Public Safety

Public safety department plans to launch statewide crime ‘heat map’ dashboard

The state Department of Public Safety is poised to launch a public dashboard including a sort of heat map identifying communities with the highest volume of police calls. Image courtesy of the Vermont Department of Public Safety

As part of a widespread plan from the executive branch to curb crime in Vermont, the state Department of Public Safety is poised to launch a public dashboard identifying communities with the highest volume of police calls.

The department is already using the map internally, and top officials say a public launch is intended to give Vermonters a transparent view of public safety concerns in near-real time.

Early skeptics, however, say the map gives the misleading impression that Vermont’s cities are disproportionately dangerous. The brightest “hot spots” simply show concentrations of population, they pointed out this week, arguing that without context, the map is likely to stoke unnecessary fear among the public.

Introducing the dashboard at a policy briefing for legislators last week, Public Safety Commissioner Jennifer Morrison told lawmakers that the map identifies Vermont’s “hottest” communities, where police departments receive the greatest number of phone calls for accusations of domestic violence, assault, drug-related activity, burglary, robbery, homicide and more.

The map is a six-month snapshot of calls made to police — not arrests or convictions — and plans are to update it weekly. Morrison told VTDigger that, although call data can be imperfect or even inaccurate, the goal of the heat map is speed.

“It's not perfect data, and we're not searching for perfect,” she said. “We're … more focused on as close to real-time as possible. If you wait for some of these datasets to be fully vetted, and as accurate as possible, you're talking about probably a three- or four-month lag, and that's not exactly what we're aiming for.”

When the map was presented to lawmakers last week, one legislator asked Morrison whether she believed the heat map had the potential to stoke unnecessary fear among the public. Morrison said then, and reiterated in an interview, that Vermonters should keep in mind when looking at the map that Vermont remains among the safest states in the nation. “This might look like a lot, and maybe it's not,” Morrison said.

The intent of the map isn’t to incite fear, Morrison said, but transparency with the public to “enhance their understanding of what's going on in their community and across the Vermont landscape.”

“In terms of making a choice about going out to dinner in Barre, or whatever, it allows people to make informed choices based on the reality of what's being reported in that community,” Morrison said. 

Falko Schilling, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, told VTDigger on Thursday that he supports data transparency. In fact, “adequate data has been a consistent problem throughout the system,” he said.

But, he added, “I think it's important that the public contextualize it, and it is not used as a way to stoke narratives about safety in Vermont when we continue to remain one of the safest states in the entire nation.”

Schilling said he’s concerned that the map could be used to justify rolling back recent criminal justice reforms, or instituting tough-on-crime practices.

“One thing that we have seen over the last couple of years is, there has been a consistent drumbeat trying to make Vermonters think that they're not as safe as they actually are, and some of that is based on opposition to reforms that have been enacted, or reforms that might be enacted,” Schilling said Thursday.

In his inaugural address earlier this month, Republican Gov. Phil Scott called on the Legislature to take “a sincere look at well-intentioned reforms that are having unintended consequences” in the public safety sphere.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George told VTDigger on Thursday that the map is misleading. On a screenshot provided by the department last week, the Burlington metro area is the clearest hotspot in Vermont, a blotch of bright orange depicting 763 calls made to the Burlington Police Department in the previous six months. But looking at the police calls per capita, Burlington ranked fourth in the state, behind Rutland, Barre and Bennington.

“This is really an incomplete snapshot,” George said Thursday. “First of all, we don't know the details of these calls. We don't know whether they're corroborated or confirmed in any way, whether they lead to arrest or prosecution.”

“If this map has been used to show where resources are going to be dumped or used, then I think that that would be beneficial to the communities,” George added. “But if it's being used to show these communities are less safe … I think it's disingenuous and doesn't serve any real public safety goal, other than some sort of public shaming.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the map is reminiscent of Rutland’s Project VISION, a local initiative targeting key neighborhoods with increased public resources in order to prevent crime. Following through with resources is the key, Sears said.

“If all we're going to do is tell people, ‘This particular street in Montpelier is dangerous,’ that doesn’t do any good if we're not going to do something about it. That's the critical piece,” Sears said. “I mean, I can tell you that Pleasant Street in Bennington, certain areas of it, are hotspots. We all know that, but this would confirm that. But what is it you're going to do to alleviate the problem in those areas?”

Morrison told VTDigger that is the ultimate goal of the map: to identify which communities need more resources, whether that’s bolstering the police force or improving social services.

“We start all of our conversations from the perspective that we can't enforce our way out of a violent crime problem,” Morrison said. “Because if enforcement is the only tool we have in the box, then we'll knock off one actor or two actors or a piece of a criminal enterprise, and there will just be the next wave coming along through.”

Across the state, according to the map, domestic violence is the most common type of violent crime reported to police. There were 1,592 domestic violence-related calls statewide in the past six months, the map and corresponding data show.

Asked why domestic violence data was included in the heat map imagery, Morrison said the map is still “a work in progress.” But she also said that including such data is “a great opportunity to be transparent with our community.”

“While domestic violence is not necessarily the thing that makes you feel unsafe walking down the street, this is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the fact that we have a huge problem — and we've always had a huge problem, as long as I've been in law enforcement,” Morrison said. “And if we're going to talk about violence, I don't know how we can not talk about violence that happens behind closed doors, because the effects of it are just as devastating. And candidly, those who witnessed it, or are victims of it, or perpetrate domestic violence, are undoubtedly involved in other bad outcomes, shall we say.”

The Department of Public Safety plans to launch the map to the public in the next 60 to 90 days, starting with still screenshots. Eventually, Morrison said, the department wants Vermonters to interact with the map, zooming in and out of specific communities, down to the 100 block of a street.

The department has tried to balance transparency with concerns over privacy, Morrison said. Displaying a street block in Burlington offers a decent level of anonymity, she said, but in remote areas, that could be enough information to identify a specific household.

“We're trying to balance all of these considerations about privacy, around transparency, about people being able to use the information in a way that suits their needs, instead of us just giving them what we think they want or need,” Morrison said. “That's the goal, ultimately. And it's, as I said, it's a work in progress. We're nowhere near done.”

Morrison said the inspiration behind the heat map was Vermont’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, specifically the state Department of Health’s case dashboard, which was previously updated with daily case counts. Morrison said the Department of Public Safety and the governor’s office were inspired to “extend our pandemic-style response into this type of work.”

“Obviously, violent crime is not a pandemic. You can't just give people vaccination shots and make it go away,” she said. “But the point of the governor's directive was to pluck the best practices and lessons from the way we responded to the pandemic, and apply it into this space.”

The state Department of Health stopped updating the Covid-19 dashboard in May. Health Commissioner Mark Levine told reporters at the time that the real-time data ceased being useful, and encouraged taking a holistic approach to pandemic response.

“I always caution against a daily look at anything and drawing a conclusion from it, because it really doesn't make sense unless you start to look at where the trends are, and the trends take time to develop,” Levine said at the time. “If there are people who have an addiction to going on the case dashboard every day and waking up and deciding if they should put a mask on or not, that's probably not the way that it should be approaching this.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to more accurately describe the ranking of domestic violence calls on the dashboard.

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.


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