Friday, July 8, 2016

Just because they wear a badge

There isn’t a national census of police officers in the United States, but most sources peg the total number at somewhere around 750,000. These officers have hundreds of thousands on interactions with citizens every day: crime victims, witnesses, drivers in traffic crashes, arrests, traffic stops, mental health crises, dog bites, missing persons, drunk drivers, arrest warrants, and so forth. Most of these are in relatively mundane circumstances, and some are in the most ugly situations imaginable.

Inevitably, a small number of these contacts will go badly. Some of those involve not mere error or misjudgment, but rather misconduct by a police officer: anger, hatred, lack of emotional control, maliciousness, reckless disregard. Officers are hired from humankind, where all of these bad motives exist, and where even otherwise good people do bad things from time to time.

In the context of the enormous number of police-citizen interactions, it is perhaps remarkable that so few tragic errors, lapses, and bad acts occur. We learn about this tiny number, however, almost instantly, and seemingly continuously, in this day and age of social media and a news cycle that never rests.

When malice or recklessness by a police officer is the cause of the bad thing, he or she deserves to be held accountable just as any other person—maybe even more so. We should rightly be able to expect more from our police, to whom we cede power and authority.

But rational people should understand that “the police” is a false construct. Rather, policing is composed of individual officers, organized into individual departments. The officers and the departments have differences in their skill levels, training, education, disposition, orientation towards the use of force, accountability systems, and cultures. To target the Dallas Police Department and 12 Dallas officers with violent rage due to the bad act of some officer elsewhere entirely is more than absurd, it is the most evil manifestation of stereotyping.

You will be hard-pressed to find this phenomenon with any other occupational group. Individual teachers, preachers, senators, presidents, and physicians commit bad acts, but no one indicts the entire field of education, the clergy, the senate, the presidency, or medicine.

Imagine you are the husband or wife of a police officer anywhere in the United States today. You’ve watched an assassin kill five Dallas officers who had nothing whatsoever to do with the events that created the grievance motivating his attack. Think about how you would feel when your loved one goes to work this evening, as you realize that the same mindless anger could be directed at him or her,

just because they wear a badge.

Isn't that the same process by which mindless anger is directed towards someone just because of the color of their skin, their religion, gender, national origin, or sexual identity?

Friday, July 1, 2016

Still appears to be working

Here's an update to the police department's strategy to deal with chronic repeat suspended drivers by impounding more of their cars. We now have a fourth month of data, that the decline in suspended drivers compared to overall traffic tickets continues. The 218 suspended driving tickets in June represent 2.95% of the total tickets, which is the lowest month since the time-series comparison period starts in January, 2013. Each of the four months since the policy change has been the lowest month.

Now, a little theory: crackdown strategies like this are usually based on the belief that violators will be deterred. The deterrence can be specific (the offender ticketed is deterred from continuing to violate the law) or general (other suspended drivers, learning of the crackdown, will be less likely to drive and/or drive less frequently). Crackdowns are generally announced with considerable fanfare, in order to increase general deterrence.

There is a considerable body of research demonstrating that the deterrent impact of crackdowns usually decays rapidly over time. Interest fades, publicity lags, things rebound more or less to the same condition as before the crackdown. It will be very interesting to see if that occurs with the police impound strategy. It certainly hasn't yet, despite the fact that there has really been little publicity about the strategy since the initial blast of news stories back in February.

I think there is a good chance that the effect of this strategy may be quite sticky compared to other crackdowns, because this one is not just based on the deterrent effect. It has an additional component: removing the instrumentality of the crime--the car. Impounding the car for 30 days makes it more difficult for the suspended driver to continue to drive. The time and effort necessary for finding another vehicles to drive is significant, and that alone should impact the likelihood the driver gets back behind the wheel, as well as how quickly he or she does so.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The old-fashioned way

With the explosion of social media and smartphones, there has been a growing expectation that police departments and 911 Centers ought to send tailored alerts of potential risks directly to citizens and organizations, such as schools, businesses, assisted living centers, and just ordinary citizens. Last night, a local TV station ran a story about this, interviewing the proprietor of a day care center who was unhappy that she wasn't notified of a shooting that happened at 3:50 AM on Sunday morning a short distance from her business.

There are many software systems out there for delivering mass notifications. The problem is not the lack of technology, rather it is the lack of the infrastructure necessary to exploit the technology. Specifically, it would require personnel. Essentially, someone would need to be dedicated to the task of listening to the radio and watching the flow in the computer-aided dispatch center. This person would need to make a determination about which incidents need to trigger a public alert, to whom it should be sent, and what the content should be. He or she would not only need to compose the alert, but would also need to determine when an "all clear" rescinding the alert is appropriate.

This is no small task. It would require someone with exceptionally good knowledge about the dynamics of police events in the field. Not very many robberies, for example, represent an immediate risk to people in the surrounding area. Many reports are belated, and in many cases the assailant is known to the victim and was long gone before the police were even called. Conversely, a simple hit-and-run crash could turn into an emergency event, if the wanted felon involved in the collision flees the scene on foot armed with a pistol and disappears into the surrounding neighborhood. Although technology can help, this is something that cannot be entirely automated. Human judgement is needed to distinguish the incidents that require notifications from the background noise.

Moreover, a mass notification system like this would need to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That requires about 5.5 full-time equivalent employees. In a low-volume environment, you might be able to use employees who multi-task, performing other duties but able to drop what they are doing to attend to alerts as needed, a sergeant, for instance, or a dispatcher. That's not going to happen reliably in a busy 911 Center where employees are frequently working mandatory overtime, and where its a struggle just to fill the seats. Consider that during a big event that might suggest an alert, the dispatchers and police officers are especially busy.

If it's so difficult, you might ask, why are universities able to manage such systems, notifying their students and staffs of risky business? Aside from the fact that universities are generally mighty well funded, the simple fact is that your typical university police department is not very busy. As an example, the University of Nebraska Police Department handled 13 incidents yesterday. The Lincoln Police Department handled 334.

I'm not saying "never," but the impediments to such notification systems are substantial. Recently, we have been looking at various notification systems, and trying to brainstorm about how we might possibly incorporate these into our operations. If we had the personnel to do so, we might even use something as simple as the police department's Twitter feed, but it isn't staffed or monitored constantly, and we don't have the people to do so. We've also been considering the feasibility of launching a real time crime center for Lincoln, which might be an ideal location for a public notification system.

In the days before Twitter and Facebook, people turned to the news media in order to stay abreast of things going on in the community. Folks actually used to listen to AM radio, and could follow the news reports of the Martian invasion and take appropriate precautions. If we had some big deal going on and needed to get the word out quickly, a couple of phone calls to the radio stations were obligatory. In every news room in Lincoln, whether print, radio, or television, assignment editors and reporters are listening to police scanners right now. These days, they are often tweeting about interesting or emergent transmissions they hear in near real-time.

For the moment, your workaround might be to simply follow the Twitter feeds of a few of the local news outlets if you really need to know what's breaking bad at any given moment. Rest assured that if we thought a day care, senior center, business, or residence was in imminent risk of harm, we'd be making concerted efforts to notify you the old-fashioned way: door to door, and also through the news media.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Out of the ashes

The fire last month that destroyed Ideal Grocery in Lincoln was devastating on several levels. The neighborhood lost a convenient full-service grocery store within walking distance. The City lost a landmark. Lincoln's foodies lost a favorite destination where you could pick up a tin of escargot, a bottle of Veri Veri Teriyaki, and a tube of anchovy paste.

Tonja and I visited Ideal frequently, usually on Saturdays. In addition to the quaint charm of its 1930s vibe, what we really loved about Ideal was the memories it stirred up of  Pete's IGA, the tiny 3-aisle store Tonja's dad owned at 31st and U Street--before he went big time with Wagner's IGA at 33rd and A Street. Both buildings are still there. Wagner's is now the A Street Market, not much changed from the time Pete acquired it in 1976.

I worked for Pete for six years at the little store from the age of 15 until I joined the police department. Tonja worked for her dad for 10 years at the "big" store. Every time we went into Ideal, the memories flooded back.

After the fire, I tweeted about one of the things I'd really miss from Ideal: the small wheeled shopping baskets, a precursor to the modern grocery cart. Many others commiserated on Twitter. But here's a surprise.

I stopped into Leon's at Winthrop Road and South Street yesterday to pick up a steak for the grill, and what did I find but the famous Ideal carts, looking pretty much the same as they did during the Hoover administration.

Our checker told us that she helped wire brush the baskets, which were salvaged from the debris. That's a nice save out of the ashes that many Lincoln citizens will continue to enjoy, and explain to their grand children!


Monday, June 13, 2016

What we can do

One of the largest mass shootings in the history of the United States yesterday in Orlando has many public safety professionals thinking about what can be done in their local context. While some of the issues are national or even international in scope, there are some very good things we can do at the local level. Here are some thoughts that came to mind over the lunch hour. Although I think we have given all of these some attention, there is always room for improvement.
  • We can improve our ability to collect, analyze, and when appropriate disseminate intelligence information. The may mean providing good training to police officers on what to be alert for, how to document suspicious activity, and so forth. We should not forget the community, either. We did a lot of work in the 1990s with landlords and retailers to make them aware of the kinds of activities that might be related to methamphetamine labs. The result was lots of tips that really helped. We need to do the same thing surrounding terrorism and radicalization. We also need to maintain or improve our analytical abilities. This means investing in software, system, and (most importantly) analysts needed to turn information into intelligence, 
  • We can participate in information sharing and joint agency operations. Participation in joint terrorism task forces, shared information platforms, and even just good informal relationships with our area law enforcement agencies will maximize our opportunities to connect the dots. We must avoid information silos and cultivate an environment of inter-agency collaboration.
  • We can cultivate and maintain a good relationship with the LGBTQ community, developing personal relationships with opinion leaders, community members, business owners, and so forth. These citizens feel incredibly vulnerable in the wake of Orlando, and need to be assured that we take our duty to protect them seriously, and are committed to doing our best to vigorously investigate hate crimes and hold perpetrators responsible. 
  • We can cultivate and maintain good relationships with the Muslim community in our jurisdiction. They need to know that we are concerned for their safety and well-being, that we will protect them and the free exercise of their religion. We need to develop personal relationships of trust, so that Muslim citizens will feel comfortable contacting the police about when they have information we need to know about.
  • We can train and exercise for active shooter events and mass casualty events. We can make sure that this training includes everyone that is likely to be working together in such incidents: law enforcement agencies, 911 centers, fire and rescue agencies, hospitals, etc.. We should train for a team effort, because if we ever have such incidents, they will undoubtedly involve all of us. 
  • We can train police officers in critical emergency care for traumatic wounds. We can make sure that officers have the basic equipment and training that might allow them to save a critically-injured victim before medical personnel can take over patient care. 
  • We can improve our ability to get life-saving emergency care to patients in danger zones. This will require improving communication between law enforcement personnel and EMS responders. We need to train together with enough regularity that we all understand how we will safely get patients out, and paramedics in, when the threat is still imminent, and the situation only partially stabilized. We need to practice communication, unified command, and collaborative operations in the mundane daily events, such as traffic crashes, so it is second nature when it is most needed. 
  • We can organize a multi-disciplinary threat management team, with expertise in assessing information and identifying the truly dangerous.
Early identification and rapid intervention are the most important components to prevention, and prevention is the paramount goal. Robust intelligence processes, information sharing, and good connections in the community are critical to intercepting terrorists before they can act.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Appears to be working

A few months ago, the Lincoln Police Department implemented a new policy that encourages officers to take advantage more often of a state law that allows vehicles driven by suspended drivers to be impounded for 30 days. The policy change went into effect in late February, and provides an opportunity for a bit of evaluation research.

Since the policy is intended to deter suspended drivers, if it's working we would expect a decrease after implementation. Here's the problem: you can't simply count up the number of suspended driving tickets, because the overall level of traffic enforcement would influence that independent of the policy change. When officers are writing a lot of tickets, they are more likely to encounter suspended drivers then when they are writing fewer tickets.

Traffic enforcement activity by police officers varies considerably over time for several reasons, such as weather, service demands, and staffing levels. As an example, the peak month for tickets in 2015 was March, with 8,046 tickets (both warnings and officials), while the low month, December, produced 5,718. In order to account for these fluctuations, a good measure would be to calculate a percentage of tickets that yielded a suspended driver: suspended driving tickets divided by total tickets.

As the chart shows, that percentage takes a significant drop in the three months since the policy change. In fact, March, April, and May are the lowest months during the entire comparison period, which begins in January, 2013. If the percentage during the past three months had been the same as the average over the preceding 38 months, there would have been 159 additional suspended driving arrests from March through May.


I think this is pretty strong evidence that the policy is having the intended effect, although I'd like to watch it over a longer time period. Sometimes the impact of a crackdown initiative decays quickly over time. Officer Luke Bonkiewicz, whose research credentials are better than mine, is doing some more sophisticated work with these data. In particular, he is also looking at repeat suspended drivers. His work may shed even more light on the efficacy of impounding vehicles. Police practitioners ought to do this stuff more often: simple evaluations that, despite some methodological warts, provide evidence about what might be working (or not.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

New feature in PulsePoint

PulsePoint released a new version of the app yesterday. The update adds one significant feature you may notice, called "roaming agency." This feature causes PulsePoint to add the agency at your current location to the incident list. You don't have to look it up any more, until and unless you want to follow that agency and get their notifications on things like traffic crashes and fires. Here's a short video with the details:

"Roaming Agency" Overview from PulsePoint Foundation on Vimeo.

This should be particularly convenient for those users who live in an area where several jurisdictions close to one another have implemented PulsePoint. Your list/map of incidents will always be in your current location.

When you travel, a glance at PulsePoint will now let you know whether your current location is a PulsePoint connected community. Hopefully the middle part of the country will eventually  start to fill in as more agencies adopt this technology.

Lincoln has just over 8,100 users who have downloaded PulsePoint and are following Lincoln Fire & Rescue as of this morning. Not bad, when our goal was 5,000 in the first year since the launch in early October, 2015 and we still have almost  five months to go.

It seems that for the moment "roaming agency" is only a feature in the iOS version of PulsePoint. In Lincoln, 56% of the downloads have been for iOS, 44% for Android.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Two new chiefs

I'm happy to welcome Jeff Bliemeister and Micheal Despain to the City of Lincoln. Jeff has been appointed chief of police, and Mike will begin serving as our new fire chief later this summer. Both were selected after a nationwide search and extensive screening to narrow an excellent pool of candidates.

Not only is it unusual to have new chiefs in both public safety agencies, but it is also unusual to have two chiefs who come from outside the departments. There haven't been many of those in the past fifty  years. Former fire chief Niles Ford (who is now the chief of the Baltimore Fire Department) comes to mind, as does George Hansen, who served a few years as Lincoln's police chief in the 1970's. LPD has only had 6 chiefs in the past 75 years!

One of the good things about chiefs with experience elsewhere it that they bring a new perspective. Sometimes we all get into our groove, and miss things that are in plain sight to a fresh set of eyes. I'm looking forward to working with both of our chiefs, and wish them well as they embark on this new phase of their careers.