Monday, October 15, 2007

Fast information flow

This is a short story about information technology contributing to police work. It's not a big case, and not particularly flashy, but when I thought about it, it seemed to be a remarkable example of how the flow of information in investigations has changed.

I had tickets to the Nebraska v. Oklahoma State football game Saturday. Before heading out to the game, I checked my email. Among the dozen or so was one from myself. I have an automated Threshold Alert that had triggered the email. The alert is one of over 40 automatic queries that run every morning in the wee hours, using data from our police Records Management System and our geographic crime analysis software, CrimeView. This particular query is one I wrote last summer, after the City Council adopted a residency restriction on certain high-risk sex offenders. The ordinance prohibits level 3 high-risk offenders whose victim was under the age of 19 from residing within 500 ft. of a school. At the time it was being debated, some people wondered how in the world it could be enforced. Like this:

The Threshold Alert looks into the 1.5 million names in the department's master name index, finds the registered sex offenders, and determines which are classified as level 3 high-risk offenders. Next, CrimeView creates 500 ft buffers around each of Lincoln's schools, and determines which of these offenders' addresses fall within these buffers. Finally, it checks the date of the address. Since you can't enforce an ex post facto law, the residency restriction only applies after July 1, 2006. Whenever we update a person's address in our master name index, we also store the date of the address update. My query is interested in new addresses.

The email I received gave me the results of my query: there was a high risk offender with a new address, just updated on Friday, who now appeared to be living within 500 ft. of a school, in violation of the ordinance. I opened CrimeView on my laptop and measured the distance from property line to property line at 260 feet against the backdrop of Lincoln's orthorectified aerial photos. I checked the Nebraska State Patrol's online sex offender registry (they're the official keeper of the record) and determined that this offender's victim was 14 years old. That was the final element of the offense. Just to save him time, I printed that page as a .pdf, and emailed it to Capt. Dennis Duckworth, Saturday morning's duty commander at HQ. He assigned Officer Steve Niemeyer to investigate. Good choice. Steve is our Officer of the Year.

Steve found the offender at home, and cited him for the violation. He had just moved into the apartment, and alleged that his landlord had told him that he was 900 ft. from the school. Steve had already used Google Earth to make his own estimate of 265 ft., but as one final check, he used a Rolatape to measure a precise distance of 253 ft., lot to lot. At 1307 hours, I received an email from Officer Niemeyer letting me know that he had handled the matter, and providing me the case number, so I could read the reports online after the game. Nice work, Steve.

That's a heck of a lot of technology squeezed into a misdemeanor.


Anonymous said...

With an 11:30 kickoff, that arrest must have been just about half time. I hope the offender hadn't bought the game on pay-per-view!

Anonymous said...

Get a life.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if anonymous 7:23 is very sick or very naive.
As a parent, I for one am glad to know that LPD has technology being used to assist me in keeping my kids safer.
I use email alerts from
to keep an eye on level three offenders living near me or my kid's schools all the time.
I think it's great that LPD is enforcing the level three laws. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

IT can be extremely useful and informative, especially as it allows data mining. This might be too long to post in a skinny column, so feel free to not post it, but...

If I had access to the data, it'd be really interesting to know the relationship between crime/police calls in Lincoln, and several types of "need-based" government assistance. I stumbled across some 1998 maps of Omaha Section 8 housing vouchers that someone at UNO had created. I compared these voucher maps with some Omaha crime incident maps from 2000, the similarities were striking.

A similar project could involve the nearly 500 residential properties owned by the Lincoln Housing Authority (yes they have that many, and being government property, none are on the tax rolls). Compare non-LHA residents (as a sort of control group) in the same area, and see if there is a similar incidence of crime connected LHA residents and the non-LHA residents. Then do the same with those receiving/not receiving AFDC, WIC, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Does receiving this type of government assistance, but staying in the same income range as those receiving no such assistance, make one more or less likely to be involved with crime, or is there no quantifiable difference?

Maybe you can throw this at a CJ intern and they can make a dissertation out of it, because it would be fairly ambitious. Some of the data may not be public record. How could the results be useful? We might consider if "scattered-site" housing helps socialize and "tame" those so housed, or if it just distributes crime to neighborhoods where, previously, little crime existed.

Tom Casady said...

This would be a great dissertation topic, with lots of variations that could be pursued. My sense is that LHA is one of the better landlords in town, and if you had an income-matched control group, crime @ LHA properties would be considerably less. That's just my hypothesis.

LHA owns a large number of properties in Arnold Heights, where the crime is low. I've always thought that Arnold Heights is a sociology dissertation waiting to happen. What are the correlates of comparatively low crime? population density? green space? distance from City center? LHA? cohesive neighborhood association?

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's pretty cool and not to mention impressive.

Anonymous said...

At least you had SOMETHING go well before heading off to the game.

By the way, can you look into starting support groups for addicts of the new expanded daily call sheets? I don't know if I can stop without help. It's like watching an ongoing train wreck... and repeatedly checking for the next one.

Thanks for all you and the rest of the LPD do.

Anonymous said...

That's cool! Glad to see that 'big brother' is doing some good.

Anonymous said...

ha ha maps...ho ho numbers... he he stats....they're coming to take me away ha ha he he ho ho they're coming to take me away

Anonymous said...

It's possible that part of the rehab for incident report addicts involves lots of unpaid volunteer paper-pushing and/or data-entry work for a law enforcement agency.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:04 tried very hard to mask it, but the judgmental attitude towards those on Section 8 (and "entitlement programs") came through quite loud and clear. Such correlations as you are attempting to make between two sets of figures is very difficult to make. Who's to say which element is the cause or effect? There are a lot of other people served by LHA including the disabled and retired to name a few. Many people on Section 8 would prefer not to be in a position to need the service, but are grateful it is there so they don't have to live in squalor or on the streets and can afford to pay their utilities and buy groceries. May you never have to barely survive for three years while waiting for your name to come to the "top of the list" at LHA. Thank you to Chief Casady for his positive comments towards LHA and their clients. I agree.

Anonymous said...

Well, I doubt that anyone thinks that disabled or retired Section 8 recipients or disabled/retired LHA residents are committing a significant amount of crime! We can disregard that red herring.

They'd probably look harder at the male juveniles and young adult males in Section 8 households.