LOS ANGELES — I have no reason to feel unsafe in my neighborhood, but I appear to be surrounded by dozens of people convicted of everything from theft and sex crimes to public drunkenness and speeding.
Not that I think of my slice of Los Angeles as Wisteria Lane. But the sight of a map pinpointing exactly where these lawbreakers live — or once lived — can rattle your sense of what a safe neighborhood is.
I got some insight into the criminal quotient in my neighborhood on several Web sites that turn government data into interactive guides of criminal activity.
For home buyers, these sites can be a tempting tool to discern whether a neighborhood is rife with crime, or a great place to raise the kids. But how accurate are the pictures they portray?
One site that debuted Friday is CriminalSearches.com.
Created by the folks behind PeopleFinders.com, the new site crunches monthly government data down to the state and county level, says Bryce Lane, president and chief operating officer of PeopleFinders.com.
"What we're really good at is establishing connections across all these different data sets, linking it back to a particular person," Lane said, acknowledging, however, that some data might be missing. The company also doesn't tap into federal crime data.
The Neighborhood Watch feature lets you focus your search by address or ZIP code. You can also search by a person's name or specific home address, and there's a separate search with a detailed map of registered sex offenders.
Punch in the details and the site generates a map showing small squares that represent each person who resides — or previously resided — in the area and was convicted of a crime at some point. In some cases, the site will turn up people who were arrested, but never convicted.
Click on an individual square and you can get the exact address for the person and a description of their violation, among other details.
The results can be eye-opening.
But as I dug deeper into the results I found that many people are listed for traffic violations, or a crime they committed decades ago, maybe in another state.
PropertyShark.com offers a more current snapshot of crime.
In some of the metro areas, such as Los Angeles, the site links to the police department's Web site, where users can generate neighborhood maps overlaid with crime data less than a week old.
Some sites take a wider approach, showing crime trends but not specific locations.
PolicyMap.com taps Census data down to the each tract of land. It also works in FBI crime data at a county level. (The site plans to add city-level crime statistics in a few weeks.)
Like the other sites, PolicyMap lets you drill down to the neighborhood level surrounding a specific address. The map, uses a color system to show the degree to which a certain crime has occurred in the area.
PolicyMap also provides other community characteristics. You can see the percentage of campaign contributions that went to senators Barack Obama or John McCain, as well as the area's ethnic composition, or even the percent of all home loans that were subprime.
But some of the data are old. The most recent FBI crime data on the site, for example, is from 2006.
Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at the University of Southern California, says the wealth of data provided on sites like these can distort what's happening in a given community.
"It amounts to a rumor that's constructed out of real data, but presented in a way as though it represents a level of threat, that's how people read it," Myers said. "And whether it actually represents risk to the buyer is totally uncertain."
Some home buyers may take them to heart as they go about their house hunting, in some cases steering them away, Myers says.
"This kind of information, which might have questionable value or really only marginal value, could put a real chill on the housing market in some neighborhoods, just because people can afford to be really picky right now," he says.
At CriminalSearches.com, Lane contends that his service can help educate and inform people about those living around them.
In a survey of home buyers last year by the National Association of Realtors, 65 percent of respondents said that the quality of a neighborhood was the most important criteria in selecting a home. That was ahead of convenience to job location and affordability. The survey did not specifically ask about crime.
But to what degree does having access to all this information answer whether a neighborhood is safe or not?
Some buyers, like Roseanne Coyle of Ontario, Calif., go by their guts.
"I've driven past those (houses) I was interested in at different times to see what it's like around there," said Coyle, 40, a vocational teacher and mother of two teens who has ramped up her home search this summer.
"We pay attention to (details like) are there bars on windows," she says, noting the only crime-related Web sites she's checked are state sites listing registered sex offenders.
Perhaps, the perception of safety hinges as much on a neighborhood's look — manicured lawns and nice cars in driveways. Or on what it doesn't have: graffiti, homeless people, unkempt lawns.
Crime statistics won't show you that, but they don't make you feel safer, either.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.