Dots Versus Density: the Impact of Crime Mapping Techniques on Perception of Safety, Police Performance and Neighbourhood Quality

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Policing & Society

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President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing advised law enforcement agencies to ‘[e]stablish a culture of transparency and accountability in order to build public trust and legitimacy’ (2015, p. 12). Such transparency and accountability may be promoted through increased public access to crime data and measures of police activity. The inherently geographic nature of crime has made online maps one of the more popular strategies for disseminating this information to the public. As more agencies deliver crime maps on their own, or hosted websites, it becomes important for social scientists to evaluate how these communications affect public perceptions. Crime mapping is a complex process requiring many decisions. This includes choices about the type of crime to include or exclude, the type of map used, and numerous design features for the map itself. The field of critical cartography argues that all of these decisions have the potential to shape perceptions about a given geographic location, the people living there, and, in the present context, the people charged with maintaining public safety in the area. This study investigates whether different types of maps (i.e. dot vs. density) affect individual perceptions of safety, police performance and neighbourhood quality. Results indicate that the type of crime map viewed does alter perceptions, illustrating a need for careful and consistent decision-making when preparing crime maps for public access.


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In recent decades, technological advancements have made it easier to collect large quantities of high-resolution geographic data. Policing agencies, among others, have benefitted from this heightened data availability. This access to spatial data has bolstered the use of crime mapping within policing agencies, both as an analytical tool, and as a method to distribute timely information to the communities they serve (Ratcliffe 2002, Wartell and McEwen 2001). A considerable amount of academic research has explored the value of maps as policing tools (Eck et al. 2005). Considerably less attention has focused on crime maps as risk communication tools used to provide the public with information about crime in their community (Chainey and Tompson 2012, Quinton 2011). Within this area of research, there is a further shortage in studies exploring how design features of crime maps impact public perceptions (Groff et al. 2005).


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