Website that kept watch on D.C. homicides shuts down

Homicide Watch, an online database that records and tracks homicide cases, was created to document under-reported crimes in Washington, D.C. The site has been praised by law enforcement and the families of victims, but is shutting down in that city. Co-founder Laura Amico, a Boston Globe reporter, speaks with Jeffrey Brown about sharing violent crime information with the public.

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    This has been a year of extensive debate over crime and justice and public safety. But keeping track of the ebb and flow has often fallen to organizations outside of law enforcement. Now, one of those tracking sites is shutting down.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with that story.


    Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case. That's been the mantra of a group called Homicide Watch started by two journalists in Washington, D.C., to comb databases and document under-reported crimes occurring in their city.

    It's received much praise from law enforcement and families of victims. And the concept has been picked up in other cities, including Chicago, Boston, and Trenton, where sites partner with a local newspaper or university.

    Now, though, the original Washington, D.C., site is shutting down, unable to find a permanent home.

    Joining us is Laura Amico, a Boston Globe reporter who created the site with her husband, Chris, who we should say worked previously with the "NewsHour" online.

    And, Laura Amico, welcome to you.

    First, what's the idea behind Homicide Watch? Why did you think it was needed?

  • LAURA AMICO, The Boston Globe:

    Hi, Jeff. Thank you for having me.

    Homicide Watch started because I had a need, and I was willing to take a risk. We moved across the country from California so that my husband, Chris, could take that job with "PBS NewsHour." And I found myself an unemployed crime reporter in 2009, when there just weren't that many jobs in journalism.

    As I was searching for a job, I saw a need to be done in my local community. I saw families of victims and suspects trying to connect on places like Facebook and Twitter and They were looking for information about cases and they were looking to connect with one another to share what they were learning.

    I looked at this and I looked at my skills. And I saw that I had a lot of free time on my hands and thought maybe there is something here I can do. And it grew very organically out of that.


    Well, so how do you actually do it? How hard is it to comb through databases? And what were you trying to put together on the site for people?


    It started day one with visiting D.C. Superior Court. And everything that's on Homicide Watch D.C. comes from the courthouse or from law enforcement and legal sources.

    We create our own data by going through the press releases from the police department, by going through the court records, and hand-collecting the different elements that make up our context and understanding of how the criminal justice system works.


    So, even today, I was looking at the site. You had on the site right now a father and son were killed in a shooting Sunday night along Southern Avenue. This is in Washington, D.C.

    So what kind of information — information like that that you put out there, and then how is it shared, how do people contribute to it?


    People find it very organically, mostly through search or through knowing

    We see a lot of people coming in because they're looking for people's names that they know. They're looking for addresses where they see crime tape up. They're looking for information because they know something. What we see them doing with that then is reading the stories and then commenting on them, sharing their experiences, whether they knew the victim or the suspect, whether they have experience with the criminal justice system in this case, and sometimes even sharing information about what they would like to see happen, how they would like to see the criminal justice system working.

    And that's really gratifying.


    Well, so how does this differ from the way most crime is covered today, or is the difference that most crime is not covered today and you're trying to put it out there?


    Most newsrooms cover crime in the day-to-day blotter approach. So they hear about something overnight from the police department. They write that up as a 150-, 200-word, maybe a 500-word story. And then that story disappears five, six, seven hours later.

    What Homicide Watch does is that it stores that story in our database, with all of the data around it, so that we're able to then put it into its context of, this is the fifth homicide on this street in the past two years, or this is the 10th victim under the age of 18, or 50 percent of the victims this year have been male or female, whatever it may be.

    And that helps the public better understand the role that violent crime is playing in the communities and what they would like to do about it.


    Now, we said it is up and running in several other cities. And I gather there are other such efforts in still more cities.

    What's the potential here? Where does it seem to work well? What kind of situation does it work well in? And why have you yourself now, as we reported, have to close down the Washington, D.C., office?


    In all the cities that we're in, in Chicago, in Trenton, New Jersey, here in Boston in partnership with Northeastern University, we see an incredible community around these sites.

    We see people wanting to engage on these issues, wanting to better understand how the criminal justice system is working. And those are communities where Homicide Watch works very well. I believe that there are many more of those communities across the United States.

    What's happened in Washington, D.C., is that, two years ago, I accepted a Nieman-Berkman Fellowship at Harvard to study journalism innovation. And Chris and I moved to Cambridge in order for me to complete that fellowship.

    We ran a Kickstarter campaign at that time to raise money to pay student interns to keep doing the work I was doing, going to court to attend trials, hearings, sentencings, et cetera. We have been running with those interns for two-and-a-half years. And it's become increasingly evident that we can no longer continue to edit the site and run the site from Boston.

    It is a local news site, and we believe it needs D.C. ownership that can be there.


    Well, just briefly, but more broadly, you see the potential for this around the country, and you see it developing?


    That's correct.

    I think that any community that is trying to come together to talk about how they would like the criminal justice system to work is a community that is better served by reporting that includes context, and includes data, and includes space for them to share.


    All right, Laura Amico, thank you so much.


    Thank you.

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