Crime, Maps & Public Safety

A cross-post from our sister site, Hollaback! Halifax

Screenshot from HRM Crime Mapping website

Screenshot from HRM Crime Mapping website

The Halifax Regional Police (HRP) wants to make our city safer. So does Hollaback! Halifax.

Hollaback! Halifax aims to ensure safe, equal access to public spaces by ending street harassment. We offer a forum for Haligonians to share their personal stories of sexual harassment in public space. We also offer examples of how people can intervene as responsible bystanders, and how people can choose to respond to someone who is harassing them.

The HRP’s latest push towards the same goal is to provide more information to the public via their new crime mapping initiative. The desire to increase transparency is laudable, but we have some serious concerns about how the information was presented to the public. Since this is an early version of the tool, we’re sure that the HRP will have opportunities to make it better. We have some suggestions to that end.

While introducing the map to the public last week, Deputy Chief of Police Bill Moore conflated sexual assault with domestic violence, and suggested that the latter isn’t relevant to public safety. This carelessness when speaking to and about victims of violence is incompatible with HRP’s own “Be More Than A Bystander” campaign. There is already too much silence about these problems in our community.

We share HRP’s desire to protect the victims of sexual violence and domestic violence. In cases where location can put privacy at risk, the incident should not be mapped without the victim’s knowledge and consent; the map should be made opt-in for them, so they have control over their level of disclosure. But HRP needs to find a better way of reporting frequency and severity of these crimes. Public awareness is the first step towards positive action.

We like maps; we think they’re excellent tools. Hollaback! Halifax even has one of our own. People who report street harassment to us can choose to include a location, and we include these reports in a global map that is the first thing seen by visitors to our website. We use our map to help visualize the extent of the problem and how universal it is. It’s not intended to warn people away from places where harassment might occur, because what makes a place safe or unsafe is the people in it. This means that the safety of any location can change drastically from hour to hour. Labelling neighbourhoods as “bad” and encouraging people to avoid them is unjust to the people who live and work there, and is unlikely to succeed.

Screenshot from HRM Crime Mapping website

Screenshot from HRM Crime Mapping website

The crime map offered by HRP is not useful yet. The map is intended to make the city safer, but there is no information provided yet about how this map can be used effectively, and the information in the pilot version is incredibly limited. As it is now, the map only attaches a negative label to the neighbourhood where the crime took place. If we’re keeping this map around, we need context, fast. We need real actions that can make our entire community safer, not just a suggestion that we need to avoid certain locations and “pay attention” to our surroundings, as if that hadn’t already been tried.

It’s not individuals’ responsibility to keep others from choosing to hurt them. If someone is the victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault, it is never their fault. The responsibility for public safety must be shared by everyone in the wider community, and must not be a burden on those who are most vulnerable.

Hollaback! Halifax asks HRP to clarify how crime mapping is intended to reduce crime without placing the burden of responsibility on victims. We also ask HRP to clarify its policy for determining when to disclose the location of sexual violence in press releases, to add these disclosures to the crime map, and to offer another reporting method for incidents where location cannot be revealed. We ask HRP not only to commit to these specific improvements to their crime map initiative, but to commit to a clear timeline for these improvements, and to communicate with the public if benchmarks aren’t met.

HRP needs to take much more care in providing analysis and insight into patterns of criminal behaviour. These commitments would be an excellent start. Our city deserves justice, communication, and accountability from the people who are expected to protect us.

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