Behind the scenes of a Charlotte data oddity

Apr022009

EveryBlock users in Charlotte might have noticed something odd last month.

In the eight days beginning March 11, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department reported nearly 6,800 Charlotte “zone checks” — the department’s term for checking problem spots for crimes or patrolling areas at residents’ requests.

The number seemed strange, because the department only reported about 600 zone checks in Charlotte in the previous nine-plus months. And from March 19 to the end of the month, no zone checks were reported at all.

The numbers come from EveryBlock Charlotte’s police calls for service section, which collects and maps call data from the department’s “calls for service” page. With sites in 11 cities, we at EveryBlock often see data oddities, and when we do, we contact the agency in charge of the information for clarification. We called and e-mailed the police department, and asked what — a data problem, a new classification system, clerical error, etc. — might be going on. It took about a week, but we got some answers, from police spokesman Brian Cunningham.

During some maintenance, the department changed the way data was filtered for its Web site, such that all zone checks were being published. “It’s now been reversed,” Cunningham said.

The department’s “calls for service” page states that it shows a “summary of calls for service made to a 911 operator and dispatched to a CMPD officer in the Charlotte area.” Despite the reversal, that page could still display a small number of zone checks in the future, just as it did before March 11, Cunningham said. He wasn’t sure why some “trickle through,” but displaying all zone checks, as was happening during the eight-day spike, would be “overwhelming,” he said.

There’s something to that description. The 1,277 zone checks in Charlotte on March 17 actually is a higher number than the total number of police calls on March 19, the first day after the spike.

The spike also made zone checks the most common event in our police-calls section — even though it didn’t crack the top 10 three weeks ago.

So, you can see why we’re glad the department provided some answers, especially given Police Chief Rodney Monroe’s aggressive strategy since being appointed last year, and recent questions surrounding police statistics in Charlotte. Early last month, Deputy Chief Kerr Putney chafed when asked whether a drop in crime rates in January and February stemmed from the department classifying results differently.

“We want to be in people’s faces who are committing the crime,” Putney told the Observer. “We’re not sitting back and waiting for the calls.

“It annoys me — the implication that some of our reporting techniques have changed.”

In the face of a major data oddity, we think the department’s responsiveness could prevent others from drawing the wrong conclusions in this case. And we hope the department’s actions — combined with our practice of checking out of the facts in these cases — will help EveryBlock users in Charlotte.

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