Sonoma County Sheriff's Office unveils crime mapping tool
Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 5:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 7:11 a.m.
Zoom in closer to where the Russian River bends around Fitch Mountain on a new online crime map and bubbles dot the shore: Simple assault, burglary, parole violation, larceny.
See the online crime map
Click here to search crime maps used by the Santa Rosa Police Department and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.
Underneath the sleek digital map is a trove of data that in the past was only available via a phone call or by requesting law enforcement records.
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office this month joined the Santa Rosa Police Department in uploading daily crime reports onto the map, called RAIDS Online.
Employing geographic information system technology, or GIS, data such as the time and type of a crime is linked to the place where it occurred, creating a color-coded visual archive of crime in the county.
The interactive map was on display last week at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa, part of an event showcasing the incredible volume of geospatial data held by county agencies.
"Del Rio Woods, that's where we go rafting," said Geri Biehl of Healdsburg, squinting at incidents plotted on the river bend.
"Fight at the beach, I'm guessing," said Sheriff's Office crime analyst Matthew Harris. "It opens your eyes."
The public can find the map on the Police Department and Sheriff's Office websites or through an iPhone application.
The Police Department started uploading crime data to RAIDS nearly two years ago, and the records go back to 2009. The Sheriff's Office records go back to 2008, as well as some older reports from unsolved crimes.
Some kinks in system
Markers on the map represent incidents that led an officer to write a crime report. But that does not necessarily mean a person was arrested.
For example, the map shows 49 crime reports on Election Day, from a robbery in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square to an embezzlement south of Cloverdale. Most crimes occurred between 2 and 6 p.m.
But it's not a real-time map. Records may not show up for several days if they haven't gone through three levels, including the officer who writes it, a sergeant and the records department.
"What we don't show in RAIDS are any reports that haven't reached the final approval process," said Conan Mullen, a crime analyst with the Police Department.
And there are other kinks to iron out.
The Feb. 5 shooting that killed a Santa Rosa masseuse is categorized as an aggravated assault and not a homicide. That's likely because the victim succumbed to her injuries hours after police began investigating the crime, Mullen said.
"There's a quality-control process, and before the end of the year, it will get corrected," Mullen said.
Also, the markers do not appear exactly where the crime occurred.
Sheriff's Office reports point to the nearest intersection. In Santa Rosa city limits, crime events show up close to the block where something happened, such as near the 900 block of Clark Street.
Some cases appear to have occurred at the Police Department or Sheriff's Office because that is where a report was taken.
The agencies did not pay for the service, aside from the initial manpower required to sync the automated systems.
200 agencies in 39 states
"Our ultimate goal is to have the first national map of crime -- that doesn't exist," said Sean Bair, a former police officer and crime analyst who created RAIDS Online.
Since the site launched in 2010, about 200 agencies have uploaded data in 39 states, said Bair, president of Colorado-based Bair Analytics. The service is free to entice agencies to subscribe to more robust programs designed for internal use.
What agencies will choose to keep off the map will be interesting to discover, said Patrick Jackson, chairman of the Criminology and Criminal Justice department at Sonoma State University.
"What interest do the police have in this? Do they put it all out there? Are they putting violations of gang laws online? Do they really want that publicized?" Jackson said. "I don't know the answers to those questions."
Reduce time fielding calls
Law enforcement agencies hope the map will reduce staff time spent fielding calls about crime rates.
Property owners, prospective homebuyers, neighborhood association members and others call almost daily with questions about crime rates or specific instances, Harris said.
"An apartment manager wants to know the crime reports that happen so they can better manage the property or even just a citizen who is interested in buying a house in a new area of the county -- they want to see the crime that has happened there in the past," Harris said.
In some ways, the map is a high-tech version of the conversations that take place in Annette Golterman's barn on Fridays.
Golterman, who for 50 years has lived on a Skillman Lane property outside of Petaluma, and about a dozen Leghorn Valley neighbors meet regularly to pool their knowledge. They are members of Farm Watch, a rural crime watch group.
"What we really want is a direct feed from the Sheriff's Office. We would love to know directly what's going on," Golterman said. "That sounds to me to be a good little tool."
Mullen of the Police Department said he hopes the map will encourage neighbors to get to know one another and talk about incidents.
"When you meet in the barn, you talk about everything --
'I called in this suspicious person, I called in this suspicious vehicle,' " Mullen said. "I still recommend meeting in the barn."
The key will be getting people to use the site. Older and often less tech-savvy residents tend to head neighborhood watch groups.
"It costs zero to be observant, and it costs nothing to look at the map," said Catherine Schulte of Penngrove, captain of the Canon Manor neighborhood association.
Schulte said she formed the group earlier this year after a neighbor called her to ask about a nearby burglary she knew nothing about.
"She said it was last month, I said 'why are we just finding out about this now?' "
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220, email@example.com or on Twitter @jjpressdem.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.