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Where the crimes are: neighborhood groups and police cooperate on a computerized mapping project

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Warren Friedman, a bearded man with curly hair, reading glasses, and a gentle, easygoing manner, is on the front line in the war against crime.

He's no vigilante, that's for sure, no clone of Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, or even Bernhard Goetz. His chief weapon is a computer--Apple Macintosh, to be exact--which transposes onto maps, day after day, weekly police reports on crime in a Chicago neighborhood.

It's part of a program, devised by some college professors and implemented by the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety (CANS, a coalition of community organizations for which Friedman works), to combat crime by mapping it.

The end result is volume after volume of printouts--and considerable skepticism on the part of a few hard-bitten urbanologists.

"Oh great, computers," snaps one observer. "What are they going to do, hit some gang banger over the head with their printouts?"

Friedman shrugs off the wisecracks. The fact is, he notes, that crime mapping--limited, for the time being, to a handful of communities--has been widely praised by police and community groups, and may soon grab national notice.

"The maps allow us to look at any block, street, or alley, and see how and where many of the crimes took place," says Friedman. "It is an invaluable tool to help organize neighborhoods to fight crime. You can't battle crime with rumors, speculation, and fear. You need solid evidence. And the map gives you the hard data people need to make rational and meaningful decisions."

At the very least, it offers an illuminating perspective on the sheer volume of crime--murder, rape, robbery, and assaults included--taking place almost every day in the city.

The police log about 600,000 complaints a year. And those are just the more serious crimes, the ones that result in some sort of official police report. They do not reflect the millions of complaints police receive each year on everything from domestic feuds to the corner congregations of loud and unruly youngsters.

"We distinguish between crimes and what we call incivilities," says Marc Buslik, the police officer assigned to work with CANS. "Incivilities cover things like abandoned buildings and kids hanging out on the street corners. These complaints are disturbing to a neighborhood, but they do not necessarily result in police action."

All of the police reports--excluding the incivilities--from communities whose neighborhood organizations belong to CANS are eventually tracked on a map. "It's an enormous task," says Buslik. "But as we develop it, it will pay great dividends to the city."

The philosophy behind the program originated in the mid-70s, when President Jimmy Carter encouraged community participation in the war on crime. "The theory is that police cannot do the job on their own," Buslik says. "I like to say that I'm a better policeman if the community helps and trusts me. We have to figure ways to get the people more involved."

To this end, President Carter pumped federal dollars into the cities to help organize block clubs and neighborhood crime-watch programs. In Chicago the idea caught on with a bang, leading to the creation of CANS, whose diverse coalition includes South Shore groups as well as predominantly white communities on the northwest side.

"Fear of crime cuts across all racial and ethnic boundaries," says Friedman. "It's amazing, you can go into about any community--black, white, Hispanic, or mixed--and the needs and demands are almost the same. People want more police, or at least more effective police service."

One problem CANS encountered in its early days was that the crime issue can have racial overtones, because most crime in Chicago is in fact committed by blacks (although generally against other blacks). "Crime" can be a tool exploited by demagogues to rouse racial hostilities and fears. But from the outset, CANS has attempted to prevent this divisiveness by including black, as well as white and Hispanic, groups.

"Chicago is such a turf-conscious and divided city," says Friedman. "So [CANS's] goal has always been to be racially integrated. That way the issue of crime does not become a code word. It cannot be used to set one community, or one group of people, against another."

Their early efforts consisted primarily of helping to organize block-watch programs. It was only a matter of time before they turned from there to the police for crime reports.

"To organize an effective block watch you need information," says John Miller, vice president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. "You have to know where the hot spots of activity are so you can concentrate your resources most effectively."

It sounds simple enough, but CANS ran into trouble at first. Jane Byrne, then mayor, and Richard Brzeczek, her police superintendent, rejected CANS's request to cull the police reports of selected areas.

"I don't want to speculate on their motives for not giving us the weekly crime reports," says Friedman. "I'll take them at their word. And their word was that they did not want crime reports to fall into the hands of criminals."

CANS's member organizations, of course, were outraged. We are not criminals, they proclaimed. We are law-abiding taxpayers. They also were persistent, particularly representatives of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation.

"We nagged the city with letters, phone calls, and protests," says Friedman, "but it was the federation that really led the charge.

"On the eve of the 1983 mayoral primary, the federation, with its sharp instinct for the jugular, took about 15 people in handcuffs to the police headquarters at 11th and State. Their point was: 'Without information, we are chained.'"

The protests worked. Brzeczek agreed to release some information. But the episode illustrates how hard it was to overcome police apprehension about civilian-led crime prevention programs.

"The major concern is that residents might get involved in a situation they don't know anything about," says Buslik. "I happen to think that the way around these problems is for police and residents to work together. That way we [the police] educate the residents. But I can also understand police apprehension."

Brzeczek's offer was improved upon by his successor, Fred Rice, who cooperated more fully with CANS's efforts. And the link set up with the police eventually led CANS to Andrew Gordon, a sociology professor at Northwestern University.

"I had contacted the city about what I call the Affirmative Information Project independently of CANS's efforts," says Gordon, who is affiliated with the university's Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research.

"I have long been interested in how community organizations can use the enormous wealth of data the city collects about itself to directly combat various problems. Initially our concern was with housing." Shortly after Harold Washington became mayor, Gordon, working with the Department of Planning, designed a computer program that enabled residents to map which buildings were in court for violating the city's housing code.

"Another project we did was for infrastructure," says Gordon. "We took Mayor Washington's five-year infrastructure plan and tracked it on a map. That way we could see what the plan's impact was on every community. Our whole point in all of these projects is to take things that seem relatively complicated and turn them into accessible projects. Maps are terrific because they bring things home to the people."

CANS's original plan, however, had flaws. To start with, they spent days each month making computer tapes out of the printouts of monthly police reports, replicating work already completed by police technicians who had themselves keyed in the information.

Why not, Gordon suggested, save yourself a step and borrow the police's computer tapes?

This request took some time to negotiate, but eventually Rice agreed to lend them weekly tapes for the 25th Police District, as well as monthly tapes for the entire city. Thus police reports from the 25th--a rough-and-tumble district bounded by Central Park on the east, Harlem on the west, Belmont on the north, and Division on the south--regularly make their way to CANS's headquarters.

There Friedman's staff designates an icon to symbolize the crime (a tiny car, for instance, for an auto theft), and then puts the icon on the exact location where the crime took place. They also record the exact time at which the crime occurred.

As for the monthly tapes, CANS takes them to Gordon's computers at Northwestern, where crime reports for Edgewater, South Shore, Avondale, Little Village, and Logan Square are sifted out. (Groups in these communities are members of CANS.)

"The advantage of a weekly tape is that you can more accurately determine patterns," says Dale Miller, who supervises CANS's computer operation. "If you have a monthly map, and see five auto thefts, you only have part of the story. The weekly maps show fluctuations. Maybe all the cars were stolen within a few days. That tells you something about the habits of the thieves and makes it easier to guard against them."

A month's (or week's, for that matter) worth of crime reports posted on a map is a frightening sight to behold. Some streets are covered by dozens of icons representing almost every type of crime, from robbery to rape.

"When you actually look at a map, there's no question but it's overwhelming," says Buslik. "You say, 'Holy cow, that's scary.' But what you have to do is break the crime down by weeks or even hours of the day. That way you get a perspective on the situation and you can find important patterns.

"For instance, you can ask the computer: show me how many break-ins occurred last week between three and five in the afternoon. And it will show you. That means you can understand the mode of operation. You can discover things, like burglars strike when people are not at home.

"It sounds simple, and maybe police know these things already. But you can take that map and make a very graphic demonstration to citizen groups. You can tell the people what to look for and when to look for it." (In fact, maps are available only to such groups, never to individuals.)

Already, Buslik says, the map has helped police in the 25th to solve several burglaries by discovering patterns. It also, he says, suggests "where we should assign our most precious resource--the patrolman."

One drawback, of course, remains--that such detailed information could be damaging in the wrong hands. Panic peddlers, for instance, could use it to scare residents into selling their homes. And police still worry that criminals might use the maps to plan crimes.

"The whole issue of accessibility raises some tough questions," Friedman acknowledges. "These are problems we are wrestling with. We don't want the map to be used to fortify fears. I think we're OK, so long as responsible community groups control it."

For the time being, CANS is pressing ahead with plans to improve the system. They want to map the weekly crime reports for every neighborhood in the city, and are trying to raise money to hire additional employees for that project. And they have joined forces with Michael Maltz, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to design a program that will map so-called incivilities.

"Remember, a lot of these incivilities are not written up in police reports, so they are not on the computer tapes," explains Dale Miller. "We'd like to set up a reporting system in which the community organizations, working through their block clubs, track incivilities, like abandoned buildings or corners where gang members congregate. Then we could map these complaints."

"Will all of this mapping solve crime? Obviously not," Gordon adds. "But it is a very important vehicle to build cooperation between police and the community. It is an effective tool. And in that regard, it's a big step in the right direction."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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