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The Atlantic Cities had an interesting story last week that asked the question Is it harmful to release gang maps? The story covered efforts by media organizations to obtain, map and publish maps about gang territories in Chicago.
Criminal justice professor John Hagedorn of the University of Illinois at Chicago counters that the fear that gang maps will incite violence is overstated. For starters, the gangs know their boundaries much better than the police do. Additionally, the territories are regularly changing: the new WBEZ map uses information from the 2011 Gang Book, reflecting 2010 data, and as a result may be woefully outdated.While I don't believe that gang members are going to look at a gang map published in the newspaper like a dictator planning world conquest, there are other issues that make the release of this kind of data problematic. If you release a map showing gang activity in a certain neighborhood, are you labeling all the people who live there as gang members or at least as suspect? If maps like this cause people to leave or businesses to relocate are you exacerbating the situation?
"Publishing a map in a magazine … or in a newspaper is related to no violence at all," he says.
Gang maps created by media organizations might not be harmful, but that doesn't mean they're helpful either. Earlier this year Chicago magazine created an overlay map of gang territory and homicides, suggesting a direct causal connection between the two. The maps blog Carticulate criticized the magazine for oversimplifying a complex situation.
Personally I believe that law enforcement agencies need to be as transparent as possible with crime data. The benefits of informing the public what is going on in their community is necessary if you are going to partner with your community in reducing crime. Sometimes that may mean that some neighborhoods get slighted when a big blob of dots indicating crime activity shows up on a map. Most times the residents already know that their are problems in their neighborhood. However, we need to ensure that we're using the maps as a catalyst to change the conditions in those neighborhoods for the better.
Does your agency release crime maps to the community you serve? If so, what kind of data do you release?