Reporting on crime in Preston Hollow and surrounding areas looks a little different since the city of Dallas removed some previously available data from the portal that provides police reports.
In an Oct. 15 memo first reported on by the Dallas Morning News, city staffers told top city officials and public safety committee members that it had begun redacting complainant names and information — or personally identifying information — from police reports.
A perusal of reports found that this was the case. The complainant’s gender and ethnicity were provided, but any other identifying information had been redacted from the handful of reports examined, as well as from reports examined while compiling the weekly Preston Hollow crime reports. The offense location is still available.
The memo also recommended a delay in publishing information on the active incident portal and redacting even more information from police reports. These reductions in information follow a decision in 2014 to quit publishing the narrative portions of reports that described the offenses.
How do these new changes impact the way crime is reported to readers? In many cases, the important things — where the crime happened, for instance, and what it was, will still be available. Where it gets dicier is say, for instance, when several people are involved in an incident, or ascertaining when a crime wave targets specific items or people (thefts of equipment from repair vehicles or landscapers, for example, or violence against a specific ethnicity or race).
To get additional information, a member of the public would need to file a Freedom of Information Act request, which can take days, weeks, or months to fulfill.
With the slowdown on the active incident reports, it could become more difficult for reporters to inform the public in a timely fashion when incidents occur.
Texas law requires that certain basic information about an arrested person or crime be available to the public. In a 1975 court ruling, “basic information” was pinned down as what appears on the front page of a police report, and that complainant information cannot be withheld unless the crime involved sex offenses, minors, or if the complainant is an informant.
In a Nov. 5 memo to the public safety committee, Brita Andercheck, director of the Office of Data Analytics and Business Intelligence, outlined the plans to remove victim information and delay real-time police call data, citing examples of the policies of other cities involved in a Bloomberg Philanthropies effort called What Works Cities.
“What Works Cities is one of the largest-ever philanthropic efforts to enhance cities’ use of data and evidence,” the organization’s website explains. “Cities across the country are more effectively driving change and delivering results for residents by participating in our What Works Cities Certification program, the national standard of excellence for data-driven, well-managed local government.”
Cities with populations of 30,000 or greater can participate. Dallas is not currently a What Works Cities participant.
The memo provided a chart of what various cities (most in the What Works Cities program) provide to the public. Los Angeles, which has a platinum ranking, does not publish active calls, victim data, or arrestee data, for instance. Arlington and Austin are gold ranked, with Arlington providing arrestee or perpetrator information. Neither Austin nor Arlington provide active call data or victim data. Irving, which has a silver ranking, provides only arrestee information, while San Antonio (also ranked silver) provides only active call information.
Andercheck also insisted that the city was not required by law to publish personally-identifying information.
At a Monday morning public safety committee meeting, Andercheck said that during her department’s efforts to revamp the city portal, city staff raised concerns about the type of victim data that was being published. After reviewing the data portals for other departments across the country, they redacted some information from the portal on Oct. 14.
Andercheck told the committee she felt the redactions and changes will bring the Dallas portal more in line with “national standards.”
“There is no deletion,” she said. “This simply pertains to the open data portal and the desire to use that as a tool to publish victim data.”
“This is in line with our crime reduction plan because it’s hopefully encouraging people to make a report about something that has happened or speak without concern that their home address and other information might be available.”
But councilmember Cara Mendelsohn was skeptical.
“You’re talking about something that is sort of fundamental about openness and government,” Mendelsohn said. “We talk very often about making more information available, not less, and making things more transparent, not less.”
She also questioned the timing, asking why the staff felt it was necessary to act before bringing it before the council or the committee for discussion.
“I mean, when we already have a 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, adding that the issue needed to go before the entire council before being enacted.
She also asked who the staff consulted with besides law enforcement agencies.
“Have we talked to the media, to crime watch groups? Did we get input from residents?” she said. “I don’t think any of that part happened.”
“There was consultation with law enforcement,” Andercheck responded. “There needed to be quick action in this one particular incident.”
Mendelsohn asked why — if one incident spurred the decision — they couldn’t redact just that one.
Andercheck reiterated that the gender and race of the person were still present. “It’s not like the incident doesn’t exist,” she said.
“I understand,” Mendelsohn said. “I viewed it.”
At the end of the discussion, the District 12 council member once again pointed to the lack of public input in the decision.
“I don’t feel like this should’ve been a decision that didn’t get council input and didn’t get community input,” Mendelsohn said. “It may or may not be right for Dallas. But we never even got that opportunity to weigh in on that.”