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Laboratories of Democracy

Saturday, March 1, 1997

When a wheelchair-bound neighbor was beaten and another friend was raped and robbed in the space of two weeks, Ken Donovan was horrified. Feeling that ordinary citizens could do more to protect their own communities, Donovan and his wife, Caroline, decided to start an anti-crime newspaper in their hometown of Tampa Bay, Florida. Once a month since 1992, the Bay Area Crusader has published the mug shots of 50 to 70 suspects and bail-jumpers wanted on arrest warrants, along with official phone numbers for calling in tips. The results have surprised everyone: In four years, 738 fugitives whose photos appeared in the Crusader have been caught-a success rate of one in three.

Low-cost publishing and Internet technology are giving citizens new tools in the fight against crime.

Not long ago, deputizing citizens in the fight against crime meant little more than hanging "Wanted" posters up in the local post office. Then in 1982, the television show America's Most Wanted popularized the idea that ordinary citizens could do more to supplement the efforts of police. Now, as crime remains at high and worrisome levels, desktop publishing and the Internet make it easier for citizens such as Ken Donovan to build on this idea.

The Power of the Press

When he learned back in 1992 that his friends had been assaulted, Donovan was merely angry. When he learned that both assailants had outstanding arrest warrants at the time they committed their crimes, he became outraged. "I was upset at the arrogance of criminals walking among us because no one knew who they were," says Donovan. "If they are going to commit the crimes, we are going to let people know who they are."

Rita Harding and her family will forever be indebted to Donovan for doing just that. Last September, an intruder broke into the home of Harding's brother Richard Valdez and tried to rape his wife. When Valdez resisted, both he and his wife were shot. Richard Valdez didn't survive.

"This is a tragedy that has broken every one of our hearts," says Harding. "This guy being caught won't bring my brother back, but at least we'll get the feeling that someone has to pay for it."

Police identified a suspect from fingerprints at the scene. "When my brother was murdered, Ken got a picture of the person out quickly so we could get flyers out," explains Harding. "We sent flyers of the Crusader north to places he might go-where his family was [as well as] an old girlfriend." After hearing that the suspect may have headed toward New Jersey, the family sent copies of the Crusader to their relatives in that area and to truck stops along the route. Valdez's alleged assailant was apprehended in New Jersey a month after the attack.

"As a newspaper editor, I knew crime was the bread-and-butter subject for any newroom, and knew how badly we reported it."

Donovan began with a belief that many people who encounter the fugitives pictured in the Crusader-from neighbors to convenience-store clerks-would be willing to do the right thing. He was right. Soon after he began publishing, a tip based on the first issue of the Crusader led to the arrest of a drug dealer. The informant told the police not only where the fugitive was living, but also what time she would be there with her supplier. As a result, the police captured both of them, seizing their drugs and enough cash, says Donovan, to bankrupt the whole drug ring.

One of the hardest parts of Donovan's job is deciding which photos to run each month. "I give murderers, child molesters, and rapists top priority," says Donovan, "but I always have this fear in my heart that the difference between a burglar and a rapist is that no one was home."

The Donovans' tabloid also publishes photos of missing children; so far 136 children, or one in four, have been found. Last July, for the benefit of unwary neighbors, the newspaper printed a special feature with the names and addresses of 344 Florida residents designated as "sexual predators" by the state Department of Law Enforcement.

The Donovans distribute 25,000 copies of the Crusader each month to convenience stores, restaurants, nightclubs, and police departments. Neither of them had any publishing experience before the Crusader, but it seemed clear that the newspaper format best suited their vision. A newspaper, after all, can be saved and passed along to other people.

Although wary at first, law-enforcement agencies in the Tampa area now fully support the Donovans' efforts. Steve Cole, the public-information coordinator for Tampa's police department, says the newspaper is "law-enforcement-friendly." "If we have somebody who is wanted, unless he is a serial killer or Jack the Ripper, the local media will put the picture up when they get around to it," explains Cole. "Ken's paper is geared more toward the ordinary, everyday criminal. We've become complacent about the ordinary, everyday criminal because we feel we can't do anything. But people pick up the Crusader and can do something."

The Donovans' idea has mushroomed in just four years. Within a year of their first issue, someone in another city contacted Donovan about starting a sister paper. Soon came another call, and another. Newspapers modeled after the original Crusader have started up in 58 communities in 25 states and Canada, including 30 in the last year.

Each Crusader newspaper covers its local community only. All are nonprofit, surviving on advertising, subscription revenues, and donations. "No one is making money doing this," says Donovan. (He pays himself $250 a week as editor-in-chief, and supplements his income with occasional acting jobs and daily crime reports for a local TV news program.) For $500 the Donovans will provide a manual and unlimited consultation to anyone interesting in starting a Crusader newspaper, but they will approve a new publisher only after a long interview. Donovan estimates the startup costs of each paper at around $6,000. Only about half of Crusader publishers make the paper a full-time job.

"I always had a vision that if it worked in Tampa, it would work in Maine or the heartland or anywhere else," says Donovan. "People in Canada are just as fed up as people in Miami. Most of us are sick to the bone over the way crime is going and the way our own system has failed us. We want a way to get involved. . . . I always ask if you are angry enough or frightened enough to make a difference." Donovan hung photos of captured fugitives on the wall in his office until he ran out of space. "When I look at the 600 photos on our Wall of Shame," he says, "I see 6,000 potential victims that didn't happen."

Donovan can be reached at 813-933-0603. The paper recently created a World Wide Web site (http://www.crusader.org) that displays photographs of fugitives and missing children.

Mapping the Troublespots

The fortunate residents of San Antonio, Texas, have a high-tech weapon against crime. The San Antonio Express-News, the local daily newspaper, provides weekly crime reports and statistics, as well as a list of convicted sexual offenders, through Crimebase, a feature of the newspaper's subscription-based Web site (http://www.express-news.net).

Subscribers can simply type in a street, a zip code, a particular type of crime, or a date, and receive the relevant police reports from the previous week. "I go in and type my own street and it kicks back what happened there," says Ed Rademaekers, who created the service and is now director of new media for the San Antonio paper. Police departments have always collected crime data, but have been slow to collate it and reluctant to publish it. Now the creation of new computer software has allowed people like Rademaekers to pave new avenues of information not possible years ago.

Crimebase lets San Antonio residents protect themselves by identifying trends and patterns in local criminal activity. "Someone could pull out the universe of car thefts every week and see in what neighborhood your car is most at risk," explains Rademaekers. The public can also use the database to demonstrate a record of trouble. For example, someone can find out how many times the police have been called to a particular local bar, then take that information to a councilman and demand action.

Patsy Shinn uses Crimebase to help a volunteer crime patrol in her neighborhood. Shinn searches Crimebase by zip code, then scans for streets she and the other volunteers patrol. "I print out each report to take to our monthly meeting for volunteers," explains Shinn, who usually finds between four and six crime reports for her area each week. When volunteers notice a jump in crime in certain areas, they patrol there more frequently. And when Shinn found a sexual offender listed in her zip code, she distributed a description of the man and his car to the volunteers. She also uses Crimebase to summarize the crime situation for the local homeowners' monthly newsletter.

Although there are no statistics on whether Crimebase has reduced crime in San Antonio, the service provides citizens with a greater sense of control over their personal safety. Businesses can use Crimebase to improve employee security, says Charles Sanders, the vice president and chief operating officer of a medical management company in San Antonio. "Our company has six different office locations," he explains. "We'll be able to check the statistics in the area around each building. If carjackings are up near one of our facilities, for example, our employees need to know that and be reminded not to walk to their cars alone."

One of the best features of Crimebase is that information on the Internet is easily accessed. "I can get the same information from the police department, but the amount of effort required is offset by the amount of time available," says Sanders. "When you pick up a newspaper, you read the most sensational or horrifying or wildest of criminal episodes that occurred during the previous 24 hours," Rademaekers explains. "But in many ways, that murder that happened across town isn't as important to your life as what goes on in the blocks around your home, work, and where you play."

Rademaekers conceived Crime-base in 1992 when he was working at the San Antonio Light. "As a newspaper editor, I knew crime was the bread-and-butter subject for any newsroom, and knew how badly we reported it," he says. "All that information was sitting out there. If we could organize it better, we could use it."

After a few attempts to turn Crimebase into a self-sufficient operation, Rademaekers modified the program for a Web site developed by the Hearst Corp., owner of the Express-News. The Crimebase site currently draws 15 to 20 page accesses per day. Rademaekers attributes the small number to limited accessibility, not limited interest. The only residents with access to the system are those who subscribe to the Express-News Online service and who use it as their Internet service provider. But Rademaekers sees a lot of untapped potential for Crimebase, especially in television. "I'm working on a prototype that's like a Doppler [radar] on crime," he explains. "Using the technology of mapping, a television station could do a two-to-three-minute 'crime-cast' every day."

San Antonio residents aren't the only ones taking advantage of new database technology to fight crime. New software, like the Compstat program used by the New York City police department and then adopted elsewhere, offers the police unprecedented power to track and analyze daily crime statistics block by block and deploy resources accordingly. If law-enforcement officials can overcome their resistance to releasing such information, Crimebase could prove a model for communities everywhere.

Interactive Policing

Some police departments are already sold on using high-tech tools to bring citizens into the fight against crime. In Chicago, the police aren't only on the streets, they're also on the Internet. Chicago police established an interactive Web site in April 1995 as part of their community-policing program, CAPS (for "Chicago's Alternative Policing Strategy"). Police and citizens can communicate easily, directly, and sometimes anonymously.

"Our partnership between the police and the community is intended to prevent crime before it spins out of control," says Kevin Morison, the assistant coordinator of special projects for the Chicago Police Department. The Community Policing site (http://www.ci.chi.il.us/CommunityPolicing) asks the community for assistance in fighting crime locally. "The Internet was set up as this great global village," says Michelle Damico, the director of the city's official Web site, "but the irony is it is now used to connect citizens with their local police."

Through the Web site, citizens can anonymously send tips about drug activity in their neighborhoods directly to narcotics officers or notify the police of the location of a wanted criminal or a missing person. The department has so far received about three dozen tips about drug activity. And the department has apprehended at least one fugitive as a result of an Internet tip. (The department has not compiled official statistics about the number or outcomes of tips they've received.)

One popular feature of the Web site is a bicycle registry intended to help individuals recover stolen bicycles. Another heavily visited section on the site helps citizens identify the police beat for their home or business and provides a schedule of neighborhood meetings with police representatives.

CAPS averages 50,000 hits per month. Both Morison and Damico think that number will continue to increase as the city dreams up more uses for it. On his own time, Sergeant Charles Holz created a Web site (http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Community Policing/Districts/District08) just for his Eighth District. "It's a way to get the public to open up to police officers," he explains. "Someone will send me a message that there's a problem with drugs in a park, and I pass it on to the beat officers, who can resolve the problem."

Such Web sites can save money and time. Someone involved in a traffic accident can look up the proper reporting procedures instead of calling the police department. More importantly, Holz foresees increased communication between citizens and the police department. "An officer who went to a CAPS meeting told me that residents were wondering about gangs," says Holz, so he wrote about gangs on the site. Future improvements may include allowing citizens to report minor crimes over the Internet, and publishing community alerts in neighborhoods where crimes have occurred.

Although the Chicago site is the most interactive police Web site, dozens of police departments and law-enforcement agencies across the country have also ventured onto the Internet. "The Police Pages," located at http://www.mcs.net/~jra/police, provides links to many sites that list fugitives and missing persons as well as other police resources.

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