How One Address Tells The Story Of Lafayette's Crime Mapping Challenges

Oct 7, 2016

This house, according to CrimeReports.com, had 177 incidents at it from January through September. The catch? Almost none of them actually took place here.
Credit Stan Jastrzebski / WBAA News

This is a story about a house.

But first, some background on how this house, in Lafayette’s Columbian Park neighborhood, came to be this story’s main character.

In February, after months of citizen concern about a crime spike, Lafayette’s police chief held a press conference.

Pat Flannelly talked about the tools at his disposal – everything from squad cars to software.

“We also have a service that hopefully everyone in here is familiar with and it’s called CrimeReports.com," Flannelly told the crowd.  "And there is a data dump that goes into CrimeReports several times a day as well. So people at home, they have access to all the information that the media and everyone else has as well. And that’s kind of neat because as a citizen you can sign up and you can get notifications about what’s happening on your street, on your block, in your neighborhood.”

Flannelly showed heat maps depicting where the greatest concentration of certain crimes happened in 2015, and he talked about how the mapping is helping the department better target high-crime areas.
But when WBAA checked up on those crime abatement efforts six months into this year, an anomaly stood out.

One house, at 12 Grant Street, was listed on CrimeReports.com as being the site of about 5-percent of all major crime in the city – 177 incidents through the first nine months of the year.

Explore the map below to learn more about those incidents

So WBAA asked Lafayette Police Lieutenant Brian Gossard to pull up the data on his office computer. It puzzled him, too. But he had a theory.

“The only thing I can think is this is kind of a central location," he said. Turns out… he was right.

Robin Jones, a vice president at Socrata – a Seattle-based company that works with Motorola to administer CrimeReports.com, says when unrecognizable information is entered into the system, there's a common place that data goes:

“The default setting in the filters in geocoding is to take that data point and to place it on the geographic center point of the city," Jones says.

Jones says they’re aware of this type of error, but Motorola’s Steve Sebestyen says most police departments don’t mis-label 5-percent of all major crimes, as the LPD has in 2016.

“That is an uncommon sort of figure," he says. "When we do see it, it’s usually in the single digits – in the very low single digits.”

Jones and Sebestyen both say the LPD hasn’t reached out to their companies about the issue and they weren’t aware of it until WBAA contacted them. But LPD Chief Pat Flannelly says he’s not worried about it negatively affecting policing.

“That’s for information only. That’s not going to make or break public safety,” Flannelly says.

Flannelly claims his department’s internal system – which interacts with CrimeReports and which the department uses to identify problem areas -- is near 100-percent accurate. But crime mapping experts like George Mason University criminology professor David Weisburd say while that’s a good start, it’s not good enough.

“We should give the Lafayette department credit for providing data to the public. Some departments are very non-transparent in this regard. Of course when you do that, you can get yourself into trouble. One of the problems here is: that they shouldn’t be providing data to the public that’s less accurate than the data they have in the department," Weisburd says.

“You want both," says Texas State University criminologist Kim Rossmo." You don’t want someone to believe that they live in a high-crime-rate area when they don’t; someone to believe a particular house is infested with criminals when it’s not.”

Oh, and about that house?

When we visited the house at 12 Grant Street, the only person to greet us was a fairly friendly black Labrador who came to the door. There are two separate signs out front that say "welcome," there’s a bench on the front porch with an ashtray near it. The lawn is mowed; there’s landscaping out front. it's not the kind of place you'd think would see 177 criminal activities in the first nine months of the year.

And, of course, that’s because it’s not – even though information the LPD gave CrimeReports.com says it is.

“The level of effort and procedure that you put into ensuring that data quality and validation on the front end is consistent allows you to have better analytics on the output,” says Motorola's Sebesteyn.

Or, as Texas State’s Kim Rossmo puts it:
“It’s a classic case of ‘if you put garbage in, you’ll get garbage out.”