Crime Stats and the Internet: Springfield Among Cities Declining to Post Numbers Online

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno this summer requested help from a specialized unit of the Massachusetts state police. At the time, Sarno spokesperson James Leydon said the deployment followed a series of violent incidents in the city, including multiple shootings, over just a few days.

“The mayor wants to deploy all resources possible to aid the city in trying to combat all of a sudden this uptick in crimes lately,” Leydon said.

However, that same day in July, Springfield Police Sgt. John Delaney disputed there was such an up-tick, and blamed the media for the characterization.

“When we look at our statistics over the last year…crime is down in Springfield,” Delaney said. “But when you watch the news, people have the perception that crime is up because there’s a shooting here, there’s a shooting there.”

Looking to sort out the two apparently contradictory statements, we went online to find crime statistics to verify for ourselves if indeed crime in Springfield was up or down. Those figures, which are public information, track incidents such as murder, rape, assault and robbery, and are compiled by every police agency and reported annually by the FBI.

However, we couldn’t find any recent numbers online. Media outlets can just ask a police spokesperson. But how is the general public able to access that information, which is supposed to be public?  And does posting the stats online help or hinder police?   

“I think the skeptical perspective at first was that it kind of airs our dirty laundry, if you will,” said Officer David Hartman with the New Haven Connecticut Police Department. “And then we realized how foolish that was and that we’re not committing the burglaries ourselves. And these tools actually help the officers as well as the people that live and work in New Haven.”

Hartman says by putting crime stats online, people are now getting more timely information about what’s going on in their neighborhoods.

“A few years ago, you could live on a city block and not have any knowledge that a neighbor of yours home had been burglarized,” he said. “And what became most important was you didn’t perhaps know that four of your neighbors’ homes had been burglarized in the past month. You know, these are the pattern crimes that people need to be most aware of.”

Hartman says those patterns – where things happen – matter more to police in solving and stopping crimes than the actual numbers.

Indeed, hiring crime analysts to study those patterns is a major trend among law enforcement, according to Lt. Brian Foley of the Hartford Police major crime division. Those analysts, he says, can bring a more scientific or mathematical approach than a typical officer.

“We believe that the money is better spent in crime prevention as opposed to investigating,” Foley says. “We can’t investigate or arrest our way out of the crime problem, so we’re going to try to prevent it. And in order to analyze that and which direction we need to go with prevention, you need the crime analysis.”

Hartford has been using its analysis unit to post crime stats online for all to see. But Foley says recent budget cuts have forced a re-evaluation of that.

Faced with similar fiscal constraints, a growing number of police departments, including New Haven, Boston and Worcester, contract with private companies that offer cloud-based mapping software to publish crime stats online. 

But not everyone appears to be convinced by the new technology. Springfield, Albany and Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city, don’t post crime information online.

Springfield Police Commissioner William Fitchet says stats do not accurately tell the whole story.

“If  you put on 50 more police officers, there’s going to be 50 more pro-active police officers that might create crime reports and make arrests that they ordinarily might not make,” Fitchet says. “Conversely, if you lay off 50 police officers, that’s 50 less officers that are making crime reports.”

Fitchet says his department holds so-called beat management hearings, where police meet monthly with residents about crime activity in their area. An officer interacting with the community, he argues, is a more effective way to communicate information than just posting numbers on a screen.

“You know, you get these rashes of crimes, whether it’s malicious damage, say they had some tires slashed in a town or something,” he says. “Well, a police officer might have some information to assist people in setting up  crime watches or things of that nature, that might really impact the likelihood of that happening again – and also maybe apprehending the perpetrator of the crime.”

The Rev. Talbert Swan is also skeptical of whether there’s a benefit to posting crime stats online. 

“If the statistics say my neighborhood is safer but we who live in this neighborhood don’t feel it’s safer, the statistics mean absolutely nothing,” Swan says.

Swan heads the Springfield Chapter of the NAACP and has been involved in numerous anti-gang and anti-violence initiatives in the city. He says while it’s important to track the statistics, they can be misleading. 

“If there were a hundred shootings last year that resulted in fifteen homicides, and there were a hundred shootings this year but only four people died. You can take and say that the homicide rate has gone down. We’ve cut it down by 75 percent, but the number of violent shootings remains the same,” he says. “So has crime really gone down?”

That brings us back to our original question – is crime up now in Springfield or down?

We requested the most recent numbers from the police and – it’s a mixed bag. Through mid-November, homicides, robberies and larcenies are up compared to this time in 2012, while rape, felony assaults, motor vehicle theft and burglaries are down. 

Overall, crime totals so far this year are 2 percent above last year.

Photo courtesy of The Republican and MassLive.