The St. Louis Crime Tracker is a news app which allows residents of St. Louis city and county to browse maps of crime incidents, examine crime trends by neighborhood or police department, and make year-over-year comparisons of crime totals.
We created the first version of the Crime Tracker in 2016, but it was limited to only the city of St. Louis. The city is served by a single police department, and it puts its monthly incident reports online in one place. Each month we download those files, parse them, and analyze the numbers to create the graphics and maps for the Crime Tracker.
Readers responded. They particularly liked the crime maps. But most of our readers live in St. Louis County. They wanted to see similar reports for their own municipalities and police departments.
The problem is that St. Louis County suffers from extreme fragmentation. There are 88 municipalities in the county right now, policed by more than 50 different police departments. Some of these departments are very large and professional. Others are small and have difficulty staying in compliance with Missouri\’s statutes on reporting of crime statistics.
Revamping the Crime Tracker to include St. Louis County took more than a year of development, during which we also sought reliable sources from which we could get the data to make incident maps and charts of statistics.
It required us to account for fluid policing arrangements in the county. A municipality may decide to stop running its own police department and sign a patrol contract with a neighbor. A city council might decide to switch their patrol contract to a different department to save money. Consolidation and change occurred frequently even as we were doing our development work.
We believe our Crime Tracker offers the most complete picture of crime available in St. Louis right now. Readers responded immediately to it. However, it must be said that fragmentation has resulted in limitations in the app.
Because we obtain incident-level data from the St. Louis County Police, we can only show incident maps for those departments which have contracts with St. Louis County Police (roughly half of all the departments). Similarly, many departments in the county are slow to submit their monthly UCR crime reports to the Missouri Highway Patrol. These delays lead to some lag time in how quickly the county section of the app updates versus the St. Louis city section.
What makes this project innovative?
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
As we faced the fragmentation problem, we realize that reader engagement would be important. We designed the app to display a prominent notice on any jurisdiction's report page if we lacked incident data for that jurisdiction (and therefore could not display a monthly incident map). We included a call to action in the notice, asking readers to let us know if they wanted to see an incident map for that jurisdiction. Since we launched the app, we have received more than 300 such requests to add an incident map. We have heard anecdotally that readers were contacting police departments and city councilmembers directly to ask why their city didn't have an incident map. In the months since we relaunched the Crime Tracker, St. Louis County Police signed agreements or new contracts with around 20 municipalities to allow them to publish their monthly incident data. While the Post-Dispatch has know way of knowing how much credit we can claim for that, we do believe that the publication of the Crime Tracker motivated departments to sign up. The Crime Tracker's first weekend was particularly strong, with more than 10,000 users and more than 177,000 page views. Since then traffic has leveled off, but it bounces whenever we notify readers that the monthly numbers have been updated. In terms of other impacts, the Crime Tracker led me to write a couple related stories. The first looked at how some area police departments failed to comply with state law on submitting monthly crime statistics. The second was an explainer for readers about how it was possible to have a negative number of crimes in special circumstances. The Crime Tracker also prompted a discussion of crime statistics, policing, and transparency on our podcast, "Inside the Post-Dispatch".
Source and methodology
Our crime data is sourced comes from the following agencies: * Missouri Highway Patrol's Criminal Justice Information Services Division * St. Louis Metropolitan Police * St. Louis County Police's Bureau of Research and Analysis We use population data and geographic boundaries obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as geographic boundaries obtained from the GIS departments of St. Louis city and St. Louis County. Because of the fragmentation in St. Louis County, it was also necessary to report and compile a list of all police departments, their policing contracts, and the start and end dates for contract changes. We engaged with several people at St. Louis County Police as we developed our Crime Tracker. They were simultaneously developing their own crime map, and were very responsive to our feedback. We wrote scripts to analyze and check the quality of the data we are receiving. As we developed the Crime Tracker and wrote our parsers, we found many problems with the county's data. Sometimes the issues were small, such as inconsistencies in column labeling. At other times the issues were significant, such as disparities between UCR index totals we calculated from the county's incident data, compared with the index totals that had been submitted the Missouri Highway Patrol. The Crime Tracker has also allowed us to identify a couple times when police departments have revised previously-submitted UCR crime totals. When we notice these updates, we reach out to the department to ask why the revisions were necessary. Though we have not uncovered any malfeasance, we feel like this is a useful watchdog practice. Finally, as mentioned above, we have adapted our Crime Tracker scripts to allow us to generate crime statistics and reports for any geographical boundary or polygon. This has allowed for useful analysis in reporting recent stories about St. Louis police chief John Hayden's "rectangle" policing strategy.
Jean Buchanan (Projects editor) Walker Moskop (Former data reporter)