Story by Rachel Stone and Emily Toman
This past summer, the Dallas Police Department switched from an outdated online reporting system to a new one that has left crime-watch groups without access to information they say would help their mission for safe neighborhoods.
For the last decade or so, anyone could go online and find a crime report with the victim’s name, suspect information, date, time and location of the offense, plus the police officer’s detailed written account of the crime. It’s that account, the narrative, which is no longer available.
The now-absent details are what gave the reports meaning,” says Beverly Houston of the Hillcrest East Crime Watch, which covers the area northeast of Royal and Hillcrest. “A crime reported simply as ‘Burglarized Motor Vehicle’ doesn’t send the same message as ‘passenger side window smashed, purse and GPS system stolen from car. Pretty much, any helpful information I share comes directly from the victim or a witness who wants to share the details to warn or help other neighbors.”
On the old system, police narratives often included details that could help deter future crimes, says Betty-Anne Tyler, who runs the Schreiber Crime Watch, covering the area bound by Midway, Forest, Inwood and LBJ Freeway. She says neighbors want to know how a burglary suspect entered and exited a home, or whether an alarm system was activated.
“I can check and make sure that same point of entry at my residence is secure,” Tyler says. “Do I have the same stolen items in my house? And how do I protect them? How can I make the same point of exit in my residence more secure?”
The reports also lack information about what was taken from a home or vehicle, a detail that can illustrate just how serious a burglary was and show whether any trends exist.
The police department is working to make more information available, but gradually, says Maj. Robert Sherwin. The initial switch caused much more information being made public than intended. User error landed the department on thin ice legally and ethically, since the details of crimes involving minors and sexual assault victims were accidentally released. Since then, with the advice of consulting attorneys, the department has severely limited what crime information is made public.
“Under the old mainframe, we were doing things wrong,” Sherwin says. “We are doing what we’re told, to restrict information.”
The department has made strides in communicating directly with the public, particularly over the past year, via social media.
“We have been encouraged by the public’s increasing use of our information from Twitter, Facebook and our DPD blog,” Sherwin says.
These outlets feature important news such as updates on missing persons, cold cases and suspects caught on camera, but the department chooses what to put out there. It doesn’t provide a clear picture of crimes that happened in a neighborhood during a particular time frame.
Tyler says she has never received a straight answer from the department about why she cannot receive the police narratives. She’s simply told, “That’s the new system.”
The department’s information systems division is working to upgrade the reporting features that officers use in the field, which could result in more complete reports.
“It’s been six months,” Sherwin says. “We’ll continue to add features as officers get better with using data fields.”
Until then, the only other option is to file a formal open records request with the city. The Advocate submitted such a request in late November in an attempt to acquire police narratives over a one-month period for a specific beat in Preston Hollow. When our request hadn’t been answered or addressed in any way after 30 days (the Texas Public Information Act requires governmental bodies to respond “promptly”), we began calling the department’s public information line and still received no response after three messages. Because of our emails to higher-ups in the department, they were looking into our request as of Jan. 15, but still had not released the records.
So it remains to be determined whether the city will comply with open records laws, although there is evidence of media outlets obtaining crime information in high-profile cases.
For now, the most detailed information available on neighborhood crime remains “N/A.”
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