Mico Briscoe. Black. Male. 18. Shot on November 26, 2011.
Marcellus J. Darnaby, aka “Boom.” Black. Male. 32. Shot on June 15, 2011.
Lucki Nancy Pannell. Black. Female. 18. Shot on February 19, 2011.
These are just a few of the 152 homicides currently listed on HomicideWatchDC.org. In the coming months and years, that number is sure to increase. Since September 2010, Laura Amico, the site’s founder, has tracked every single homicide that has occurred in Washington, D.C., from the day that it occurred until the perpetrator’s arrest and conviction.
[Profile updated April 17, 2013]
- Read more about Homicide Watch
On Homicide Watch, murder victims are given a page that includes their photograph and aggregated public information on the investigation. For example, Lucki Pannell, a high school senior who was with a friend on the porch of her home when she was hit by a bullet during a triple shooting, has a page with 16 entries. The first is the initial report of the death from The Washington Post on the morning of February 20, 2011. Two hours later, Amico added an entry that included the outpouring of grief from friends and family on Facebook and Twitter. (“I heard the shots but never thought they was for you,” reads one.) Later entries include statements from local government officials, and the arrest and eventual release of a suspect. A Google map with the location of the shooting is displayed, as are the names and phone numbers of the detectives assigned to the case.
Giving this amount of detailed information is an integral part of Homicide Watch’s mission to give every homicide in the city equal attention sustained over time.
“If we are to understand violent crime in our community, the losses of every family, in every neighborhood must be recognized. And the outcome of every trial — be it a conviction or an acquittal — must be recorded,” states the site.
Founder Laura Amico was a former daily crime reporter with the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif. before moving to Washington, D.C. with her husband in 2009. She says no one was hiring crime reporters at the time. While she was kept out of the crime beat, she noticed that several homicides in her neighborhood were impossible to follow in the local media because of the scant or inconsistent attention that they received after the initial event. Together with her husband, Chris Amico, a web developer and journalist, they developed an idea for an online database where information on murders could be easily compiled and added to over time.
“The problem that we’re addressing is not so much a lack of coverage as it is an organizational problem,” explains Amico. “The architecture of the site itself is really significant and the way people move through the site is really significant.” On Homicide Watch, viewers can search by name, date, race, and suspect. By contrast, most online news sites don’t have crime information in one place or allow people to look for what they need, says Amico. For example, The Washington Post’s The Crime Scene adopts the same format as a police blotter, mixing homicides in with robberies according to date, and making searching by other parameters difficult.
Breaking with the tradition of crime reporting, Amico says she rarely visits crime scenes, instead relying on the Internet. “It’s just not necessary for me [because] within an hour of a fatal shooting, I can find a dozen people talking about it on Twitter,” she says. “They’ll post a memorial photo. I can get more from knowing what to search online than going to a crime scene.” In some cases, Amico has been able to identify crimes that haven’t been reported yet by trolling social media sites.
“I do a lot of work managing my analytics. One thing I do is monitor the search terms that people use to come into the site,” she explains. “Occasionally a victim’s name will show up [in the analytics] even though there hasn’t been any news in a long time. I’ll think, ‘Why is that person searching that?’ It will be the victim’s birthday or something like that. The case is never really closed for the family. They will come back to a place or a story again and again, and in ways that I can’t anticipate.”
Homicide Watch is so far run entirely by Amico, who works full-time on the site, and her husband, whose full-time job is as an application developer for NPR’s Impact on Government project. The site operates on a small budget made up of their personal income, some Google ads, and the occasional modest donation made by a viewer through PayPal.
One particularly bright spot on the revenue horizon: Amico is in contract negotiations to sell the custom operating system behind the site to a newspaper in another American city (she cannot disclose which one until the contract is finalized in the coming weeks). The operating system—a mix of WordPress and Django—will be established on a server and the newspaper’s reporter will be able to login to add homicide cases and photos. [Editor’s note: We’ll provide updates on the arrangement as soon as they are available.]
“We’d like to be in newsrooms across the country,” says Amico. “The problem people have in newsrooms is sustainability. The reporter loses interest over time or they have a reporter assigned to [the case] who takes another job. It’s been personality driven in the past. Having the database takes that personality issue and makes it less important.” The New Haven Register recently launched New Haven Homicide Report, which they say is modeled on Homicide Watch D.C. (Amico was not paid for the inspiration.)
In addition to having a nascent but growing influence on other media’s crime reporting, Homicide Watch has also had instances of affecting the very murders it tracks. Amico has received emails from people with information about crimes that ask her to forward the tip anonymously to detectives. A detective familiar with the murder of 21-year-old Ashley McRae—the first homicide profiled by Amico—says that the presence of the case on the site led to a flood of information to the police. (McRae’s killer, Damon Sams, was sentenced to ten years in prison last July.)
Beyond Homicide Watch’s tangible influence is the emotional impact for visitors to the site, who can see the photographs of dozens of murder victims in one place. “I don’t think it’s intentional but I think it’s inevitable,” Amico says. “I don’t know how it could not have that impact.”
Homicide Watch Data
Name: Homicide Watch
City: Washington, D.C.
Principal Staff: Laura Amico, CEO and editor; Chris Amico, CTO.
Affiliations: Homicide Watch Trenton (in partnership with the Trentonian and Digital First Media) and Homicide Watch Chicago (in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times)
CMS: Custom platform built on Django and WordPress. The site’s blog uses a stripped-down WordPress installation, while all user-facing parts of the site, as well as database-driven features, are built in GeoDjango. The two parts of the site talk to each other using webhooks and a JSON API.
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