OCTO: DC police cite privacy to rollback public access to crime data

UPDATE I, UPDATE II, UPDATE III, UPDATE IV

After Derek Willis flagged the sudden absence of crime narratives in DC's public data feed last Friday, I buzzed a couple emails over to the CTO's office in DC. Here's the response I received Monday morning from David Strigel, program manager of the city's data warehouse:

Good morning Ben. MPD stopped sending the crime narratives and they release this statement on Friday. We will continue to work with MPD to publish the crime data and if they bring the narratives back online we will make them available.

Revision to Crime Data Summary Information The MPD is committed to providing crime data to our community partners to keep them informed about incidents in the different neighborhoods in DC. At the same time, we are also committed to protecting the privacy of crime victims and the integrity of ongoing investigations. In an effort to balance these objectives the MPD will no longer provide narrative information associated with the crime incidents. Narrative information will be for internal use only.

The following crime information will continue to be available to the public through several websites as well as through the MPD’s community email discussion groups:

  • PSA
  • Criminal Complaint Number (CCN)
  • Block (block address provided; specific addresses are not available)
  • Offense
  • Method
  • Offense
  • Report Date

Individuals interested in getting additional information about a particular incident are encouraged to reach out to their police district commander, their PSA lieutenant, or to attend one of their monthly PSA-Community meetings.

As the RCFP and others have documented in the past, privacy is one of the top reasons that government agencies seek to withhold information. But why this data field and why now? Looking at the narratives that have been previously published can we see anything that presents a convincing case for withholding the information? Some recent examples include:

R-1REPORTS FOR C-1 THAT UNKNOWN SUBJECTS SMASHED OUT THE PASSENGER WINDOW AND ATTEMPTED TO STEAL THE LISTED PROPERTY FROM THE LISTED AUTO.

C1 REPORTS CLOSING HIS BUSINESS FOR THE NIGHT WHEN HE OBSERVED S1 URINATING IN FRONT OF THE BUILDING. C1 CONFRONTED S1 AND TOLD HIM TO STOP AND LEAVE THE AREA. S1 STATED WHAT''S THE PROBLEM? AND WALKED TO THE SIDE OF C1''S BUSINESS AND AGAIN STARTED

C1 REPORTS THAT AFTER A VERBAL AND PHYSICAL ALTERCATION WITH S1, THAT S1 STABBED C1 CAUSING THE LISTED INJURY. S1 FLED THE LOCATION IN AN UNKNOWN DIRECTION AND MANNER.

Have there been any real world examples of the narratives being used to identify a crime victim's identity against their will? What law is being cited as justification? And who made this decision exactly? David Strigel is hanging it on the police, who I'll be sending an annoying email shortly, but if you'd like to complain to him anyway, his personally identifying email is David.Strigel@dc.gov.

UPDATE I: After hearing back from OCTO this morning, I got on the phone with the MPD and was quickly directed by several sources to Kaylin Castelli, kaylin.castelli@dc.gov, the department's manager of Internet communication. I left her a voicemail expressing my interest and then followed up with an email. She very soon responded by providing another copy of the release printed above and promised to answer my specific questions soon. In response, I reiterated my specific questions, which you can find printed below, and asked when I could expect a reply.

  1. Why was this decision taken last Friday?
  2. Who made the decision, and who else was involved in the process?
  3. What specific legal grounding is being cited?
  4. Are there any real world examples of the narrative data exposing a victim's identity?

If there's anything obvious I'm forgetting to ask, please let me know.

UPDATE II: No further communication came my direction Monday. This morning I've sent a follow-up email to Castelli reiterating my interest.

UPDATE III: Still no word from Castelli. I put in another voicemail and email Thursday morning. Sorry for being so slow, but I'm nibbling at this on the edges around a busy work day, so I'm trying to stay in the take it slow mood. And there's still time to escalate. I'm going to start working other sources and consider some public information requests if I don't get an answer today.

UPDATE IV: Friday morning I received the following response from Castelli, via email:

  • Why was this decision taken last Friday? Who made the decision?
  • The narrative information was originally brought into question early January 2009, when some detailed information was released publically on one of the district email discussion groups (aka “listserv”). Chief Lanier instructed the district email discussion group administrators to stop posting narrative information to ensure no personal victim information was released. At the same time, staff was instructed to investigate ways that the crime information could easily be posted to the email discussion groups while maintaining victims’ privacy.

    Staff evaluated the process by which narratives were made public. We learned that, in order to provide “clean” narrative information – narratives without any victim’s personal information – the narratives were first reviewed and edited by staff in the Research and Analysis Division (RAD).

    The remaining data pieces (all data, excluding narratives) were available through a source that required no editing. The IT staff at MPD developed an application that could easily and automatically post summary crime data to the email discussion groups, provided the narratives were not included.

    After evaluating the process by which narrative information was made available to the public, and after learning about the application that could automatically post the crime data information (excluding the narratives), the Chief of Police chose to provide automatic data uploads to the email discussion groups, because they quickly provided the crime information that was most important to the community members – crime incident, date range, and block-level location – and because it didn’t require a person to be involved in the process on a day-to-day basis.

    In addition to opting for the automated posting process, the Chief of Police decided that it was inefficient for members of the RAD staff take hours out of their week to do perform the time-consuming editing, when community members could easily get that information (as well as additional public safety information) by reaching out to their district commander, and PSA lieutenants and officers.

  • What specific legal grounding is being cited?
  • Under FOIA there is a general privacy exemption which protects information of a personal nature where public disclosure would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. See D.C. Code 2-534 (a)(2). Another provision provides that investigatory records compiled for law-enforcement purposes may be withheld only if release of the information would interfere with enforcement proceedings; deprive a person of a right to a fair trial; or would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. See D.C. Code 2-534 (a) (3) (A) (B) and (C).

    There is no legal requirement that the department provide narrative information. The department is required to make the arrest book available for review by the public when not in actual use. See D.C. Code 5-113.06.

  • Are there any real world examples of the narrative data exposing a victim's identity?
  • There have been incidents in the past when a victim name or specific address was released publically. While no one was injured in these incidents, we don’t intend to wait for a tragedy to occur before we find a better solution.

    Well, there's an answer. Sounds like an "it's too much work" argument is being hung on the chief. Since all this listserv business is new to me, I submitted a few follow up questions. They are:

    Forgive my ignorance, but can I ask what email listservs you're talking about?

    And besides the Chief, what are the names of the people involved in the review? Who are the email discussion group administrators and other staff who conducted the review? Who was in charge of it? And did the review result in any kind of document or report of findings? ... Also, if possible, could you please direct me to the initial listserv incident that triggered this chain of events? And how did this issue come to chief's attention?

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