Why is there a sheriff's helicopter hovering over my neighborhood? Why are deputies putting up crime-scene tape down my street?
Those answers are now at your fingertips and just a few clicks away. Starting Friday, the Broward County, Fla., Sheriff's Office is making the information available for more than a dozen cities and towns it serves.
The public may find the crime data from the past six months — from assaults to robberies and break-ins — at crimemapping.com. (A free app for the iPhone is available with the information, and an app for Android devices is in the works, officials said.)
The public may use the free site to learn more about crimes near their homes, workplaces, schools and other places of interest. But law enforcement also may benefit by encouraging users to be more vigilant, authorities said.
"Engaging the public is key to crime prevention," sheriff's spokeswoman Gina Carter said.
The information shown online includes a crime's date and time, a brief description and an approximate location — down to the city block where it happened.
"We don't pinpoint exact addresses for privacy purposes," said sheriff's information technology manager Scott Burton.
Also available for each incident on the map: a link to the sheriff's website and Broward Crime Stoppers, where tips about any particular crime may be submitted anonymously.
"We live in a world of information overload," Burton said. "It's nice to make it a one-shop platform for the community."
Users may pick an address and check for crime within a radius of 500 feet to up to two miles, he said. They can also sign up for email alerts when crime happens in their neighborhood. The website also may tally the types and numbers of crimes, which may be especially useful for homeowner groups.
Crimes published on the site are first approved by the Sheriff's Office, a process that could take 24 to 48 hours, Carter said. Cases that include juvenile offenders or juvenile victims will be omitted from the map, as may be crimes that are still open and under investigation, she said.
The sheriff's crime-mapping effort for the public began when Deerfield Beach city officials prompted the Sheriff's Office to offer such a tool, said city spokeswoman Rebecca Medina. Residents wanted to know more about crimes in their neighborhood, Medina said.
"If there's a chopper overhead, [the commissioner's] phone just goes crazy," she said. "They're a very, very active group of people out there. We have that type of activism in at least two districts."
Deerfield Beach City Commissioner Bill Ganz said that keeping residents abreast of recent crimes helps nab criminals.
It happened in his district where email blasts were regularly sent out and people learned about an imposter posing as an alarm salesman.
Residents reported the suspicious activity and by the time the suspect made his way to another neighborhood, deputies were waiting, Ganz said.
"It helps eliminate a lot of false information when people have the real facts. At least it makes people aware and when you're aware, people act more cautious," he said. "It acts as a deterrent and a safety measure."
©2014 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)