The Dallas Police Department intends to remove more information from its publicly searchable crime reports. This raises concerns about department transparency. At a Public Safety Committee meeting Monday, vice chair Cara Mendelsohn insisted the issue be brought before the full City Council.
In an Oct. 15 memo to top City of Dallas officials, the DPD said it had started omitting certain information from reports previously available to press, crime watch groups and the general community through Open Data portal. According to that memo, the police also plan to recommend further redactions and delays, which they say are related to concerns about publishing victim data.
The move, if approved, would be another in a long, subtle reduction in the amount of law enforcement information available to the public.
A similar revamp of the reporting system in 2014 heavily reduced our ability to report on the nature and specifics of neighborhood crime. Before that, online police reports offered limited narratives about crimes — anything from a sentence to a couple of paragraphs describing the crime.
Those narratives could mean the difference between “shooting at Wal Mart” and “a guy reaching for his wallet while in line at Wal Mart accidentally shot himself in the leg.” Big difference, and that is a real example.
Today’s online reports list the type of crime, location, time and date, but they offer no specific information, no narrative, on the crime. And the department’s plan to take it another step or few further does not sit well with those who believe more transparency, not less, is the proper direction.
Mendelsohn, also Dallas’ City Council District 12 representative questioned the timing of the initial redactions, wondering why it was necessary considering state laws already allow police to redact information related to sexual crimes, juveniles and anything that would hinder an investigation.
“What happened that made this so critical [you had to] to do it [without] waiting for a discussion? I mean, when we already have state law that says you can hide names of victims of sexual abuse and things like that, what would have caused you to immediately flip that switch instead of waiting until we had a broader policy discussion?” Mendelsohn asked at Monday’s committee meeting.
Dr. Brita Andercheck, a city employee who wrote the memo and is working on the reporting redesign for the police department, and the department’s chief information security officer made the call related to an undisclosed specific situation, Andercheck said to the committee, to “protect victim information.” She said it was related to a specific case.
Mendelsohn said not only is this something that should not happen via memo, but it also is too important to even be a Public Safety Committee item.
“Who else have you consulted? Have we talked to the media, to crime watch groups? Did we get input from residents? I don’t think any of that part happened.”
Mendelsohn says it needs to go before the full City Council.
The Dallas Morning News‘ executive editor Katrice Hardy pointed out that when information is redacted from reports, it makes it more difficult for journalists to report on crime. Police Chief Eddie Garcia told The News he supported the changes, noting that we are not the only city who does this.
Just listing other cities have done this — calling it “best practices” for information reporting — did not appease Mendelsohn, who notes that even as a council member she often learns crime news from platforms like Smash da Topic, whose army of micro-local reporters share news on social media, and she says she is “sure they use the portal.”
She adds that she “obviously doesn’t want to put officers or victims in harm’s way,” she thinks the community has a right to know what is happening and to follow it.
“I am not so sure this is best practices,” she says. “It might be for other cities and it might not be for Dallas.”