7/12/99: Mapping Out Crime: Protect and Support Communities with Integrated Information


Mapping Out Crime Table of Contents



When lives and property are at stake, law enforcement officials and others responsible for public safety need good information to respond. Whether to analyze a crime or answer a 911 call, a fire, a flood, a spill of hazardous materials or other disaster, public safety officials need basic geographic information that is accurate, timely, and complete. Lives, time, and money can be saved if agencies are able to share this basic public safety information across agency lines and boundaries.

With such shared information, public safety officials responding to a shooting in a school or a fire in a nursing home could readily find the best route—even if they came from a neighboring jurisdiction—and could get the floor plan of the building when they arrived. Law enforcement officials could readily map incidents and exchange information about the modus operandi of a serial rapist with neighboring police departments. Federal, state, and local emergency officials could easily find maps to help them coordinate disaster responses. And the school system, police, and local social services agencies could share information and cooperate more effectively to solve problems.

Recent efforts at the local level show the demand for a wider range of integrated information as well as illustrate the potential of interagency data sharing. One such example is the Department of Justice's Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiative, which is promoting data-driven problem-solving in five U.S. cities. Each city is sharing data through a common geographic information system, broadening its capacity to make links and identify patterns related to crime. A new effort—Community Mapping, Analysis, and Planning for Safety Strategies (COMPASS)—will go still farther and promote interagency data sharing enhanced by neighborhood-level surveys and other data collection efforts (such as the local victimization survey and the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program). COMPASS will be initiated at a pilot site to be selected in August 1999; the full program is pending congressional budgetary action as part of the President's 21st Century Policing Initiative (see recommendation II.4, above).


Today, information is, for the most part, compartmentalized by agency and by jurisdiction. The planning offices and police departments within a city may use different mapping software or base maps. One county may have dozens of police departments, each with its own information system or even its own geographic information system. Citizens' lives and property are literally at stake when agencies cannot share community and regional data about crime and other information affecting public safety. Rather than facilitate the smooth transfer of critical data, investments in information technology may actually stand in the way of effective cooperation if those investments were uncoordinated and poorly managed, and resulted in incompatible or duplicative purchases.

There are promising efforts that demonstrate the benefits of systematic cooperation across jurisdictional and agency lines to share information and protect public safety. With support from the Department of Justice and state and local police officials, 13 counties in Maryland have placed crime data in an integrated database, which can be accessed by crime analysts in any of the counties. Recently, this integrated information helped officials from Baltimore and Howard Counties solve a spate of serial robberies that had spanned their borders. Extending beyond law enforcement to address broader public safety needs, Vermont has developed a statewide expanded 911 system based on an integrated geographic information system that covers both urban and rural areas. Wayne County, Michigan, is mapping its entire county to support the delivery of a range of public safety and other services. North Carolina and New Jersey have made substantial commitments to the development of integrated basic spatial information to serve their citizens.

States and localities from New York to California are interested in developing more integrated information and promoting cooperative investment in integrated spatial information because of the potential for significant returns in terms of efficiency and public safety. The partnership between states, localities, and the federal government recommended by the National Performance Review and established by Presidential Executive Order 12906 to build the National Spatial Data Infrastructure can be a springboard for accelerating the availability of basic spatial information to meet public safety needs.



Promoting cooperative investment in spatial data can vastly benefit the nation from a public safety standpoint, specifically in terms of 1) significant reductions in the loss of lives and human suffering, cost to taxpayers, property loss, and response time to public safety events; 2) better coordination of efforts and dollar expenditures by all levels of government; and 3) improved decision making support for the public safety of our nation.

We will need to make significant investments over a period of years to collect basic spatial data on a national basis. Substantial resources can be generated from 1) better coordination of current investments by federal, state, and local governments to avoid duplication and maximize benefits (current investments are not small: the National Academy of Sciences estimated that the federal government alone spent $4 billion on acquiring geographic data in 1993); 2) protocols for sharing information by utilities and other public and private entities for the purposes of public safety; and 3) possible bond or other financing for information infrastructure.


  • Establish a Public Safety Working Group to accelerate the development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure so that it supports the public safety needs of the nation's states and communities.
The Public Safety Working Group should include representation from the National States Geographic Information Council; the Federal Geographic Data Committee; the Intertribal GIS Council; and the emerging local government spatial data consortium of the National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, International City/County Management Association, National Partnership for Reinventing Government, and federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The working group will:
  1. identify—in consultation with local, state, and federal government, law enforcement, and other concerned entities—the spatial data needs and analytical requirements to support public safety decisions at various levels (local, regional, etc.);

  2. assess the role of government sources and mandates for the collection of spatial data to protect public safety;

  3. describe required information flows between and among public and private organizations;

  4. promote investment in basic spatial data to serve law enforcement, emergency management, and other entities concerned with public safety;

  5. identify necessary partnerships and other strategies to achieve spatial data development, coordination, and sharing among organizations and across geographic areas;

  6. encourage and document innovative data development or data sharing partnerships between public and private organizations (service providers, data suppliers, utilities, etc.) to support public safety;

  7. identify best practices in and among local, tribal, state, and federal agencies across the country; and

  8. stimulate rapid implementation and diffusion of spatial data and information technology tools to support public safety.

    • As a new member of the Federal Geographic Data Committee, the Department of Justice should determine how it can contribute to the development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure as well as how greater cooperation with other federal, state, and local agencies can benefit law enforcement agencies.

    • The Federal Geographic Data Committee should encourage the participation of law enforcement agencies in its Cooperative Agreements Programs, which provide seed grants to organizations to support the development of data standards and to participate in information clearinghouse activities.


State and local law enforcement agencies attend to crime patterns within their own jurisdictions, but many criminals do not respect these jurisdictional boundaries when committing crimes. Further, different aspects of a single crime—the location of the incident, the home address of the victim, the home address or workplace of the suspect, the arrest location, the weapon recovery location, the body recovery location—may each be in a different jurisdiction or be the responsibility of different criminal justice agencies. Neither criminals nor crimes belong to a single law enforcement agency or to a single section within a department. Thus, both cross-jurisdictional and interagency analysis of crime and criminal behavior are vital in promoting effective crime control and prevention efforts.

To support crime fighting across jurisdictions, law enforcement agencies in the Baltimore-Washington area are testing the Regional Crime Analysis Geographic Information System (RCAGIS) developed by the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice. The resulting system will be a powerful, yet easy-to-use geographic information system, complete with mapping, analysis, and reporting tools for police officers, crime analysts, and police managers (see above box and PowerPoint presentation on RCAGIS).


  • Make the Regional Crime Analysis Geographic Information System programming code available at no cost to any interested law enforcement agency or region.


Protecting sensitive data is a concern for all users of geographic information systems. Making information about crime widely available and more understandable to the public by publishing maps and crime statistics has many benefits, but also increases the need for safeguards that balance the public's right to know with victims' rights to privacy. Some believe that making crime statistics and maps more widely available will make such illegal practices as denying loans to residents of poor or high-crime neighborhoods easier. Others argue that the best protection is making the information long held by businesses and financial institutions more widely available.

Most police departments that post crime maps on the Web aggregate data, limit zooming capabilities, and locate crime incidents at the nearest intersection to protect the identities of individuals. The Minneapolis Police Department provides recent crime statistics on its Web site introduced by a discussion of how to interpret them. A California police official commented on the steps he takes to encourage productive uses of the data and discourage misinterpretation: "We attempt to partner with the community and share all the information we may legally share. We offer our expertise in the interpretation of the data/maps and suggest programs that can benefit the user. Finally, when someone misuses the information, we have to deal with that act and make the attempt to bring them to the table to discuss the negative impact of their actions. However, we cannot expect to control how our data is used once it leaves our hands."

Crime maps currently being posted employ privacy protection techniques that need to be rigorously tested, researched, evaluated, or identified as reliable. Additionally, the federal government has taken a number of steps to ensure the protection and privacy of information in the context of new technologies such as crime mapping:

  1. The Information Infrastructure Task Force published Privacy Principles in June 1995 that were developed through extensive consultation and endorsed by the private sector U.S. Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure.

  2. The Federal Geographic Data Committee, chartered by Executive Order 12906 to coordinate federal geographic information policies, has published a national policy on the confidentiality of geospatial data.

  3. The Crime Mapping Research Center has held a roundtable meeting to address the issues of privacy and confidentiality in geographic information systems in law enforcement; this will result in a white paper for distribution to the field.

  4. The Attorney General has established a privacy council, and the Office of Justice Programs has set up a privacy task force, to review issues surrounding the sharing of criminal history records.
Because of the rapid proliferation of crime-related information that is being mapped and published on the Internet and federal support for systems that facilitate the sharing of information, there may not be adequate policies in place to protect the privacy and security of citizens: for example, no professional standards, model policies, or formal guidelines are specific to crime mapping.


  • As part of its ongoing review of privacy policies, the Department of Justice should determine if there are any particular issues surrounding the use of spatial data in the criminal justice field, determine if current protections are sufficient, and identify any additional steps needed to protect citizens' privacy.

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