I spent two months analyzing data on more than 26 million complaints received by New York City’s 311 system to reveal that the city police department chronically ignores reports of reckless driving, illegal parking, and abandoned vehicles. This analysis of more than a decade of data showed how the NYPD’s neglect of resident complaints has fostered a culture of lawlessness on city streets that has gotten worse as traffic deaths in the city climb to their highest point in years.
As a result of this story:
– The city Department of Investigation has launched an investigation, which is ongoing, into one of the story’s findings: that city police officers may be harassing and intimidating frequent users of the 311 system.
– The city inquiry was demanded by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, who expressed alarm about the story’s findings and vowed to improve the NYPD’s response to 311 complaints.
– The NYPD has launched its own internal review.
– The city Department of Information Technology released previously withheld data about city standards for 311 complaint response times.
– The city Civilian Complaint Review Board said it would investigate allegations that the NYPD had falsified responses to 311 reports.
– City council members criticized the NYPD’s handling of 311 in a hearing in which the story was frequently cited.
– Other, larger news outlets–The Atlantic and The New York Post—wrote follow-up stories.
– City lawmakers released statements condemning the NYPD’s handling of 311 complaints.
I used PostgreSQL to examine and manipulate the city 311 data. I used QGIS to join it with a police precinct boundary shapefile to determine which precincts were the most neglectful of 311 reports. This revealed one precinct was a major outlier in the city, closing unusually large numbers of complaints impossibly fast and with false justifications. And I used Tableau to map the complaints, which revealed further patterns and damning anecdotal findings in the data. For example, this revealed that a high-profile cyclist death in 2018 was preceded by more than a dozen complaints about unsafe conditions for cyclists on the street where she died, which the NYPD had ignored.
I combined these data techniques with more traditional reporting that drew on hundreds of pages of public records and interviews with dozens of city officials, former city police officers, safe-streets advocates, attorneys, and residents who have filed years of 311 reports.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The challenges of this project included working with such a large database, prying information from stonewalling city officials, and finding current or former NYPD officials to speak candidly about the department’s chronic mishandling of these complaints. Further, Streetsblog is a very small organization with few resources. This is the first project of this size that we have ever carried out.
The NYPD’s neglect of 311 has long been a source of ire for city residents, but reports on the problem had only been anecdotal. This story was the first to thoroughly document the NYPD’s sheer disregard for resident complaints and the failings of this crucial city service.
What can others learn from this project?
This project demonstrated the value of a largely overlooked public dataset in assessing the performance of city agencies. It points to many additional stories that journalists could pursue with the same data—like examining the 311 response of other city agencies or joining this data with other datasets to scrutinize other aspects of the NYPD’s 311 response. (I’ve already conducted one such follow up, cross-referencing the 311 data to city summons data to show that the NYPD may be lying about the summonses it claims to write in response to 311 complaints.)