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St. Louis Publishes Monthly Crime Data for First Time in 3 Years

The city police department faced criticism for failing to publish detailed reports for such a lengthy period.

For the first time in three years, the St. Louis police department has published detailed, monthly crime data on its website.

The move kicks off a new effort by St. Louis to publish incident-level crime data each month, as it did for many years before abruptly turning off the public data spigot in December 2020 when it replaced its records system. A recent Post-Dispatch report highlighted how that data cutoff had left researchers, community groups and the public without data key to understanding crime trends.

"We understand that this isn't the same," police spokesman Sgt. Charles Wall said on Wednesday, "but we hope this comes close and is a useful tool for the individuals that relied on this data previously."

The department faced criticism for failing to publish detailed crime data each month, including from St. Louis University sociology professor Ness Sandoval, who told the Post-Dispatch last year: "This data belongs to the public. It's a public good."

But Tuesday's data release appears to carry out promises made by the department early this year, after the Post-Dispatch report was published. Chief Robert Tracy repeated those commitments in a commentary last week in the St. Louis Business Journal. He also said the department would be launching a new, more user-friendly website, and was in discussions with vendors to develop a new interactive crime map.

"We are committed to transparency and to working with the public to reduce crime," Tracy wrote. "In that vein, we will continue to release crime data as it is available and are actively working to make it more accessible and easier to interpret."

The new files posted on the police department's website Tuesday include two monthly spreadsheets for January and February 2024, as well as a three-year file covering the period from 2021 to 2023 when St. Louis had stopped publishing geographic data. All three of the new files are in the same format.

Police also published a document with answers to frequently asked questions, intended to "clarify what the data is and what it is not," Wall said.

Confusion After Last Data Release

The department stopped publishing detailed monthly crime data at the beginning of 2021 after upgrading its records system, as required by federal standards, to a new way of tracking crime called the National Incident-Based Reporting System. The department's vendor, Optimum Technology, had not developed an alternative way for the city to produce detailed crime spreadsheets for the public.

"We always had a goal to try to come close to replicating the data we were previously able to provide," Wall said. But the scale of the task of fully transitioning to NIBRS delayed that effort, he said.

Thousands of other law enforcement agencies have also undertaken the NIBRS transition, though, and many of St. Louis' peer departments found ways to keep providing detailed incident data to the public. And despite the department's insistence that it could no longer publish that data, the Post-Dispatch found it had provided it to insiders.

In January, police responded to mounting criticism of its data practices by tapping an existing data pipeline to compile a three-year dataset that could serve as a stopgap for the public, covering the missing years of 2021 to 2023.

A police spokesman described it at the time as a "kind of one-time, three-year patch," in a different format than what they hoped to use going forward. The dataset was assembled from geographic "charge code" crime data that St. Louis Police Department had begun providing last summer to a nonprofit, the Center for Policing Equity.

The center analyzes that data to identify places and conditions that are creating opportunities for crime and disorder, said Hans Menos, vice president of the nonprofit's triage response team. Then, after adding context from community members, they design interventions to make a difference.

But when police published the dataset on their website on Jan. 5, they did not provide any documentation for the public to explain its nature and format. The lack of clarity led to a series of misunderstandings with researchers.

Eager to explore the long-awaited crime data, and expecting it would be consistent with the NIBRS format, Sandoval and his colleagues dove in.

"My initial optimism was quickly replaced by concern," Sandoval wrote in a commentary last week in the St. Louis Business Journal, titled "St. Louis' crime statistics literally do not add up."

When he calculated totals for different crime categories using the data, they didn't match the official totals that St. Louis police reported to the Missouri Highway Patrol and the FBI. He also raised concerns about the simple monthly crime total reports St. Louis publishes for neighborhoods on its website.

In a response published days later, Chief Tracy explained that the three-year dataset posted in January was not NIBRS data, but "charge data" extracted from St. Louis' records system, "where each charge is listed only once, even if there are multiple victims of that charge."

Using charge data wasn't a problem for the Center for Policing Equity, Menos told the Post-Dispatch. Since the center's project compares St. Louis only to itself, and not to other cities, it wasn't critical that the crime data be in NIBRS format, he said.

Instead, he said, it was more important to have uniform data that police could transfer to the center regularly and consistently. The charge code data was the quickest, easiest data that fit that bill.

As for Sandoval, he wrote in a response to Tracy that he was pleased the police were making investments to improve data accessibility, and urged the department to provide documentation for the data. Police appear to have followed that advice when they published the new monthly data on Tuesday.

©2024 Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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