Data collection issues in police database design


Please don’t park on sucker (er, sign) poles. And use a good lock. When your bike is stolen, no one but you will care. And the police won’t even know. 

When I asked the Chicago Police Department for statistics on how many bicycles are reported stolen each year, the response was that statistics couldn’t be provided because the database can’t be filtered on “bicycle theft”. I called the police officer responding to my FOIA request to learn more. He said that bike thefts are only categorized as “property thefts under $300″ or “property thefts over $300″.

It would be possible to search through the database using keywords, but that would have been an unreasonable use of the officer’s and department’s time in accordance with FOIA laws (FOIA meaning Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIL in other states).

What a poorly designed database.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has Uniform Crime Reporting standards that police departments nationwide voluntarily adopt. It’s mainly a way for the FBI to collect statistics across the country and I assume this program is necessary because of a state’s right to impose its own standards. That sounds fine by me, but it shouldn’t impede collecting data to assist the Department of Transportation, and the Police Department itself, to combat bike theft. The Bike 2015 Plan, released in 2005 and adopted by the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council (MBAC), includes several strategies to reduce bike theft in Chicago.

The FBI has a standard reporting code for bike thefts: 6Xf. Its definition is “the unlawful taking of any bicycle, tandem bicycle, unicycle, etc.”

The Chicago Police Department should upgrade its database to code property theft of bicycles as a “bike theft”. For now, though, advocates and activists will have to rely on the homegrown Chicago Stolen Bike Registry*. If you don’t know the extent of the problem, it’ll be hard to develop any solution.

The Bike 2015 Plan called for a report, by 2006, to be written that determined the “amount and types of bike theft”. We’re in 2012 – where’s that report?

Thinking about New York City

New York City’s Police Department (NYPD) has similar, but more grievous, database problems. Right now the New York City Council is holding a hearing to figure out why the NYPD isn’t investigating reckless drivers who’ve killed people walking and cycling. And I read this about it:

 Vacca’s first question to Deputy Chief John Cassidy, the NYPD Chief of Transportation, was about speeding, and how often drivers caught speeding are charged with reckless endangerment. The answer came not from Cassidy, but from Susan Petito, an NYPD attorney, who politely explained that they simply don’t know, because reckless endangerment charges “are not segregated in the database” and can’t be easily found. Via Gothamist.

Hmm, seems like the same issue the Chicago Police Department has.

* The Stolen Bike Registry has its own issues, which is often because of “user error”, wherein people who submit reports to it don’t provide much detail, especially as from where the bike was stolen.

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About Steven Vance

Enthusiast for urbanism, bicycling as transportation, and open data. Building a bicycle culture in Chicago.
  • Adam Herstein

    Why is it bad to lock bikes to so-called “sucker poles”?

    • Steven Vance

      The bolt that attaches the pole to the base can be removed with a wrench. Sometimes the nuts can be removed by hand. In some cases, the bolt is missing a nut. When the sign is removed, then the lock can be slipped off. Depending on where the lock was placed on the bike, the bike can be ridden away. Otherwise the bike can be trucked away and the lock can be removed quietly off site with a $30 angle grinder.

      • Adam Herstein

        Makes sense. Same reason that it’s bad to lock to a tree.

        • Steven Vance

          When locking to a tree, you also damage the bark, which is the tree’s protection. 


          • Adam Herstein

            That and some jerk can just saw the tree in half.

          • Anne Alt

            Even if you’re not damaging the bark to a degree that’s this visually obvious, putting too much pressure on the bark and the layers underneath it can damage the tree’s circulatory system, making it more vulnerable to damage from insects and disease.  It’s a little bit like weakening a person’s immune system.

  • Mikael Colville-Andersen

    So… wearing bracelets, necklaces or rings – or backpacks even – will damage a human’s internal layers and make the person more vulnerable to disease? Hilarious.

    • Steven Vance

      I don’t understand your comment.