WBEZ/Chicago Crime Commission

Probably not, but as a recent case in Chicago shows, it might not be too helpful either.

Chicago police commissioner Garry McCarthy drew heavy criticism this summer when crime statistics showed, in mid-June, that homicides were up 38 percent over the previous year. When the rise in murders first became noticeable, back in March, McCarthy announced the city would conduct a so-called "gang audit" to help police get a handle on the problem. The audit found that Chicago now has some 625 gang factions — up from 500 about a decade ago, according to Chicago magazine.

In the aftermath of the audit WBEZ took steps to compile an interactive map of gang territory throughout the city. Using a reference called the Gang Book, published by the Chicago Crime Commission, as well as public homicide data, the public radio station created an overlay of communities and gangs that's searchable by address:

The task wasn't easy. WBEZ reports that the Chicago police department refused requests to supply digital territory maps; they eventually provided basic maps at the behest of the state attorney general. Nicholas Roti, chief of organized crime for the city, told the station that the department is reluctant to release online territory maps because it doesn't want to spark a rivalry:

"We don't want to either glorify a gang or maybe unintentionally cause a gang rift," Chief Roti said. "You [a gang member] could look at a map and say, 'They got way more territory than us.'"

Chicago isn't the only city being what we might call a bit territorial about its gang knowledge. The Toledo Blade recently sued the city police department for refusing to release a "gang boundaries map" that circulates internally. Earlier this year a King County detective questioned the accuracy of an interactive map of Seattle gangs produced by the blog Northwest Gangs.

Criminal justice professor John Hagedorn of the University of Illinois at Chicago counters that the fear that gang maps will incite violence is overstated. For starters, the gangs know their boundaries much better than the police do. Additionally, the territories are regularly changing: the new WBEZ map uses information from the 2011 Gang Book, reflecting 2010 data, and as a result may be woefully outdated.

"Publishing a map in a magazine … or in a newspaper is related to no violence at all," he says.

Gang maps created by media organizations might not be harmful, but that doesn't mean they're helpful either. Earlier this year Chicago magazine created an overlay map of gang territory and homicides, suggesting a direct causal connection between the two. The maps blog Carticulate criticized the magazine for oversimplifying a complex situation:

What we can see from the map is that these two phenomenon, sometimes linked but also sometimes independent, are taking place in the same areas. What we want to know as cartographers, researchers, and observers should be: what are the underlying factors that cause both of these things to take place in the same area?

A much bigger problem with public gang maps, says Hagedorn, is that they magnify cultural and racial divisions within the city. "These maps reinforce gangs as 'the other,'" he says. "The negative part is that the public looks at where the gangs are and confirms it is 'them' — black people and Latinos, not good upstanding respectable white communities — that are 'gang infested.'" In a 2006 research paper [PDF] Hagedorn wrote about how race, not space, explained most of Chicago's gang problem.

Since the rise in homicides, Chicago police have implemented a program that may render territorial maps a little beside the point. In a late September piece for the Daily Beast, David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice describes how Commissioner McCarthy has embraced a crime-reduction strategy that emphasizes people over places. Much in the way that Amazon uses data and algorithms to suggest which books a customer might like, the Chicago police is using a social-network approach to identify gang members tied to a majority of the violence. Kennedy writes:

In other words, even in a neighborhood with a horrible gang problem, most people are not gang members, so focusing on the neighborhood misses the point.

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