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Web site will allow residents to track crimes near home

ST. PETERSBURG — In a few weeks, St. Petersburg residents will be able to go online, punch in any address and view a map showing what crimes are happening nearby. And police Chief Chuck Harmon says that's a good thing for law enforcement.

The Police Department has become a member of crimereports.com, a Utah-based company that bills itself as the largest crime-mapping network in the country. At a time of rising property crimes, Harmon said, the site will help residents become aware of crime patterns in their neighborhoods and become better able to protect their homes and families.

"I think the crime watches will have a wonderful time with this," Harmon said at a recent meeting of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

Free to the public, the site looks like a Web-based mapping service and acts much the same. You can scroll around click icons that show the blocks where specific crimes occurred. Windows with details pop up. The site also crunches crime information in charts and graphs, and users can sign up to receive e-mail alerts.

Every 12 hours, the city will automatically send the site recent police calls for service — the same information printed in this newspaper once a week. As investigations progress, the information will be updated, showing that a trespassing incident, for instance, is now a burglary. Information stays on the site for six months before it is purged.

The site also funnels information from the state's sexual offender database, showing names, photographs and addresses of offenders.

For liability reasons, police departments do not provide the site with addresses of incidents, said Gene Webb, the police department's manager of information and technology services. Users can focus on their own address, however, and see what's happening within a given geographical radius or time frame.

Like the printed crime statistics, certain crimes are withheld by the police. These include crimes against children and sexual battery investigations. Also, a homicide may not immediately show up if making the information public could compromise an investigation, Harmon said.

"Once I open this up, it will be available to everybody, including the bad people," Harmon said.

The city will pay the company about $2,600 annually, Harmon said. According to its Web site, crimereports.com has 500 contracts around the country, including 13 in Florida. The site says it never sells advertisements.

The site already has competition, from Paul Gilchrist, a Historic Kenwood resident who launched stpetecrimes.com in May. Gilchrist's free site does not have a mapping feature and updates weekly, but it does provide exact addresses. Gilchrist says he typically gets 20 to 30 visitors per day.

"To retain my competitive advantage now that the SPPD's site is coming online, I may also start putting the caller's names on to my site," Gilchrist wrote in an e-mail.

Gilchrist says his main goal is to publicize the unsolved animal cruelty case that led to the death of his cat, Amy, in 2008.

"I think the public is always better to have something that's managed by the city and the police department," said Deputy Mayor Dave Metz. "It's our mission to provide the citizens with information."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

Web site will allow residents to track crimes near home 08/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 4:13pm]
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