New Jersey took a leap into the information age this month when State Police began providing a close-to-real-time picture of crime in the state's municipalities.
Rather than wait for the annual fall release of the Uniform Crime Report, a comprehensive look at numbers of crimes in various categories, State Police will update the website each Friday with information provided by municipal and college police departments. That's a huge change from the Uniform Crime Report, in which some data could be as much as
2 years old.
The site - njsp.org/info/ucr_currentdata.html - shows crime data compared to the same month a year ago, lists total violent and nonviolent crime and includes the number and percentage of those crimes that have been cleared.
In its early days, the site is a bit clunky, and the preliminary data it provides is unverified, but it is an important step toward greater transparency and giving citizens more information, something every government agency should strive for.
Right now the site is difficult to navigate. Information is listed in a long PDF file, where towns are organized by county, although that county name is never listed. If you want to find Lower Township, for instance, you have to scroll down past towns in Atlantic, Burlington and Camden counties to page 165, where you would find that simple assaults were down 50 percent in January, compared to January 2012, and burglaries dropped by 84 percent. Once you know which page your town is on, you should be able to jump to it easily whenever you check back at the site.
State Police officials say they hope to eventually make the site more interactive and searchable. Even as it stands, the data should be useful to anyone wanting to study patterns of crime in the state.
The biggest problem with this effort is that police departments in many municipalities have not filed any information for it. For too many towns, including Atlantic City, the current report lists a column of zeros, which indicates that weekly reports are not being made.
We don't know whether this is because police departments are not yet used to the new system or because, as any experienced reporter can tell you, some departments resist releasing crime data, fearing it makes their town look bad.
That's one of the reasons why it is important not to make too much of crime statistics. In small towns, a small number of crimes can make statistics jump by large percentages. And many crimes are simply random - their frequency can rise or fall from year to year independent of any law-enforcement efforts.
Still, residents have a right to know what's going on in their towns, and they have a right to information that can help them judge what kind of job their local police department is doing or what resources it might need.