Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Busy few days for investigations

During the previous four days, July 27 through the 30th, the Lincoln Police Department investigated four suicides. One victim jumped from a downtown parking garage, two died of asphyxiation, and the fourth was a shooting victim. The ages ranged from 14 to 54. Suicides rarely make the news unless they occur in a public place, due to the editorial policies of the news media organizations.

Each of these cases is demanding, from an investigative standpoint. You must treat any unattended violent death as a possible homicide until the evidence demonstrates otherwise. That means a full-scale crime scene investigation at the outset. Even when the evidence points to suicide, you still need to continue a credible investigation that locates and preserves all relevant evidence, in the event that future questions are raised, and to help family members cope with the death.

Despite the recent spate of suicides, the number this year is actually lower than the same period in 2006--17 last year, compared to 14 this year. We have also investigated 154 suicide attempts so far in 2007, compared to 171 for the same time period in 2006.

Nonetheless, four suicides in four days puts our investigative staff under some pressure. During that same time, we have had several other high-profile crimes that demanded quite a bit of followup work--most notably an unprovoked stabbing of a runner on the Mo-Pac recreational trail, a gun shop burglary, and a rash of graffiti vandalisms in the downtown area that was apparently our fault because of our absence from the affected alleyway while chasing 95 other events between 1:00 AM and 6:30 AM, including the public suicide, a sexual assault, another mental health investigation of a suicidal subject, and the usual alcohol-related assaults, disturbances, wild party complaints and fights that dot the wee hours of a Sunday morning.

I wish they hadn't taken the clairvoyants out of my budget.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

All in the family

Lincolnites intrigued with the ongoing saga of the media-darling defendant, Ricky Turco, got a taste of family dynamics in a recent article in the Lincoln Journal Star that provided some insight into Ricky's situation. Let's just say his namesake was not exactly a great role model.

Sometimes the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

We had another example of this axiom at last week's ACUDAT meeting. A discussion took place concerning a series of offenses committed recently by four brothers, ages 10, 11, 12, 15, and 16. We're not talking egging a house or letting the air out of tires--more like commercial burglary and auto theft. These boys seem to have arrived in Lincoln with their mother in 2005 from parts unkown. Unfortunately, people don't arrive the the back seat of the patrol car with a complete social history. Not-entirely-jokingly, I told those in attendance at ACUDAT to grab the a copy of the intelligence bulletin on these youths, put it on your clipboard, and keep it there until you retire.

It reminded me of Charles, Earl and Melvin--three teenage brothers who showed up in Lincoln in the early 1980's and soon thereafter became very well known to all Lincoln police officers. The brothers distinguished themselves quickly, graduating from misdemeanors and juvenile court to adult felonies, accumulating hundreds of arrests, and sharing several prison terms.

So it is, in policing. When you start as a young man or woman, you will inevitably watch your youthful charges grow up, give birth, become grandparents, and with depressing regularity pass on their lifestyle and livelihood to future generations. Most Lincoln police officers should be able to fill in the last names of Charles, Earl and Melvin, as well as all of the following. Come to think of it, though we've never talked about this, I'd wager that Det. Sgt. Jim Breen would score 100% on this quiz within 60 seconds:

  • Ricky, Nikki, and Ronnie
  • Charlotte, Benita, Ricky and Allen
  • Jason and Derek
  • Pam, Eric, and Kevin
  • Demond and Demond
  • Leo and Leo
  • Beth, Kenny, and Farrell (and sometimes Henry)
  • Ida, Monique, Melanie and Mindy
  • Theresa, Lee, Paul, David, and Anthony
  • Evelyn, Tammy, Tina, and the grandchildren

Veteran officers won't have any trouble remembering Evelyn's husband, either. When Victor was killed in 1988, his death ended a string of 206 arrests by the Lincoln police department in the eight previous years. (We didn't computerize our arrest records until 1980, and it was just too much work to go back into the 3 x 5 index cards on Victor.) Evelyn and Tammy are still living at the same place. The retired officers who read this blog would all be able to recite the address by heart.

I always liked Victor and Evelyn, despite the huge burden on police resources they represented. One day, we had a misdemeanor arrest warrant for Victor. Steve and I were dispatched to their home to execute the warrant. The couple was watching a TV sitcom in the living room. We told Victor that we had to take him in. He asked if we could wait a few minutes until the show ended. We knew him well enough to realize that our choice was really to have a fight or not, and the choce was clear. Evelyn offered us dessert, so we sat down, had a bowl of ice cream, and watched the end of All in the Family before trundling Victor off to jail in high spirits. No need to muss the uniform over a short delay awaiting the next commercial break.

Evelyn called me at home on a Saturday morning a couple weekends ago. She was having an ongoing argument with Tammy, and had summoned the police a couple of times during the previous week. She was none too happy with Officer David Strom, a young whippersnapper that just plain refused to do what she wanted--make Tammy leave. We reminisced about old times, I convinced her that David was really a pretty good guy, then I had her put Tammy on the phone. After commiserating with each about the unreasonableness of the other, I asked both of them to help us out by leaving one another alone. Then, after a cheerful adieu, I returned from this alternate universe to the British Open. I love this job.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Negotiations underway

Negotiations are underway between the City of Lincoln and the Lincoln Public Schools concerning the funding of the ten Lincoln police officers who serve as school resource officers. These officers essentially are assigned to a beat consisting of one or more schools. Each of the six high schools has a police officer, while the ten middle schools are divided among four additional officers.

Since school resource officers were first assigned to high schools in 1994, the funding formula has varied from time to time. Originally, Lincoln Public Schools paid 2/3 of the cost of the officers' salary, benefits, and direct costs. This basic arrangement continued through the 2002-2003 school year, when LPS paid the City of Lincoln $293,512 for the nine school resource officers assigned that year. In the spring of 2003, the Superintendent of Schools at the time, Dr. Phil Schoo, notified me in writing that LPS could no longer fund it's portion of the school resource officers, due to budget difficulty. The contract had a 90 day termination clause, and he was making the deadline before the upcoming 2003-2004 school year. That year, the City elected to continue to provide SROs, in hopes that LPS would be able to once again pick up a portion of the funding when their budget picture was brighter.

Within a year the schools were once again contributing to the funding, but at a significantly reduced level. In the current year, LPS pays $30,000 each for the services of four of the ten school resource officers. The other six are paid for 100% by the City of Lincoln. Thus, LPS funding for school resource officers dropped from $293,512 for nine officers in 2002-2003, to $120,000 for ten officers in 2006-2007. The budget shoe is now on the other foot, and the current negotiations are the result of the City of Lincoln's budget shortfall. I am hopeful that we can find the funds needed to keep school resource officers on the job.

From the City of Lincoln's perspective, we would like to have more significant financial participation in this program from the school district. Of your property tax dollar, about 65% goes to the Lincoln Public Schools, whereas the City's portion is 14%. Despite the fact that LPS is the big dog on the property tax block, all of the barking is directed at the City of Lincoln. The Board of Education essentially gets a pass from the public budget critics, while the City shoulders the blame for property taxes.

For taxpayers, whether the money comes from the right pocket or the left pocket doesn't much matter: the pockets are both on your pants. The real issue is whether citizens support the need for school resource officers. I sense that the support is fairly strong, but our elected school board, city council, and Mayor would be the better judges of that. Personally, I think school resource officers in high schools are vital. In middle schools, I think police officers are valuable. My only concern with middle schools is that the need for law enforcement services is less not quite as great as in high schools, and the police resource is applied rather thinly. Spreading four officers over ten middle schools is not the optimal deployment of this scarce resource.

I think most people in Lincoln would be quite surprised to learn what the police do in high schools and middle schools. I reported earlier this year about some of the police calls at elementary schools. High schools and middle schools have greater volume. During the 2006-2007 school year, Lincoln police officers handled 1,893 incidents at middle schools and high schools between 7:30 AM and 4:00 PM on weekdays. Among these were:

174 vandalisms
8 arrest warrants
50 traffic accidents
32 trespassings
19 child abuses
38 suspicious persons
33 sex offenses
25 mental health investigations
505 larceny thefts
7 bomb threats
242 disturbances
296 assaults
9 weapons offenses

Not all of these events happened at schools--some were merely reported there--but our officers completed 1,503 incident reports for the subset of these events that actually occurred at school. To be sure, the presence of officers in the schools itself effects these data: if an officer were not assigned to the school, some of these incidents would not have been reported at all, and others would have been reported from a different location. When an officer is visible, available, and approachable, reporting is more likely. Nonetheless, our secondary schools are busy places from a police perspective. Maybe that's why LPS put another $1.5 million in their budget for security this year.

That makes perfect sense, when you think about it. We're talking about more than 32,000 students in Lincoln Public Schools. That 10,000 more than the University of Nebraska, which maintains its own police force of about 30 officers plus support staff. Each of our public high schools, if it were a city, would be larger than all but a few of the County seats in our State.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Highly mobile sex offenders

Summer intern Kyle Heidtbrink finished up his work on his second project—a couple of research efforts concerning sex offenders. He’ll be off to the Narcotics Unit soon. His earlier work focused on movement of sex offenders into Lincoln and into Nebraska. His most recent project was to research movement of sex offenders within the City.

Kyle found that a third of the high risk registered sex offenders in Lincoln are exceptionally mobile. These highly-mobile offenders have moved between 5 and 22 times in the past five years. Those are only the moves we know about. There are several others who are “transient”, meaning they have no current address at all.

This is probably no revelation to those who work with this population regularly—police officers, parole officers, clinical psychologists and counselors. On the other hand, ordinary citizens, legislators, and others may be surprised at the mobility. For the heavy hitters, with 15, 16, 19, or 22 moves, this means that residency is a few weeks at best.

Here are some of the difficulties this creates: Even with the State Patrol's public sex offender registry and web mapping applications, it’s tough for citizens to know where these offenders are at any given point in time—their address is a moving target. The State Patrol and the local police will have a hard time keeping tabs on them. It may be difficult for these offenders to follow the law that requires reporting address changes in person at the Sheriff’s Office within five days, simply because they are moving with such great frequency.

I’m not sure that Kyle’s findings point towards any specific policy changes or recommendations, rather this project provides some good background information on the dynamics involved in sex offender registration and tracking. More than anything, it gives Kyle some valuable experience in both performing the GIS analysis and thinking about the ramifications of the phenomenon he has illuminated.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Door open, keys in it

A few weeks ago, I reported on who reads this blog. Here's an update: since I launched the Chief's Corner in mid April, there have been 26,882 visits. Things have settled in at around 300-400 daily visits, but last Tuesday, the blog drew the peak number of 695 visits. I can track hits by network location (don't worry, I can't go any further than that), so I know that the biggest single group of visitors are our own employees at LPD, but there are lots of others, both Lincoln readers and far-flung visitors from across the country--many of whom are regulars. The news media would be included in the regulars.

I get a glimpse into the readership not only with the site tracking software, Google Analytics, but also with the off-list emails, phone calls, and comments. For example, that's how I know about the media readership: the blog is spawning news stories from time to time. Since the audience is diverse, I'm trying to keep the content moving as well. The Chief's Corner has been becoming something like an internal bulletin board for the police department, and some of the comments--both mine and other poster's--are more meaningful if you understand the inner-workings of the Lincoln Police Department.

Without discouraging my most loyal blog readers, LPD personnel should keep in mind that the majority of the visitors here are in the dark on some of the LPD esoterica. It's pretty obvious to me, for example, that some of the comments last week are oblivious to the case of Francisco Renteria that shapes some of my conservatism relating to TASER.

Good information flow and discussion is a valuable commodity in policing, and to the extent this blog helps a little, that's a good thing. The informality and anonymity of a blog comment probably encourages a different type of dialog that the proverbial open door policy.

But remember, I'm only a phone call or an email away, too. And my office door remains open. On the exceptionally rare occasion I must close it (noise control), you will notice that the keys are in lock on the exterior--on purpose. There are plenty of employees that avail themselves of the opportunity to bend my ear on all manner of subjects--in my office, in the locker room, before or after lineup, and in the inbox. It is always welcomed. If you don't want to be seen hanging out in the chief's office, you could always close the door--just don't remove the keys!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Better than a bullet

Officer Andy Ripley used a TASER yesterday, the first TASER deployment of 2007 for LPD. At 3:04 AM, he was among the officers that responded to a serious stabbing at a south Lincoln apartment. Officers were confronted there by a 25 year old man armed with a hammer in one hand, and a screwdriver in the other, who adopted an aggressive stance. Officer Ripley, fortunately, had one of LPD's dozen TASERs on his belt, and quickly resolved the matter. Bizarrely, it turned out this man was not the stabber, but had just committed another, separate assault.

It was an ideal situation for TASER: an armed an aggressive suspect contained in a controllable area, and an officer armed with the device at sufficient standoff distance, yet close enough to be within the effective range. Nobody was injured, and after a quick detour to the hospital for a checkup, the suspect was released into the waiting arms of the officers for a trip to the overstuffed jail. Officer Ripley was completing his reports when I arrived at work yesterday morning, and I congratulated him on a nice job. Good work Andy, you may have saved this man's life.

TASER is not without risk, and not without controversy. Amnesty International and the ACLU have taken this issue on with enthusiasm, and there have been plenty of hair-raising "investigative reports" by journalists. Google "TASER" and click the news link--you'll see my point. Some of the concerns are sensationalized, but some are legitimate, in my opinion--particularly the criticism that the scientific evidence on TASER is not firmly established, and too much of that literature has been funded by the industry itself. It's not easy to tell where the research ends and the marketing begins. This will change over time, and I suspect that in a decade or two, these devices will be as common as pepper spray as part of the police officers' equipment. In the meantime, I think the judicious deployment of TASER is justified despite the controversies: one thing's for certain, it's a lot less likely to cause serious injury or death than a bullet.

This is our fourth year of deploying TASER on the street. Two of our sergeants, Destry Jaeger and Geoff Marti, have done an excellent job on training, and Assistant Chief Jim Peschong took on the task of becoming expert in the policy implications of TASER. We have considered lots of policy and practice input from a variety of sources, including the critics of this technology. I think the work of the Police Executive Research Forum is particularly balanced and noteworthy, and it is from here that we have taken our guidance in adopting a conservative approach to the deployment of TASER, policy, and training. This approach is intended to protect our officers, as much as those who are probed by the TASER's barbs.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Not the only one with that thought

I participate in one and only one listserv. It’s the Crime Mapping list, operated by (take a deep breath) the Crime Mapping and Analysis Program of the Rocky Mountain Region of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center at the University of Denver. Try fitting that on a business card. Basically, the list is a couple thousand GIS and research wonks—mostly academicians who post and police crime analysts who lurk.

I have something of an overblown and undeserved reputation in this field, and I keep an eye on this list, which has only episodic activity, so it takes little time. On rare occasion I will post something. This week, someone started a thread on something called kernel densities. I happened to catch one of the posts in the thread from Tony Berger, a detective sergeant at the Pierce County Sheriff's Office in Tacoma, Washington who was trying to figure out the best way of displaying 21,700 traffic accidents on a map of Pierce County. Since 21,700 dots will overwhelm a pin map, the usual way of doing this is with a continuous-surface grid, which ends up looking sort of like a weather map—with the hot spots where the greatest intensity of events occur, whether they are burglaries, traffic accidents, or whatever.

Unlike weather, though, which is be spread across the entire surface, traffic accidents only happen on roadways. The "weather map" approach covers every place. So I suggested making a map of roadways, and giving the individual street segments a cool-to-hot color based upon the number of accidents that happened along that stretch or at that intersection.

To illustrate my original thought, I made a quick map of Lincoln’s 5,464 traffic crashes so far this year using this method, and posted it on an obscure location on this blog for the crime mappers to take a look. It was rudimentary--just meant to be a quick visual aid to illuminate the concept. After doing so, I thought that some of the other readers of this blog might be interested in seeing what I’m talking about. Click the image for a larger view.

For those of you familiar with Lincoln, those darkest red segments along Nebraska Highway 2 eastbound at 27th Street and on down the road between N. 40th and N. 56th Streets are pretty obvious. You can also see the predictable hot spot on N. 48th Street between O and R Streets, as well as several segments along N. 27th Street on the approaches to Vine, Holdrege, Cornhusker, and Superior Streets.

Many types of crime are closely related to street activity, and this same methodology might be a useful way of examining other phenomenon. Apparently I wasn't the only one thinking about the potential of using streets as the thermometer to display police incidents. One of the other participants in this online discussion, Dr. Isaac Van Patten from Radford University posted an example, looking at street robberies in Roanoke, Virginia. Ian Oldfield, an acquaintance at the London Metropolitan Police posted some samples of the same kind of work he had done beginning several years ago. So much for my originality.

Gaston Pezzuchi from the Argentina's Federal Police in Buenos Aires, Dr. Martin Anderson from Simon-Fraser University in British Columbia, Dr. Lee Hunt at the High Point, NC police, Bryan Hill and the Glendale, AZ police, and a dozen or so other people from various U.S. police departments and Universities in from Florida to San Diego, Washington State to New Jersey chimed in. There had just been a short virtual conversation among police personnel and academicians thinking along similar lines (pun intended) and crossing the entire United States, Canada, South America, and the United Kingdom. That was rather phenomenal, when you think about it.

Monday, July 16, 2007

I'm old school on this one

Digging deeply into the efficiency study of the Omaha Police Department conducted by the Matrix Consulting Group, I encountered (beginning on page 99) a recommendation that OPD deploy “field reporting” in their patrol cars—utilizing their mobile data computers to complete police reports. I beg to differ.

Anyone who knows me at all can tell you that I’m as comfortable with technology as any police chief anywhere. I've got three PCs in my office. My reputation as a geek is firmly established. It may surprise you that I am not at all in favor of in-car reporting on mobile data computers. After all, mobile data was one of my goals when I became police chief. It was not an easy sell. There were plenty of skeptics among the ranks. A decade later though, the MDC is a vital—if not essential—tool. (Note: you can still do fine police work with a pencil and a pad of paper. If you have a ballpoint, you can skip the paper.)

So, why isn’t’ a guy who wears a 4Gb nerd stick in love with field reporting? Two simple words: officer safety. We’ve gone to great lengths to engineer the installation of mobile data computers in patrol cars safely, which is not an easy feat. You’ve got to avoid the air bag deployment zone, and correctly install an incredibly stout mounting system that costs a small fortune. This mostly protects you from collision impacts with your PC, something we’ve proven in some pretty dramatic collisions. The safety risks I’m talking about are something else, unique to field reporting.

The first risk is hand, wrist and arm injuries caused by the inherently poor ergonomics of mobile computers mounted in cars. I don’t care how you do it, it just isn’t good. You can buy two-piece units, detachable keyboards, steering wheel-mounted removable trays, or whatever—the patrol car is not and will never be an ergonomically acceptable workstation for anything other than very short key stroking sessions. Implement field reporting and stand back for the carpal tunnel syndrome cases, if the reporting is extensive and the narratives lengthy.

The second and more serious risk concerns the mental process of field reporting. Actually it’s not field reporting, rather, field reporting using a computer. Parking your patrol car in the parking lot at 27th St. and Pine Lake Rd. while cranking out an Accident Report on your clipboard is great. It saves fuel, it provides some good visibility, and it causes a few hundred motorists to glance at their speedometer and actually apply the brake rather than the accelerator when the signal turns yellow. But completing a report on a computer is something entirely different. A computer sucks you into a black hole. I do not like the idea one bit of police officers in patrol cars, heads down, concentration focused intently on a computer screen. There is a huge amount of computer technology in the cockpit of modern aircraft. You won't find pilots filling out an online log.

Field reporting is hot in policing these days. Everybody wants it. In my view this is a half-baked idea, given the current stage of technology. LPD is an incredibly able department when it comes to information technology. I have never found a department that puts as much information in front of its employees in such an easy to use interface. When it comes to field reporting, though, I am happy to leave the cutting edge to other departments for the time being. A few people are starting to talk about these downsides, but not very many are stopping to think about the real or potential unintended consequences of some police technologies (there are others, by the way.)

Technology is constantly changing, and the future may bring about new entry methods that resolve some of these concerns. For the moment, though, I think the consultants are wrong. In my opinion police officers using computers to complete reports much longer than a citation ought to have their feet planted on land at an appropriate workstation in a quasi-private environment like a small substation or the back office at a friendly merchant.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Occam's Razor

I had an interesting conversation earlier this week with a reporter working on a story about prison and jail overcrowding in Nebraska. Essentially, she was expecting me to make the usual comments to the effect that the methamphetamine epidemic was at the root of bulging correctional institutions.

I couldn’t help her with that. I would probably be the odd man out on this topic in Nebraska law enforcement circles, but I’m not so sure methamphetamine is contributing to crime any more than other drugs. Basically, I don’t know, and I haven’t yet seen any data that would convince me to formulate a strong opinion. I tend to think that the same people addicted to methamphetamine would simply be addicted to something else if meth wasn’t relatively cheap and readily available. Maybe they would be committing their burglaries, thefts, and forgeries to support their addiction to some other drug.

Of all the controlled substances that have waxed and waned in popularity during my career, methamphetamine seems to me to have the most profoundly debilitating effects upon its abusers. This is some nasty stuff for chronic addicts. It is a leap, however, to conclude that it is the cause of increasing jail populations in my opinion. I’m open to being convinced otherwise, though. Often the conventional wisdom is right on, but sometimes it proves to be incorrect when put to the test (ask me about domestic assaults on holidays, or gas thefts when prices rise).

I pointed out something quite interesting and pretty obvious to the reporter: Arrests by Lincoln police officers are up—way up—during the past fifteen years. We’ve had a 58% increase in the sheer number of arrests since 1991. Last year's 28,523 arrests compares to 18,057 in 1991. Felonies are particularly dramatic--a 130% increase from 1,103 to 2,535. Although the vast majority of our arrests are for misdemeanors, and most eventually end up with a citation and arrest, the simple fact of 10,000 more arrests can't help but impact jail population through increased bookings, warrants, and sentences.

The increase in arrests doubles the increase in the number of police officers, and more than doubles population growth. This has occurred during a time period when crime in Lincoln has been falling. Lincoln's high water mark for crime was 1991, and the actual number of FBI Part I offenses last year was 12.6% lower last year than at the 1991 peak. Adjusted for population growth, the crime rate was 29.8% lower in 2006 than in 1991.

Huge increases in arrests during a period of moderate declines in crime is an interesting phenomenon. I can’t think of any way to explain it other than increased productivity by the women and men of this department. We’ve got hard-working police officers with a tough job in an undersized department who outperform any other police force I’ve been able to find.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Going rate for a consultant

Readers of this blog probably noted that I have been inviting exactly the kind of "performance audit" that the Mayor and the City Council have been talking about recently. Bring it on, please. Here's why: Omaha did just that, and we look pretty good in Omaha's study. The City of Omaha spent $275,000 to hire Matrix Consulting Group, a firm that specializes in such studies. The results hit the Omaha World Herald beginning on Monday, and the full report is available on their web site. It's an interesting read, and an example of what we could expect in such a study

Matrix concluded that the Omaha Police Department should be slightly downsized, and should replace 35 police officers with a smaller number (21) of civilian "Community Service Officers". These CSO's would handle minor incidents not requiring a police officer with full arrest authority, at a cost about 75% of that of a sworn police officer. The paraprofessional employees the consultant recommends are essentially the same as the Lincoln Police Department's Public Service Officers and Police Service Specialists, who collectively handled 12,039 of our 139,854 police calls-for-service last year. They'd be doing even more, but our non-sworn support staff has not fared well at budget time for many years.

One of our City Council members emailed me after reading some of the news stories about the Omaha study. He wanted to know how Lincoln's police staffing would compare to a "revised" Omaha Police Department, if the consultant's recommendations were implemented. It took me about a New York minute to respond:

We'd need to add 117 police officers to our staff of 316 officers in order to be at the same size per capita as Omaha after the proposed reduction. You'd also need to add 23 civilian support positions. That would be around $9.5 million per year, every year, for direct costs alone.

The comparative data on Lincoln/Omaha staffing is on page 75 of the technical appendices in the consultant's report. It demonstrates quite clearly how small the Lincoln Police Department is in comparison to the rest of the cities. This isn't an example of cherry-picking: we're the smallest police department per capita in the State, 177th smallest of the 192 in Nebraska and the surrounding states (between Hays, Kansas and Lee's Summit, Missouri, and the only city of 200,000 in the bottom half). Don't take my word, do your own research.

As we were discussing the Omaha study, one of my veteran coworkers, Capt. Jim Thoms, noted that the consultant's report is comprised of lots of the same kind of comparative data that I compile every year and supply to many other police departments, gratis. He suggested that he and I could split a Thermos of coffee and produce a pretty good efficiency study with much of the same information for a little less than $275,000.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Metal theft update

Thefts of metal such as brass, copper, and aluminum have been an international crime problem for several years, as the value of these metals has risen. Theives will do thousands of dollars worth of damage to a commercial air conditioning unit or a cell phone base station just to make a few bucks on the scrap value.

Last year, a group of officers worked on a plan to try to reduce these thefts. Among the highlights, a new city ordinance restricting who can sell these metals, and requiring better identification of the seller. That law went into effect on December 1, 2006. Here's the comparison between the first six months of 2006 and 2007:

2006: 70 incidents, $112,812 loss and damage
2007: 57 incidents, $58,508 loss and damage

That's a nice decrease--close to 20% fewer cases, and 50% less loss and damage. Among the most aggravating cases last year was a number of new homes under construction that were stripped of their copper plumbing. The thieves even took the brand new brass water meters. You'd think that would have been a little suspicious when the local metal recycler bought those. Here's the data on the metal thefts at construction sites for the first six months:

2006: 38 incidents, $25,177 loss and damage
2007: 9 incidents, $14,646 loss and damage

While the ordinance has helped, I think public awareness has, too. We've had some nice cases where citizens have called in on suspicious persons around construction site. Our officers are more aware, too, and are watching construction areas closely on patrol. Some good on-view arrests have helped. In 2006, the Big Thomspson and Village Gardens subdivisions in southeast Lincoln were hard hit. The area is still developing, with lots of home construction this year, but the thefts and burglaries have stopped. The map below depicts the 2006 metal thefts in that neighborhood (the houses) and the 2007 prowler/suspicious person reports (the circles). One is related to the other!

As the construction site thefts have declined, though, a new kind of metal theft has emerged. So far this year, we have had 9 reports of thefts from communications tower sites, with a loss and damage of $15,025 (that's included in the totals above). Theives have gone after copper wire and copper grounding plates. Several more have been investigated by the Lancaster County Sheriff outside the city limits of Lincoln. Criminals are adaptable, and their modus operandi will change to take advantage of opporunties that present themselves. If you live near a radio or cell tower, we would appreciate your watchfulness and calls if you see anything suspicious.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Making ends meet

I'm an eternal optimist.

I refuse to let the bad news of the City's 2007-2008 budget change my long term outlook. The sumary view of the Mayor's proposed budget was published Sunday. As we had all been warned, it is grim. Despite the City's budget woes, I think we'll be just fine, and we'll be back on track for improvement when the City's financial picture eventually and inevitably rebounds. It is critical to restore public trust in the City's financial management and efficiency. Personally, I anxiously await the promised performance audits. I will put our efficiency, quality, and productivity up against any police department, anywhere, anytime. The bang-for-the-buck this department provides is incredible.

The budget-related news, however, is not all bad. We will have no layoffs at LPD, because we saw this coming and did not fill positions that became vacant for the past several months. Nobody loses his or her job. We kept our fleet replacement alive, that's good, too. At lunch with Omaha's police chief and brass last week, I learned that they had just hit an unenviable milestone: the average fleet mileage at OPD has now topped 100,000! And we'll still have officers in the training pipeline throughout the year, to keep the flow going to fill the predictable 5% per year post-training turnover we have averaged for the past 13 years.

Paradoxically, it could be a particularly good year for equipment and technology, due to some new grant funding (which can't be used on personnel). We may be able to tackle digital evidence and digital transcription, for instance, and make some more progress on the upgrade to OpenSky--the next generation of our mobile data backbone. Depending on what happens with our remaining unexpended budget reappropriation, other good things might be in the offing for one-time acquisitions.

Nonetheless, it will be a challenge. Here are the details, first the cash cuts, then the personnel cuts:

1% of total salaries $217,911
Overtime $101,450
Unspecified cut $190,000

1 Assistant chief
1 Office specialist
1.75 Public service officers
1 Records technician
1 Administrative officer

After conserving overtime very, very carefully (we spent the same amount this year as we did in FY 1993-94, despite the base payroll doubling), we will have to figure out a way to cut an additional $101,450. We're losing an assistant chief, despite having reduced the command staff of this department from 27 to 17 over the past 26 years as the overall size of the department has increased by 125 employees. Our support staff will be further stressed by the loss of a records tech, administrative officer, two public service officers, and an office specialist. Finally, like many other police departments, we will be forced to operate below our authorized strength slightly, because the full cost of our payroll is not budgeted. After fifteen years of being able to run at our slightly over our authorized complement, this will be the second straight year of having to keep fewer people on the payroll than the budget actually shows.

Before anyone starts blaming Mayor and Council, we need to remember that the citizens of Lincoln elected our representatives, and all of the candidates--winners and losers--promised not to raise taxes. When revenue is not keeping up with expenses, there are two ways to go, and the voters clearly chose this route.

It's up to our citizens to decide what services they want and are willing to pay for from their local government. They made their decision, and we will have to live with that. I'm not sure, though, that Lincoln's voters fully understand the bargain they get with City government compared to virtually any other city. That bargain, by the way, is largely due to the low cost of police services--since in almost all cities the police department is far and away the largest user of general fund tax dollars.

When you've got the smallest police department per capita in the State, and the 177th smallest of 192 cities in Nebraska and all it's surrounding states (not the mention the only city of 200,000 in the bottom half), it's pretty much a guarantee that your overall city budget will be down near the bottom. By the way, 177th puts us right between Hays, Kansas and Lee's Summit, Missouri.

So, what do we do in a time of declining resources? We keep our focus on our core mission, and we do not let the quality of those core services slip. Rather, we slough off those things that contribute least to our most important role, and devote those resources to more important tasks. That's what we'll be working on the remainder of this summer, trying to figure out how we can best continue to serve the citizens of Lincoln with the resources they have agreed to provide.

There will be better days ahead!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Thursday night fights

A few days ago, I got a little wound up in this blog about the way babysitting the binge-drinking bar break crowd downtown requires too many of our limited resources. My frustration was related to a shooting last weekend that erupted outside Sur Tango. Sometimes it seems that the lid is barely being held on the downtown high-risk drinking bar scene, and the shooting was perhaps an indication of the bad things that can happen when and if it blows.

Last night (well, technically this morning), eight officers or so were needed to deal with the bar break crowd at Opulence Ultra Club, the most recent in a line of 6 or 8 nightclubs that have come and gone in the lower level of the Gold's building at 11th and O Street. Anyone remember Lucky Lady, Decadance, Kabooms, Celebrations, Alexandria, and a few I'm forgetting? Perfect timing, as I had just received an email on Wednesday from a city councilman who forwarded a rather animated message he had received from a downtown resident complaining about the goings-on outside Opulence at closing time, and his perception of the too-laid-back approach of the police to dealing with the crowd. He's probably right--we try hard not to be the triggering event for a riot, while still getting the job done.

Last night's festivities outside Opulence started when the Head of Security decided that the best way to get the crowd to leave the area was to deploy his stash of pepper spray. Rather than calming things down and encouraging the lingerers to disperse, the crowd became enraged and someone punched out the Head of Security. The caused a second employee to release more pepper spray, which did not calm the crowd either (funny how that works).

The Head of Security is not a person known for his calm and rationale dealings, nor his skill at defusing conflict. He has been booked into the Lancaster County Jail on 30 occasions since 1995, and his convictions include two for assault, one for violating a protection order, one for contributing to the delinquency of a child, one for attempted escape, two for refusing to comply with and order of a police officer, and two for resisting arrest. Many of these originated at various nightclubs.

Dealing with increasingly hostile confrontations as nightclubs close is a national issue for the police, and one which gets lots of discussion when chiefs gather. I see that it is a highlighted topic on the upcoming 18th Annual Problem Oriented Policing Conference agenda, appropriately, in Madison, WI.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Same time works fine

Last Thursday, Capt. Joy Citta and I tag-teamed a day-long meeting called by the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles. She handled the morning, I took the afternoon. The meeting was a forum to discuss how to improve Nebraska’s Administrative License Revocation (ALR) process. A group of about a hundred prosecutors and police officers had been invited to to provide input.

ALR revokes the driver’s license of a person arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Research has supposedly shown that ALR has a measurable impact on reducing drunk driving. Apparently it is the immediacy of the loss of driving privilege that causes the effect.

Courts have ruled that administrative revocation requires that the driver be provided with an opportunity to challenge the revocation and in Nebraska, the police officer who made the stop and/or administered any test is summoned to a hearing whenever the revocation is challenged. ALR hearings are a major pain in the neck for our police officers. First, it is yet another hearing on the same case you are going to court for—and drunk driving cases typically involve more than one court appearance. Second, unlike court, when you appear at the hearing there is no attorney there to represent you. Defense attorneys can badger officers in ways they would never get away with in a court room.

Finally, ALR hearings are a significant impostion on the personal lives of police officers. Think about it: the officers who arrest drunk drivers, especially lots of drunk drivers, all work on the graveyard shift. They are being constantly called to court and to ALR hearings during that are effectively in the middle of their night. You get overtime pay when you are required to appear at an ALR hearing. That has cost us $47,262 so far this fiscal year. Court appearances and ALR hearings may add a little extra on your paycheck but it hardly offsets the disruption to your sleep, health, and family life.

When the time came to brainstorm improvements, there was a lot of discussion. I had some suggestions. A couple of them caused laughter, but I was not joking at all, and was quite serious in making these proposals. First, I think the State should pay the overtime cost. Second, I think that instead of impounding your driver’s license, we should change the law to allow the officer to impound both your car and your driver’s license. You can have it back as soon as the hearing has been held and any period of revocation expires.

Third (and my favorite), I think that ALR hearings should be scheduled on exactly the same day of the week and at exactly the same time as the arrest was made. If you get yourself arrested for drunk driving on Saturday morning at 1:23 A.M., the ALR hearing should be on a Saturday morning at 1:23 A.M..

Bet that would reduce the number of hearings quite a bit. Somehow I think fewer people would contest the ALR. And if a hearing actaully was held, it would be during the arresting officer’s normal work time—not in the middle of his or her sleep time.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Sucking sound from downtown

Saturday morning's downtown shooting as the bars closed has caused a few people to sit up and take notice of a problem the police have dealt with constantly for the past decade, as all of the bars appealing to young and high-risk drinkers have collapsed into the downtown area, particularly around 14th and O Streets.

The fights, beatings, and occasional gun-play or stabbing are not new, but this particular incident seems to have caught people's eye in a new way. Good. More people need to know what we're dealing with, and how the sucking sound of downtown pulls far too many of our limited resources away from the rest of the city. For years I've been encouraging citizens at every speaking engagement I've been at to see for themselves. Most people 40 and over don't make it through the weather forecast, and have a hard time believing that we have traffic jams at 2:00 AM. Babysitting binge-drinkers at bar break comes at the expense of police coverage in the rest of Lincoln.

Last year, I posted an animated map that demonstrates this phenomenon on our public website. Take the link to Downtown Assaults--third up from the bottom. It might be getting a lot of hits today, so be patient while it loads. Those readers from outside of Nebraska can figure out what time the bars close in our city!

Monday, July 2, 2007

Catch your breath

As predicted, it was a terrifically busy weekend. On Friday, we handled 562 dispatches. On Saturday, it was 500 on the nose, and on Sunday, your day of rest, it was 482. That's 231 more police incidents than the preceding weekend. June 29 through July 1 have been the three busiest days this year, so far.

Among the big events that consumed a lot of officers were an early Saturday morning bar-break shooting, in which three people were struck by gunfire. Officer Chris Monico described his role in the investigation, and detailed how he was dealing with an "...immense crowd" at 13th and O Street--a product of the normal bar break mayhem, compounded by the buzz of Americruise weekend. Officer Megan Riffey made a great arrest on the case, but a couple dozen officers (everybody we could possibly scrape together) had to get into the downtown area to deal with the near-chaos.

Also among the 1544 incidents over the weekend, we had two serious traffic crashes--one fatal--and a pretty successful undercover prostitution detail that netted three arrests by Sgt. Mike Bassett, and Officers Megan Schreiner, Tony Howe, Emily Shulz, and Jeff Hanson. That was just a part time gig for these officers, though, they were back in uniform before and after helping to handle the rest of the workload. Good police work was the order of the day, despite the constant pounding. There was a lot more of it, and plenty of compliments to go around. Suffice it to say I am very proud of the way our officers rise to the occasion even in difficult circumstances.

If you look over the nature of those dispatches, pay particular attention to the burglaries, assaults, missing persons, child abuse, larceny, traffic accident, sex crimes, vandalism, auto theft, narcotics. These are all incidents that require significant time to investigate, considerable report writing, and often involve follow-up work beyond the current shift.

Our police officers are busy, and our department among the smallest per capita. Actually, we are the smallest in Nebraska, and in our neck of the woods, Fort Collins and Arvada would be the only cities of more than 100,000 that are smaller per capita. Don't take my word for it, do your own research. Despite the small size, our officers produce high-quality work and an unparalleled number of arrests for this community. No one has taken me up on the challenge to search for another agency with the same number of arrests per officer, but I hope someone does. Maybe some of those journalism students out there are looking for a story line.