencies now charge fees to staff to review records as simple as the crime log sheets when the public requests access, to reviewing exemptions from Marsy’s law,” she wrote.

Davidson-Hiers said the unintended effect is that communities are left with no way of knowing where crimes are being committed or who may be affected.

She said the lack of uniformity in the implementation of the law has “a negative impact on the ability of the public to make informed decisions about housing, workplace and education and also affects the ability of communities to find solutions to the problems that lead to crime in the first place.And, equally worrying, it erodes public confidence in law enforcement.

According to Drane, agencies switching from a block report to a grid report almost never happen because crime is going down. In his eyes, hiding the data only benefits criminals and senior law enforcement officials who have gone to manipulate the data for their benefit.

Drane said he ended up having a conversation with two TPD officers earlier this week about the changes: cap. Derek Lang and Richard Blasioli, who had been captain since 2018.

He said his first call with Blasioli was “terrible” and the officer said he knew nothing about their mapping system. When Drane mentioned victims’ concerns, he said Blasioli accused him of “taking advantage of their crime data.”

Later that day, he received a call from Lang. This call was the opposite of the morning call, he said. Lang said they initially had to make changes due to a technical error, echoing TPD’s statement.

“Despite these technical complications, the TPD had enough time and programming prowess to change block addresses to grid locations,” Drane said.

Drane and Suszan say their next steps are to call on the city to do something about this issue. They spoke with a member of the city council (but wouldn’t divulge who yet) and plan to amplify their message to the city to be transparent, like just about every other major city in the United States.

Drane says the switch to grid mapping is an “absurd solution” that “insults the intelligence of the public”.

He referred to what he calls the “trust quotient”.

“When you delete data, you reduce that trust quotient, you reduce public safety,” Drane said. “If you increase transparency, you increase the trust quotient with the community.”

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