Sometimes, crime awareness is a members-only privilege

CRIME BEAT

October 05, 2008|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

There are 957 households in North Baltimore's Homeland neighborhood. Residents in 914 of them have joined the Homeland Association by paying a roughly $200 annual fee, giving them the right to vote, receive a newsletter and get e-mail alerts about crime.

So back in August, they quickly learned that a man riding his bicycle along Springlake Way made a lewd comment to a woman, that a gunman threatened a resident on Broxton Road and that someone stole a television, a camera and an antique gold pocket watch from a house on Cotswold Road.

The 43 Homeland residents who choose not to join the association were not alerted to these crimes, or any others.

Amber Elburn, who has lived in Homeland for the past seven years, thinks that limiting access to crime information puts everyone in danger. Upset with the community group, she steadfastly refuses to join. But she got hold of the Homeland crime bulletins from friends who are members, and she promptly reposted them on another blog designed to bridge the lines separating Baltimore neighborhoods.

It's tearing everyone apart. Instead of a battle over crime or how to fight crime, we now have a battle over how to disseminate information about crime.

The president of the Homeland Association, Robert Fiore, said he is turning the case over to attorneys to protect what he calls proprietary information.

The cover page of the "Welcome to the Homeland Association Web Site" now has this disclaimer: "Breaking news is now provided by e-mail only to dues paying association members."

Elburn and the creator of www.beeswaxneighborhoods.com, Scott Vincent, say they will continue to publish crime items obtained from the association's list-serve.

This dispute has broader implications than a simple neighborhood tiff. The Internet makes information broadly available to everyone, and also difficult to control. Who has the right to distribute or redistribute public information, such as crime reports and logs, and can their contents be freely copied from one Web site to another?

Elburn could assemble the crime data on her own, but it would be an onerous process. The community association has an established liaison with city police, making gathering and publishing the reports easy. Elburn argues that the information is so important it should be made widely available and asserts that the association wants to limit access to prevent property values from falling in Homeland.

"This should be public information so that we can keep our neighborhood safe," she said.

Vincent, who runs the beeswax blog, says too many neighborhood groups hoard all sorts of useful data.

"They say they want to control it so they don't have incorrect information out there," he said. "What happens in practice is they keep important information from the people. What the people of Homeland are doing is absurd. ... They're making crime worse for everyone. These crime trends happen across city neighborhoods. It makes sense to share this information. That's the power of the network. There's a lot of crime going on out there, and it pays to be aware of it."

Fiore said his biggest problem is that Elburn rewrote Homeland's crime items for the beeswax Web site, putting them into her own words and thus mischaracterizing them under the association's name. Elburn said she rewrites the items to avoid copyright infringement.

The association president said Elburn is free to join his group and get the information she wants. "It's voluntary, and if you want to belong, you belong," Fiore said. "If you don't, you don't. You can't not join the association but still want the benefits of membership."

When I started this column and crime blog, I reached out to several neighborhood groups and asked to sign up for their e-mail alerts to I could get a good idea of what was happening and what people were talking about. Some groups readily added me to their lists; others would not, saying they wanted to keep the information for their members.

We're all still learning and forming rules to the Internet. Blogs routinely share information, driving people back and forth to different and often competing sites, the idea being that readers don't want to be trapped in one place too long, and it benefits everyone to help them move about. At the same time, membership groups are for members, and joining has to come with some privileges.

Vincent said he tried to accommodate the concerns of groups like Homeland by allowing them to moderate the crime portion of his site. He said Homeland's moderator promptly deleted Elburn's postings, including the items about the gunman, the house break-in and the bicyclist making lewd comments.

That seems petty.

Crime isn't confined to city neighborhoods. Information shouldn't be, either.

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