By Anne Lowe

PUBLIC INFORMATION – The Los Angeles Times will now be using daily reports from local law enforcement agencies to create an online database that maps and analyzes crime in Los Angeles County.

The new crime mapping system is a collaboration between the Times, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and it aims to mimic electronic mapping systems used internally by law enforcement agencies to detect crime patterns.

The Times explains the significance of the new database:

The Times' crime mapping system also may help neighborhood leaders "better understand what's going on in our communities — not only to hold police accountable, but also to applaud them when they are doing a good job," said Scott Campbell, president of the Central Hollywood Neighborhood Council.

As a community leader and a real estate agent, Campbell said he frequently fields questions about criminal activity in Hollywood that are difficult or impossible to answer.

The appetite for crime data has remained high, even as local governments have posted online an increasingly broad range of data — such as public servant salaries, restaurant health violations and property records — that previously could be retrieved only with a trip to City Hall.

"Crime data are the first thing citizens ask for," said Tom Lee, a director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for greater transparency in government through the use of the Internet. "It is something that is really very relevant to their lives."

The Sunlight Foundation spearheaded an effort to analyze the quality of the U.S. government's data on federal spending and identified more than $1.2 trillion in inaccuracies. Some groups not willing to wait for government officials to act have devised computer programs to troll through public agency websites in search of data to extract, a process called scraping.

"Once it's been decided that a piece of information is public, we don't believe it makes any sense for it to be kept only at a police station somewhere," Lee said.

The Times first approached LAPD officials in the spring of 2008 with a request for an automated, electronic feed of raw crime data. In January 2009, it went to sheriff's officials with the same appeal.

The location and time that a crime occurs, as well as the name of a person arrested, is public information under California law and must be provided by law enforcement agencies upon request. But creating a replenishing stream of data on all of the roughly 8,500 serious crimes each agency handles each month was a challenge neither had considered before and tested the limits of what they were required to do under the terms of the state's Public Records Act.

Although then-LAPD Chief William J. Bratton and Sheriff Lee Baca expressed support for The Times' request, problems arose almost immediately. For the Sheriff's Department, several months passed as technical hurdles, staff shortages and bureaucracy slowed the process. When sheriff's officials provided the first set of data, thousands of crimes were omitted or incorrect.

The case of the LAPD was more complicated. The department had been paying a company to produce and maintain a crime map featured on the LAPD's website. A Times review of six months of the LAPD's crime data revealed that the vendor's software program had taken more than 1,300 crimes with irregular addresses and wrongly located them at City Hall — making the Civic Center appear to be the city's most dangerous spot. The Times also found the LAPD's map was missing roughly 40% of the crimes that had occurred.

The Times has taken numerous steps to accurately map the two agencies' crime reports. Times staff manually placed more than 10,000 crimes that could not be mapped by a computer. Currently, less than 2% of LAPD reports and less than 5% of sheriff's reports are not mapped.

The Sheriff's Department posts crime data on its website, where anyone can access it. The LAPD, on the other hand, put its crime data on a website that requires a password to gain entry. Senior LAPD officials have yet to decide whether they will follow the sheriff's lead or grant access on a case-by-case basis.