Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Suicide prevention coalition

A new suicide prevention coalition has been impaneled, called together under the auspices of Lincoln Public Schools, although not an LPS committee per se. I was asked to serve, and readily agreed. The group of about 40 people convened for two hours last night at our first meeting, and I artfully avoided a leadership role by agreeing instead to assemble some data in advance of our second meeting.

I've blogged about suicide a few times before. I read all the suicide reports, and a fair share of the attempted suicides as well, particularly those reports that come in between midnight and 5:00 AM. I have access to lots of data, but I should really wait until the end of 2014 to do any serious work, so I'll be able to include the full year of 2014. Couldn't help myself, though. I was already digging in this morning.

Here's just a few tidbits of information. Over the past 20 years (sans the next two weeks) there have been 525 suicides in Lincoln, and 5,863 attempted suicides that came to the attention of the police. Of the completed suicides, 212 were with firearms, 40.4% of the total. The next most common method was hanging, followed by overdose and asphyxia. Cutting instruments and jumping from structures were 10 and 11, respectively.

After the first of the year, I'll be compiling some age and gender breakouts, creating some trend lines, and calculating some rates normalized by population. I will also be producing some maps, charts and graphs. Hopefully the members of the coalition will be better informed after looking at these products. I'll keep readers informed from time to time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Liquor licenses proliferate

Officer Conan Schafer has recently taken over responsibility for overseeing liquor license investigation and enforcement at the Lincoln Police Department, and liaison with licensees and the City Council on such matters. He has been working on the police department's liquor license database, bringing everything up to date. I asked him to straighten up the addresses a little bit during this process, to try to get them into a consistent format so they will geocode more easily.

A few times a year, I need a geographic layer of liquor licenses for one reason or another--most recently to provide this information to HunchLab for their predictive algorithm. I usually have to spend some significant time cleaning up the addresses before geocoding, but this time it was a snap. Here's a map of the 481 liquor licenses in Lincoln right now:

Click image for larger version

I found a slide in a PowerPoint I did for a 2005 conference presentation, which pegged the number of liquor licenses at 373. We appear to have 108 more licenses in 2014 than in 2005, a 29% increase in the past decade. My vague recollection is that the entire City had less than 100 liquor licenses when I pinned on the badge in the summer of 1974.

There's a lot of research about the correlation of alcohol outlets with crime and disorder, particularly associating the density of outlets with these phenomenon. We certainly have some areas in Lincoln with a dense concentration of licenses, but I'm of the opinion that the relationship of alcohol outlets to crime and disorder is quite different based on the type of outlets and their business practices. Don't let the customers  get drunk, and problems are considerably reduced, both inside the establishment and in the general neighborhood.

Friday, December 5, 2014


Last week, my lovely wife was hinting around about putting up some outdoor Christmas decorations. Our unadorned home is, well, standing out on the block somewhat. My position has been that those decorations you put up on a beautiful fall weekend, you'll have to take down on a bitter Saturday in January, so I have always resisted. Occasionally, especially when the kids were still at home, I would relent with a minimalist scheme intended to reduce my labor to the bare minimum needed in order to maintain domestic tranquility.

There is, however, another justification for my curmudgeonly refusal to participate in the garish commercialization of Christmas. Just as those pumpkins on the porch are nothing more than ammunition for vandals, those Christmas decorations are tempting targets for thieves. This morning in my inbox was this Crime Alert from

There you have it, boatloads of expensive d├ęcor swiped from lawns right in my own neighborhood. Yet another case-in-point I can pull out to explain to Tonja why I'm watching football tomorrow instead of stringing lights and inflating snowmen. I am vindicated.

Everyone in Lincoln should subscribe to Crime Alerts from For that matter, everyone in any jurisdiction that provides its data to the Omega Group for should do so. Here in Nebraska, that's Lincoln Police, Omaha Police, Lancaster County Sheriff, and Grand Island Police. I'm signed up for my daughter's address in Omaha, my son's in Lincoln, and my own. It's free, easy and lets me know in a day when a crime I'm interested in has been reported nearby.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

More not necessarily better

Back in 1994 when I was first appointed police chief in Lincoln, one of my priorities was to rewrite the department's policy manual, composed of a few hundred General Orders, covering everything from traffic direction to death notifications. The loose-leaf manual issued to every employee was bulging, bloated, and hopelessly inconsistent in style, individual General Orders having been authored by dozens of people over a couple decades, often in stilted, legalistic prose that sometimes seems to infect police work like a bad virus.

In 1995, I finally set to the task, and we rewrote the entire set. The result was a vastly more concise manual, slimmed down to about an inch. For the next 16 years, my operating rule was simple: if a new word went in, another word had to come out elsewhere. I did not want the manual to return to its former corpulence, because I have a strong belief that familiarity and compliance with a policy manual is inversely correlated with its length. It simply isn't reasonable to expect employees to ingest and remember a collection of policies that resembles the unabridged dictionary.

In the past few years, however, both the Lincoln Police Department and Lincoln Fire &Rescue have converted entirely to online policy manuals. While in most ways this is a good thing, one of the unintended side effects is that the swelling is less noticeable. The imperative to keep the manual svelte has to some extent evaporated. No one is sweating over every paragraph quite so much, trying to figure out how more succinct language could prevent page two from spilling over to a third page.

I acquired a great example of the problem several years ago, from another midwest capital city police department that shall remain nameless. It was a seven-page policy entitled "Escape of Zoo Animals." The seven pages included drawings showing the best shot placement, should it become necessary to deal with various large mammals. I can just imagine a police officer, confronted with a rampaging rhinoceros, reaching for the manual and thumbing to page 543 for instruction.

Of course, with an online manual you could just pull over to the curb and enter rhinoceros in the search box--that is, if you can spell rhinoceros. Some discipline will be necessary to keep the policies trim, and ensure that our employees really can be familiar with the most important guidelines they need to know, and to find the relevant content easily when in doubt.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Geocoding crucial

The Director's Desk readership includes a lot of analysts and GIS aficionados. I'm going to geek out in this post, so unless you are among them, consider yourself forewarned.

Public safety analysts and technicians mine data from dispatch records, incident report, and other databases in order to work with these data in a GIS framework. The dots don't appear on the maps magically, though. The geocoding process uses software algorithms to convert the text description of an address into a point on a map. 

Geocoding is both art and science, and accuracy is important. If large numbers of events will not geocode, or geocode improperly, the validity of any analysis is compromised. It doesn't take much to throw things off, either, because geocoding errors are often not random. Rather, they tend to be systematic: the same address gets missed over and over, or a tiny error in a street reference file results in the same address getting incorrectly placed on the wrong side of a census tract boundary, evey single time. 

Because of this, accuracy of geocoding should be a top concern for those of us who manage GIS applications. The key is to understand what isn't geocoding properly, and to systematically correct as much of that is possible. You may not be able to prevent the occasional fat-fingered entry where someone inserted an extra zero in an address field, but if you can never properly geocode the street address of a local high school, you've got to figure out why and correct that. 

Here in Lincoln, we're geocoding a few hundred thousand police and fire incidents and dispatches annually. I watch the unmatched records closely, in order to monitor any consistent geocoding problems. So I was pretty pleased to see this geocoding history report for recent fire dispatches yesterday morning:

Hard to top that, in almost a thousand records that are updated twice daily. That's the Omega Group's Import Wizard software pictured in this screen shot, which manages the data import and geocoding from both police and fire records systems in Lincoln, in order to populate CrimeView and FireView applications.

My advice to analysts is not to be complacent even if you have a high hit rate. Keep an eye on your unmatched records, find the repeats, figure out why, and fix the problem whenever possible. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Foiled by Facebook

An interesting case (B4-106047) early this morning caught my attention in today's police reports. Shortly after midnight, an officer was dispatched to a downtown bar, after an employee became suspicious of a customer's true identity. It seems the employee checked her ID to determine if she was of legal age, but noticed that the name on the ID and the name on the credit card presented for payment did not match.

The police were summoned. The customer told the investigating officer that the ID was hers, but the credit card was her mother's, which she had permission to use. The photo ID looked like her, but the officer wasn't completely certain. Lacking any evidence to the contrary, however, no further action was taken. Afterwards, the employees did a little research of there own, and found the social media profile of the name on the credit card. Sure enough, it was unmistakably the customer, who had apparently "borrowed" an ID from someone that looked similar enough to her that it wasn't obvious to the officer at the scene.

The customer had slipped out, so the bar employee notified the officer, and showed her what they had found. She then contacted the defendant by cellphone. She fessed up to the scheme, and voluntarily agreed to meet the investigating officer at police headquarters to receive her citations for minor attempt to purchase alcohol and providing false information to a police officer.

You can find most anything on the Internet these days. Nice work, Duffy's!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Learning curve

The blast of winter weather last week caught motorists in Lincoln off guard. Balmy temperatures in the 60s during the first week of November were followed by single digits last week, with a couple dustings of snow. It seems that every year there is a certain learning curve, as motorists try to adapt to winter driving conditions.

Tuesday morning's commute was light, due to the fact that government offices and financial institutions were closed for Veteran's Day, but Lincoln drivers managed to get involved in 84 traffic crashes nonetheless. It was not even measurable precipitation, but just enough to glaze the streets. On Saturday, a whopping 1.5 inches of snowfall resulted in 81 crashes: almost four times the daily average.

I noted an interesting pattern to the collisions when I did an hour-of-the-day analysis using CrimeView Dashboard. The first graph shows the distribution by time of day for crashes on Tuesday, November 11. The second graph is for Saturday, November 15.

As you can see, Tuesday's crashes spiked in a two-hour window during the morning drive-time, after which street conditions quickly improved. Saturday's crashes were spread more throughout the day. Notice the dip on Saturday at 1400 hours, when most Nebraskans were finding a TV in order to watch a football game that turned out to be something of a let down.

Time to refresh the basics: leave earlier, take your time, go easy on the gas when accelerating, keep a healthy following distance, anticipate your stops, and make sure you can see the spot where the tires of the vehicle ahead touch the pavement when you come to a stop in traffic. If you've been thinking the tread is getting a little worn, it would be a good time now to replace those tires and improve your grip.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Flyover country

Nebraska's are all familiar with the fact that millions of Americans living in big cities and on the coasts are geographically challenged. It happens like this: you encounter someone from Massachusetts in the airport lounge in Atlanta, and strike up a conversation. "Where are you from?" she asks. "Nebraska," you respond. "Oh," she says, "I love Las Vegas!"

There are, however, major advantages to living in flyover country, among which is that you generally can figure out east, west, north, and south--even up and down--quite a bit better than your fellow citizens in more populous places. Smug in the knowledge that Lincoln is actually the 72nd largest city in the USA, I simply smile at the misconceptions harbored by those who navigate by subway stops and freeway numbers.

So, I'm sitting in the living room yesterday morning, reading the news on my MacBook and encounter a bunch of links to news stories about the FBI's annual release of their statistical report, Crime in America. One of the links is to an online database at the Detroit Free Press. I'm always interested in these journalistic data projects, so I followed the link, and went to look up Lincoln--just to ensure the data was accurate.

Low and behold, Nebraska appears to have left the Union!