Digital Reporting as a Community Empowerment Tool

Authored By 
Tony Cheng
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

“Government and police shouldn’t be an impediment to information sharing—[they] should be a catalyst.” With these opening words from New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman, some of New Haven’s top crime and data authorities gathered on April 7, 2014, with the founder of Homicide Watch, Laura Amico, to discuss “digital reporting as a community empowerment tool.”

Chief Esserman started the evening by tracing the history of modern police departments to night watchers and constabularies formed by bell-, lantern-, and stick-wielding citizenries. But as these collectives became formalized into police departments, Chief Esserman explained, police also became the primary holders of information about crime and were increasingly hesitant to share it.

“But police must come to grips with the past,” Chief Esserman continued. “Police are not the only ones responsible for holding, sharing, or acting on the information.” He provided two reasons for this: First, citing a recent example of a local block watch group’s social media response to a robbery, community members can often get the word out about crime much faster than the police. Second, spreading information sparks moral outrage, which can help to end the cycle of violence that turns community members into victims.

Featured speaker Laura Amico highlighted the importance of context and stories that underlie crime statistics. Homicide Watch provides those stories for 100 percent of the homicides in Washington D.C., and the platform has expanded to Chicago, Illinois and Trenton, New Jersey.

On the site, every victim has a page. On each page is a photo of the victim, the latest news about the homicide, a forum to share a memory, and the direct contact information for the detective assigned to the case. This site is for “people who have information, to go and share it. And for those who don’t have information, to go and find it,” Amico said.

Unlike traditional crime reporting, where the story ends when there are no new developments, this digital platform memorializes each victim with a permanent but constantly updated webpage. Amico said she’s learned that communities are more interested in who was involved and what is being done about a murder, rather than simply focusing on where the homicide occurred. The site also has pages for each suspect and a Google calendar of the suspects’ court dates, and it tracks whether the suspect has plead guilty, was convicted by jury, had charges dropped, died without prosecution, was acquitted, or is still a suspect.

Mark Abraham, Director of Data Haven, which compiles and share state- and local-level data on issues ranging from public safety to the economy, also described the information-sharing websites represented in the room as a boon to community engagement. Zack Beatty of SeeClickFix, an online tool that allows local residents to report non-emergency issues ranging from graffiti to illegal dirt bikes, explained that as a “virtual 311,” SeeClickFix not only enables citizens to voice neighborhood-level concerns but also to see what issues others have reported on and contribute updates over time. Echoing Chief Esserman, Beatty observed: “Police are no longer the clearinghouse of crime data. People can go directly online and post information.”

But while these online tools have the potential to empower homepage communities, Amico concluded her remarks by revealing something profound she has realized since starting her website five years ago: “We are only as powerful as the people who trust us.”

The event was generously supported with funding from the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and the Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

Tony Cheng is a second-year graduate student in Sociology and an upcoming ISPS Policy Fellow, 2014-2015. His primary research interest focuses on law enforcement strategies in response to urban violence.