Friday, October 24, 2014

Why not use cellphones?

I've been asked this question several times lately, as I make the speaking circuit and talk about the need to replace the City's aging radio system. It's a perfectly understandable question, as everyone these days is tethered to their smartphone. To be sure, cell phones are a terrific convenience. They are used all the time by public safety staff, but not for critical communications. There's good reason for that

Police officers and firefighters, are not having one-to-one conversations over the radio system. Rather, their radio traffic is one-to-many. It's a fundamental difference between a cell phone call and a public safety broadcast. Technically, you could use the same cell phone infrastructure to carry a group call, but the more serious limitations of cell phones for emergency communications lie in the design and engineering of the equipment and systems.

Ever drop your smartphone? If so, you had that sinking feeling, because we all know that the chances of it working when you pick it up are iffy. Cracked screens are a dime a dozen. How long do you think a smartphone would hold up in a foot pursuit? Do you think it would work if it got really, really wet, like directing traffic in a downpour, or on the fireground? Sure, you could encase it in the Binford 5000 case (is that reference beginning to date me?), but are you willing to bet your life on that? Public safety radios are weather-sealed, robust and mil-spec. The even greater concern, however, is not the end-user device, but rather the system itself.

Cell sites are not built to the same standard as public safety radio sites, which are engineered to withstand higher stress from such things as wind, lightning strikes, ice, and natural disasters. Public safety radio systems are designed with backups and redundancies to minimize the likelihood of failure. They also manage traffic differently, giving users priority for access to the system based on the criticality of their function. If you've ever tried using your cellphone at a big event, like a football game, festival, or mass gathering, you've probably experienced difficulty getting access to make a call. Traffic can overwhelm cell sites pretty quickly, as hundreds or thousands of users are competing for the same resources at the same time in the same area.

Experience around the country in critical incidents and events, like hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms, ice storms, and the like has shown over and over again that cell phone communications are simply too vulnerable to be relied upon for vital communications in emergencies. Simply put, when you most need communications, cell phones are least likely to work.

Overnight on October 24-25, 1997 Lincoln was hit be a devastating snowstorm. It was a late fall that year, and the leaves had not fallen yet. The weight of the wet snow was devastating. Huge limbs and trees were down everywhere. This photo below, taken by UNL climatologist Dr. Ken Dewey, depicts one of Lincoln's main thoroughfares, A Street at about 43rd. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were without utilities for up to ten days. Temporary shelters were opened around town, and the police and fire departments were in full emergency mode.

I remember standing in the Emergency Operations Center on the morning of October 25th, passing out City of Lincoln portable radios to Nebraska National Guard soldiers, who were teaming up with police officers and using HumVees to locate and evacuate home-bound citizens with complex medical issues. We had the only functioning communications system in Lincoln. It kept on ticking while telephone service--both landline and cellular--was crippled across the city for days. While this was the most severe event I remember in terms of its impact on commercial communications systems, it's certainly not the only one. Our next radio system needs the same level of reliability as the one it is replacing has delivered when the chips were down.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

More than four

Last week, the committee assembled by the Mayor to make recommendations on replacement of the City's radio system and optimization of fire stations held it's first meeting. I'm chairing the committee. Last week the committee considered the need for updating the radio system, 80% of the use of which is by public safety personnel. This week, our attention will shift to fire stations.

At the same time the committee is working, the City is also conducting what has become an annual process for engaging citizens in the discussion of the City's budget priorities. This year, the online survey portion of that process is also asking about these two public safety projects. I've been reviewing the results as they are compiled, and also looking at the comments. It's apparent to me that many people are still a little fuzzy about why we think it's important to have a fire station within four minutes travel time to as many addresses in the community as possible.

Four minutes is a national standard for urban fire and rescue services, adopted by the National Fire Protection Association and widely used as the benchmark U.S. cities.  The standard is worded as a percentile: travel time to life-threatening emergencies of four minutes or less, 90% of the time. In Lincoln, we are at 80% so far this year, and we've been getting a little worse as the years pass--primarily due to geographic growth.

It's important, because the amount of time from the onset of an emergency to the arrival by Lincoln Fire & Rescue equipment and personnel makes a big difference in the outcome. A few minutes delay in the event of a stroke, fire, traumatic injury, cardiac or respiratory arrest can literally be the difference between life and death. Right now, only about 89% of the addresses in Lincoln are within four minutes of a fire station. We'd like to get that up above 95%.

On the map below, you can easily see the areas most at risk for delayed response due to excessive travel time. Green is good, red is bad. The white outline represents the projected future service area of Lincoln in 2040. As you can see, the growth areas in the north, south, and east are going to be increasingly orange and red if we don't do something.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Great opportunity

The Lincoln Police Department is recruiting for a Crime Analysis Manager.  Since the Director's Desk is read by many analysts around the country, I am taking advantage of my blog to publicize the opening. Applications are open through November 14, on the City of Lincoln's website. Click here for the details.

Our Crime Analysis Manager, Drew Dasher, is relocating with his wife and family to Texas. He's done a great job for the past four years, and I am certain he would be happy to tell any prospects about the City, Department, and Unit.

As readers of the Director's Desk know, the Lincoln Police Department is in the front row when it comes to information resources, crime analysis, and problem-oriented policing. At all levels, our personnel make great use of our information resources, and are comfortable with information technology. Crime analysis is deeply embedded in our organization. Follow the links in the label cloud to “Crime Prevention,” "POP," or "Crime Analysis," for many examples of the type of work we do, and how crime analysis contributes to our success. 

Our five-person Crime Analysis and Intelligence Unit is an integral part of most everything we do. The unit is widely respected and appreciated by our rank-and-file officers, supervisors, and the management staff. You will work with a director, chief, and management staff who understand and appreciate the value of crime analysis and the contribution it makes to our success.

The Crime Analysis Manager will join the police department's other unit managers. Currently, our Communications Center, Records Unit, Information Technology Unit, Property & Evidence Unit, Police Garage, Accounting Unit, Victim/Witness Unit, and Forensic Unit are headed by civilian managers who participate fully on the department's management team on the same footing their sworn counterparts in operational units.

The salary range for this position reflects the relatively low cost of living in Nebraska  If you are on either coast, you will want to consider in particular the cost of housing in Lincoln. Take a look at home prices advertised by one of our local real estate brokers, or assessed values on the Lancaster County Assessor's website to get a sense of what your housing dollar buys in Lincoln. Transportation costs are also low. Lincoln is a bike-friendly city. My 15 minute drive from the southern edge of the City to downtown is 32 minutes in fair weather when I commute by bike, almost entirely on the paved trails network.

Lincoln is widely-regarded as a great place to raise kids. The City is unusually safe, and maintains its small-town feel despite its population of 270,000. Lincoln has great sports venues, a lively arts scene, a top-notch parks system, and the public schools are first rate. Lincoln lands on lots of "best places" lists every year.

If you are a crime analyst who is tired of a long commute to a job where you are treated like a second class citizen because you don't wear a badge, we offer an alternative.  If you are expected to fetch statistics and make PowerPoints for the brass, it's not like that here. If you are looking for a chance to grow professionally, we have a challenge. If you simply want to discuss this opportunity, Drew Dasher or I would love to talk you.

Drew Dasher

 Tom Casady

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

HunchLab 2.0

A few weeks ago, we began piloting HunchLab 2.0 in Lincoln. HunchLab is a crime forecasting product from Azavea. HunchLab seeks to forecast crime by analyzing historical crime data and other information related to crime, such as weather, population density, and land use. HunchLab uses these data to predict the most likely areas for crime today, in eight hour blocks.

The output from HunchLab consists of a map of Lincoln containing a few dozen color-coded cells about the size of two square blocks. These are areas where the risk of crime is forecast to be heightened during the prediction period. These cells are approximately two blocks square. The colors represent the particular crime type for which the elevated crime risk is predicted.

HunchLab predictions are based on the analysis of Lincoln's crime data for the past five years. Where crime has occurred in the past provides a good clue as to where it will occur in the future. This is particularly true for recent crime, so crimes occurring in the immediate past are given more weight. Historical data also reveals patterns in time: crime has large peaks and valleys across the calendar and the clock.

Population density is an excellent predictor of many crime types, as is income. Densely packed low-income neighborhoods suffer more crime than sparsely populated suburban neighborhoods. Land use and zoning impacts crime. Retail businesses, such as convenience stores, restaurants, hotels and motels, grocery stores, and so forth draw people together so the chance of offenders and victims encountering one another is increased. In addition, certain kinds of businesses are related to a significantly elevated risk of crime at or around the business, such as bars and liquor outlets.

Essentially, when you gather all these kinds of data together, you can make informed predictions about where crime is most likely to occur. All of the factors that go into the prediction are based on research about the causes and correlates of crime. In fact, the commercial product emerged from research conducted at Temple and Rutgers. HunchLab goes a step further, and tests the predictions: how well did the cells identified by HunchLab’s algorithm perform in predicting where the crime actually occurred in subsequent time periods? One of the distinguishing features of HunchLab is the ongoing testing of the model, and machine learning that adjusts the predictions on the fly.

HunchLab is far better at predicting crime locations than random distribution. Although Hunchlab is predicting crime at places where most seasoned Lincoln Police Officers would recognize higher risk from their experience, there are other places that aren’t so obvious. It is also worth noting that not all Lincoln police officers are equally "seasoned."

We have helped out with the development of HunchLab 2.0 by providing data and feedback, and we are one of a handful of agencies piloting the application. For a more detailed description of HunchLab under the hood, the underpinning in criminological theory, and the research upon which it is based, go here.

Predictive analytics are getting a lot of attention in policing these days, but the same techniques can be applied to fire and EMS work. I blogged about this a few years ago, when the concept was still pretty new. Here in Lincoln, it is possible to predict fairly accurately both where we'll be sending fire engines and medic units, and when those responses will be occurring. We are using this knowledge more than ever to make informed decisions about our operations at Lincoln Fire & Rescue.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Collective efficacy

Marvin Krout, the director of Lincoln's Planning Department, sent the police chief and me a link to a great story from the San Francisco Chronicle, about a guy named Dan who epoxied a two-foot tall statute of Buddha to a street median in his Oakland, CA neighborhood. Dan's not Buddhist, but he spotted the statue at the local Ace Hardware, and got a wild hair.

One thing led to another, and before long, a small shrine had been erected. Offerings began appearing, a few worshipers began worshiping in the morning, tourists began visiting, Anglo, black, and Vietnamese residents were meeting each other, and crime--which had plagued the neighborhood--went down like a rock.

What this story represents is the emergence in this neighborhood of collective efficacy: social cohesion among neighbors who are willing to work together for the common good. In my forty years of public safety service, I have seen over and over how collective efficacy is the key ingredient that separates a vibrant, safe neighborhood from one that is, well, sketchy.

Collective efficacy is independent of socio-economic status. I have seen some of the poorest areas of Lincoln where the willingness of people to work together to make things better was strong. Likewise, I've seen plenty of neighborhoods where income is high and housing is good, but the residents do not even know one another--much less work collaboratively to make things better.

You can create collective efficacy where little exists. You do so in big ways and small, by meeting your neighbors, by hosting a gathering on National Night Out or the Fourth of July, getting a few folks together to cover up graffiti,organizing a neighborhood watch group, recruiting others for a Saturday clean-up at the neigbhorhood park, painting the street, sitting on the front steps rather than the back patio, planting a flower in a cracked curb, and by gluing a Buddha to a barren median strip!

It's not rocket science, and it makes a huge difference to neighborhood wellbeing, and as in Dan's Oakland neighborhood, a positive impact on crime.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

While we were sleeping

Sunday morning before dawn, a pastor noticed an unfamiliar car with Wyoming plates in his church's parking lot. Thinking this odd, he called LPD. Two officers responded, and contacted a young man laying in the back seat with a suspicious story. He claimed he had come to Nebraska to visit a friend from Omaha who was supposedly in Lincoln on Saturday night. He had visited her for only one hour, and was now just napping in his car before beginning his trip back home.

In response to a question, he said that he was on probation for burglary, but that his probation officer was aware of his out of state travel. He consented to a search of the vehicle, which turned up nothing suspicious, but his explanation for his presence in Lincoln didn't make much sense. He left the lot at the officers' request. As he was leaving, one of the officers found him with a Google news search, named in a 2012 article about the arrest of a group of men for a series of over 40 burglaries in his home state.

Although he had not violated any laws that they knew of, one of the officers decided it wouldn't hurt to drive in the same direction that he claimed to be heading for a while. Our visitor meandered a bit, eventually continuing west on I-80. In the meantime, In the meantime, the second officer checked the surrounding neighborhoods for anything amiss, watchful for any lost travelers who might be afoot in the vicinity.

The car was registered to the driver's mom, who was contacted later and was not aware that her son had visited our fair city. Neither were the police back home, who offered to pass the information on to his probation officer, in the event that his trip was in violation of his probation order.

Such is the nature of police work that occurred in the wee hours on Sunday, while we were sleeping.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Public safety bloggers

There are a lot of sites out their that aggregate links to blogging police chiefs, public safety directors, fire chiefs, cops and firefighters. There is a new one, however, that I like. It's from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, of which I am a lifetime member for the past several years. They award you lifetime membership after you've paid dues for 20 years--theorizing, I suspect, that you're not going to burden the budget for much longer anyway.

IACPnet has a nice feed of a few prolific police/public safety bloggers. I'm enjoying seeing what my peers like Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forte, Madison Police Chief Michael Koval, Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, and Auburn Hills Public Safety Director Doreen Olko are thinking about. So might you.

Back in 2007, when I launched the Chief's Corner (now the Director's Desk), you could count police chief bloggers on one hand, and have a few digits left over. My inspiration at the time was Manny Diaz, Mayor of Miami. So here we are, in the eighth year, 1,290 posts and  nearly 15,000 reader comments down the road, still going strong after a burst of wee-hour productivity last week.

Though readership isn't quite what it used to be, Twitter has pretty much taken over the field, and writer's block has become my nemesis, I continue to enjoy blogging as a way of getting my unfiltered ideas and opinions in front a few thousand loyal followers every month.

As I always say, sometimes I even bore myself.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The last increment

All week long I've laid out my belief that racial disparity in traffic stops and in the outcome of those stops is being driven primarily by racial disparity in income, and to a lesser extent by police deployment practices--not, by and large, racial prejudice by the police. While my own analysis of the data convinces me of this, I also believe that racial bias accounts for some of the disparity--albeit only a fraction.

I believe this because I have seen it on occasion in Lincoln. I think in Lincoln, at least, it is almost always the result of an unintended or even subconscious bias, but it is real nonetheless. I've described some of my observations on this previously.

The last increment is what I'm most interested in learning about and impacting as public safety director. We will not tolerate racist police officers in Lincoln. We go to great length to weed out anyone with racist attitudes during the selection process--including a polygraph exam that explores this. We also have done mandatory training on cultural sensitivity, cultural awareness, and racial profiling for years. If racist police officers were the cause of disparity in traffic stops, you'd think it would be going down over the years, but it isn't.

Much of what I've seen, however, has not been the acting out of racist tendencies, but rather the failure to think about how well-intentioned activities can have a racially disparate impact that is unjustified and unfair. I want our police department and our officers to understand how practices they may engage in can have a disparate impact that is unjustified, and what they can do to avoid this unfairness.

An example: perhaps an officer has gleaned from her experience that there is a greater likelihood that drivers of an older sedan will be suspended, or have a warrant, than drivers of a late-model minivans or SUVs. As a result, she focuses much of her attention on the former, and not so much on the later, because she believes this strategy is will result in more higher-value arrests, rather than just traffic tickets. If there is racial disparity in the drivers of these two broad vehicle categories, her practice will result in racial disparity in her stops and arrests, as well. It's vehicle profiling, not racial profiling, but the result is the same: disparity, and disparity without much justification. Avoiding this is easy: spread your effort around, and don't fixate on older sedans. Plenty of SUV and minivan drivers are texting while driving, speeding, and pushing the envelope on red lights, too.

As our ability to target resources to areas most affected by crime and disorder improves, we must also be cautious to make sure our efforts are viewed as legitimate by the citizens who live in those areas. We should avoid policing tactics that can damage our relationships while returning little in terms of actually reducing crime and disorder. Strategies that emphasize collaboration, early intervention, problem-solving and prevention should continue to be a focus.

I also want individual police officers to understand what they can do to minimize the perception of racial profiling among minority citizens during traffic stops. Perception is everything, and there is no denying that the perception by African American citizens that the police engage in racial profiling is  quite high. You will not convince people otherwise with data: you will only convince them with your actions.

Those actions are not complex. It is really quite simple, and it is what I teach: Introduce yourself. Tell motorists why you stopped them. Be polite. Explain  things calmly and thoroughly. Answer any questions. Be fair. Leave the motorist with your name and employee number on a ticket, a warning, or a business card. And above all, make sure your stops are always supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

Links to the series: