Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top posts of the year

All the news outlets are doing "top stories of 2008" this week, so I thought I'd recap the top posts of the year on The Chief's Corner, where there were just over 136,415 visits in 2008. Now, how do your measure the most popular posts?

You could count the total number of page hits. Page hits, though, come primarily from external links or from backlinks contained in other posts--something I do a lot of. As the year wears on I might write three of four new posts with a link referring to the same post I wrote back in February, for example. That could generate quite a few page hits. A lot of external hits come from Google searches, particularly images. Since I post quite a few photos and graphs, if you do an image search on something like "SWAT" or "call box key", it's going to generate a page hit.

Alternatively, you might count the number of visits per day. Theoretically a good post will generate a large number of visits compared to a dull and boring one, and those visits will come on the day of the post or perhaps a day or two thereafter.

Finally, you might count the number of comments. A provocative post ought to create more dialog and comments than a lame one, although sometimes the comments take off in a completely different direction than the original post. So here's the top ten lists for 2008:

Most page hits:

Share the road

Hole in his bucket

Exemplary planning and execution

Call box key

To the rescue

Not a wise choice

Frequent flyer

Not an urban legend

Enough with the speed trap

Most visits in a day:

Share the road

Surprised me

Not an urban legend

Bad year for bank robbers

Why would you assume that?

Tried to warn him

Enough with the speed trap

More from the inbox

Quite a show

Call the police

Most comments:

Share the road

Easy button

Hole in his bucket

Guns here and there

Quite a show

Could it be?

Citizen crime analysts

Enough with the speed trap

Never even asked

Why we do this

My personal favorite never made any of the lists.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New gizmo

I'm getting acquainted with a new cell phone. I've been using a smartphone of one kind or another for years, and I opted for a Samsung Omnia, running Windows Mobile 6.1. It's my third Windows Mobile device, after making the jump from a decade of Palm OS. My first handheld was a Sharp Wizard, nearly 20 years ago. I still own it, and it still works. Seems to me that the useful life of a cell phone or handheld computer these days is about three years.

I am pretty dependent on syncing my calendar, and on carrying around an array of PowePoints, Excel spreadsheets, documents and .pdf files of all sorts. I picked up an 8gb micro SD card on sale at Best Buy this past weekend, and loaded it up. It blows my mind to think of the storage on that tiny chip. I can essentially carry around all my important files and applications. I can see that the laptop is going to be staying in the bag more often. The wide screen on the Omnia makes those spreadsheets a little more comfortable than it's predecessor.

The mind boggling application, though, is Google Maps Mobile. The newest release is astounding. It includes StreetView, and it works great on a handheld. It's one thing to search for an address and quickly render a Google Map in your hand, but now with a click you are looking at the street-level photo of the surroundings.

It seems like it wasn't long ago that a Motorola bag phone and a IBM XT with a 10 meg hard drive was a pretty spiffy set up. I sometimes wonder where the future will lead us.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas follow-up

I noted in my post last Friday that second shift on Christmas had been rather interesting, and that I'd report on that later. Overall, Christmas is normally a slow day. We handled a total of 176 dispatches, which is about half our daily average.

What always surprises me about Christmas isn't the volume of incidents, but rather the nature. The ugly side of human behavior does not take a break for holy days. Here's a few snippets from the Christmas Incident Report one-liners:


We were involved in ten mental health investigations on Christmas Day. At one point, around 8:00 PM, officers were dealing with three individuals threatening suicide at the same time. Sgt. Craig Price, covering supervisory duties on the east side of Lincoln, had just finished coordinating his second tactical entry in 20 minutes, when he cleared and asked the dispatcher if she was holding any more.

Nonetheless, the day really was slow. I blogged last year about the common myth that the holiday season is the high-water mark for suicide attempts and domestic violence. It's not. It's all comparative, though: I think Christmas always seems busy because there is a minimum staff on duty, and things like domestic assaults and suicide attempts seem so incongruous on Christmas.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Bag man

Since the Casady family Christmas celebration is on Christmas Eve, I always work on Christmas Day. It let's someone else take the day off, and it's a tradition for me that is always interesting. I'll have to recap the days events later.

The profane, however, is moderated by the uplifting. Once again this year, two groups of citizens I am acquainted with endowed me with some cash to distribute on Christmas Day. Officers Chris Fields and Lane Johnson gave me a good tip. They had encountered a young woman in crisis on Christmas Eve. She has had a string of recent trouble that had brought her near a breaking point: divorce, unpaid child support, the recent loss of her job, and a traffic crash (not her fault) that destroyed her minivan. She is raising three young children alone in half of a Spartan duplex.

Just like last year, as the shift wore on, I couldn't find her at home. There was a Christmas tree lit in the window, though, so I suspected she would be back eventually. Around 8:30 PM, I left an address where officers were searching for a suicidal man, and made another pass on my way to the station. The lights were on, and I knocked on the door. "Come in," she called, obviously expecting a guest other than the chief of police. After introductions, I explained my mission, handed her $300 in two gift cards, and received the hug that actually belongs to others who merely sought my help as the bag man.

I had obviously interrupted bath time for the kids after a long day. They were all peering out the window as I remounted my sleigh. I treated them to a blue and red light show as I drove away. I'm sure that little excitement delayed bedtime a few minutes.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gang taggers nabbed

The reports are still being prepared by the officers as I write this post, but the Northeast Team made five nice arrests early this morning when they interrupted a group who had spray painted gang graffiti at several locations in the vicinity of UNL's east campus.

Officer Nichole Loos spotted the suspects leaving the area in a vehicle, and some good interviewing and observation tied them to the crimes. One of the defendants has an extensive history of vandalizing property with gang graffiti. In 2006, when he was 16 years old, Officer Forrest Dalton cleared dozens of cases which he linked to this suspect through follow-up investigation. He went to juvenile court for those. The outcome might be a little different if he is convicted of the current charges: he's 18 now, a grown-up who can face the music in adult court.

For those who (incorrectly) think that gang activity isn't much of an issue in Lincoln, we have now had 357 incidents of gang-related graffiti reported in 2008.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Primary care

Last week, I received a nice email from an acquaintance who volunteers at a local free clinic. Her email concerned an incident that happened at the clinic recently. A client experienced some suicidal ideation, and needed help beyond what the clinic could provide. The police were called, and she was incredibly impressed by the work of the officer who responded, Mike Muff. She didn't know his name, but wanted to pass on her appreciation.

I wanted to determine who the officer was, so I could pass the compliment on to the appropriate supervisor. Since she gave me the date (Dec. 9), I thought it would be a simple matter, and looked up the mental health investigations for that day. There were nine. Think about that for a moment: the Lincoln Police Department responded to nine mental health investigations on a Tuesday. We've handled 2,147 so far this year, an average of over six per day. That's more than all the violent Part 1 crimes combined.

During those investigations, we took 345 people into emergency protective custody, and helped make other voluntary placements or arrangements for hundreds of others. We have become, in many respects, the default provider of mental health services. It's increased over the years: back in 2001 it was 1,550 cases. Not a complaint, just an observation: we are relying upon the police to provide the care and services on an increasing variety of personal and social ills that were once provided by others.

I'm not certain to what extent these problems have increased, and to what extent these other providers have just backed away. Some of both, I suspect.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Citizen crime analysts

This is your chance to think like a crime analyst. I'm going to try a little exercise where members of the general public who read the Chief's Corner put on a crime analyst's hat. If you want to play, other readers can be your cheerleaders or critics--including me! Nobody gets hurt, it might be illuminating, fun, and ultimately helpful.

Among the crime patterns we discussed last night, at our regular ADUDAT meeting, was a group of four larcenies from auto occurring at Churches within the past two weeks. A larceny from auto is a case in which someone illegally enters a motor vehicle and steals stuff inside. It's one of the most common crimes in Lincoln, and causes a huge dollar loss--well over $1 million annually, even more than burglary. These four cases were among the 63 overall within the past two weeks. That's a very low number, driven by the demise of good shopping weather for thieves.

So, here we are, on the verge of a big Church week, where the number of services and the number of attendees goes through the roof. I'm challenging non-LPD readers to come up with strategies to combat this crime. Remember that the strategies need to be practical: something we could do that is within our resources and capabilities, remembering that there are a lot of other crimes, disorder, and chaos for us to deal with this week, too (not to mention traffic crashes.)

If you need more information upon which to base your decisions or formulate your strategy, just ask. You might find or CrimeView Community helpful. As time permits the next few days, I dig it up for you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

First dollar

You've seen these before: a framed dollar bill above the counter at a bar, store, restaurant, or other small business. It was placed there in celebration of the first buck earned by a entrepreneur who risked it all to follow a dream.

Last week, our Administrative Officer/Accountant, Michele, showed me a deposit she was working on. Among here many duties she deposits funds that are seized as evidence after the court has disposed of the case, if the cash is forfeited. She had several hundred dollars in currency that was headed to the bank in a recently-concluded narcotics case. Among the bills was a neatly-framed Fifty. Ulysses S. Grant was staring out from the black shadow box.

I guess drug dealers are entrepreneurs, too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Chilling effect

Ah, Nebraska. Nothing like a bracing fall wind to get the blood flowing. We had a beautiful weekend. Saturday, it hit 59 degrees. People were walking around without jackets. The kids across the street were out playing in shorts. Sunday, it was still 51 degrees at 3:54 AM. Over the next few hours, though, things changed rapidly. At 8:54 AM, it was 12 degrees with a 38 MPH wind from the northwest. By 11:54 PM, it was 1 degree, and the wind had dropped to 32 MPH, for a wind chill of -25. A 50 degree drop in the same day is pretty impressive, even by our local standards. That cooled the week off. It's up to a balmy 5 degrees right now, after yesterday's low of -4.

The good news is that bad weather has a chilling effect on crime, as I noted here in the Chief's Corner a year ago. As I publish this post, we've had 27 incidents dispatched since midnight. On another Tuesday, August 12, we had 47 incidents dispatched prior to 5:30 AM. When the bottom drops out of the thermometer, the same thing happens with crime. This is especially true of crimes that require a bit of outdoor work--things like burglaries and thefts from automobiles. I remind myself of that good side to bad weather every time I'm scooping snow.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Work the field

I spent last Friday in Washington, DC at a meeting convened by the National Institute of Justice--the research arm of the Department of Justice. I had been invited, along with about a dozen other criminal justice practitioners and academicians, to participate in a discussion of strategies for improving the implementation of research-based strategies in the field. NIJ wants to improve the uptake of research findings by practitioners.

Personally, I think they do a very good job of disseminating the most important research in criminal justice. Conference presentations, publication in professional journals, the NIJ website, and a variety of concise, summary reports aimed at practitioners are used to get the word out about new findings from NIJ funded research. To the extent that important findings sometimes fail to result in research-based strategies by practitioners in the field, I don't think this is due to lack of effort by the NIJ.

Rather, I believe that we are not prepared to assimilate the results of research very well. There is a whole body of knowledge out there about research-based strategies in policing, but it does not always find fertile ground in the field. I tend to hang out with like-minded chiefs who are constantly scanning for the latest-and-greatest information about "what works," but I think this is the exception, rather than the rule. As a profession we need to do a better job in colleges and universities, police academies, and professional development training preparing our personnel to use the results of good research to guide their actions and decisions. Other fields do a comparatively better job of this--medicine and education come to mind.

On a Sunday drive last week, my mother-in-law Joyce Wagner--a farm girl at heart, made a Nebraska observation that fits very well: "That field's already been worked," she said. It was a compliment. She saw a hillside of dark earth in an otherwise muted landscape, indicating that an enterprising farmer had already put the disc to a harvested field: turning over the earth, loosening the ground, preparing the field to accept next spring's planting. More of that needs to happen in policing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Huffing deaths

This post is a serious warning about the practice of "huffing:" inhaling substances (usually aerosols of some sort) for the purpose of getting high. In Lincoln, there have been two recent deaths and one recent medical emergency involving the inhalation of the propellant and compounds contained in "canned air": aerosol products marketed for blowing dust off such things as computer keyboards.

The last death in Lincoln from huffing that I can recall was about 16 years ago. These three cases in rapid succession are of grave concern. I feel that we have an ethical obligation to warn the public about this phenomenon, even though I realize that this may be painful for the friends and family of the victims.

On November 12, 2008, a 19 year old Lincoln man was found in his apartment next to a plastic bag and a can of "Maxell Blast Away". CPR was initiated and he was transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead in the emergency department. The case number is A8-113360.

On December 8, 2008, a 36 year old Lincoln man was found dead in his apartment, with a can of "Safe Clean" dust remover in his hand. Four other empty cans were also recovered, along with receipts for the purchase of 11 cans over a three day period. The case number is A8-121264.

Autopsy results in both of these cases show that the victims died from asphyxia after inhaling these substances.

On December 6, 2008, Lincoln emergency personnel responded to a medical emergency behind Shopko at 6845 S. 27th Street. A 28 year old man was found slumped over in his vehicle with a can of "Clean Safe" dust remover in his hand. This man recovered from his condition after on-scene treatment by Lincoln Fire & Rescue, and was cited for the offense of inhaling intoxicating vapors. The case number is A8-120719.

Other deaths have been reported as a result of the practice of inhaling dust remover products. Warning signs that might be indicative that someone is engaging in huffing these substances might include such things as multiple purchases in a short time period, possession of several cans, discovery of several empty cans, and the presence of cans with plastic bags or other paraphernalia associated with huffing.

Data to crunch

Every year, the FBI publishes a compendium of data from 17,000 or so police agencies that participate in the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program by submitting their data to the FBI. The program is voluntary, and while not all agencies submit, this represents that vast majority of state, county, municipal, and university police agencies in the country. The thick publication that results, Crime in the United States (CIUS) is an annual publication in which the FBI compiles volume and rate of crime offenses for the nation, the states, and individual agencies. This report also includes arrest, clearance, and law enforcement employee data. I sometimes refer to the report as the UCR.

If you go to the UCR website, before you can actually open the report, you are cautioned about the hazards of ranking agencies. The FBI's disclaimer warns that "rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, or region. Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents." The FBI is correct, and the UCR data must always be understood in the context of how it is collected: these data are submitted by participating agencies, and are only as good as the individual reporting and coding practices of those agencies. I could blog for a month on that topic.

Despite the warnings, though, comparing cities using UCR data is as American as apple pie: everybody does it, everyone wants to know how their robbery rate compares to others, where they stack up in police-citizen ratios, and so forth. Since there are common questions, I have created my own Excel spreadsheets over the years to massage the FBI data by adding a few calculated fields, performing sorts based on population or geography, and so forth.

This got a lot easier a few years ago, when the individual tables in the report became available as .xls files. Now I just grab Table 8 (Offenses known to the police by City) and Table 78 (law enforcement employment by City) and have at it. I write the formulae I need to calculate new columns I want, apply filters and sorts, and use copy and paste to create some sheets that meet my specific purposes: crime data for cities within 50,000 or Lincoln's population, for example, or police officer/population ratios for cities in Nebraska and the surrounding states. I spend about a day on this project every fall when the UCR is published, and I'm prepared all year long when some reporter, city council member, or reader of The Chief's Corner asks a question containing "how do we compare?"

In a recent phone conversation with a colleague, Chris Bruce, the crime analyst at the Danvers, Massachusetts Police Department, I learned that he does the same thing. Lots of analysts from other police agencies read this blog, so in the interest of sharing with others, I've posted my Excel workbook and you are free to download it. It's almost 5 meg, so you' may need to be patient--it took just under a minute on my home wireless network this morning. Table 8 and 78 are the last two sheets, and for all the others that include both crime and employment data together, I only included cities that reported both. Some cities had crime data but no employment data, or vice versa. There were a handful of cities with incomplete employment data (such as no population listed) that I also did not include.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Seems about right

When street-level prostitution started surfacing in Lincoln a few years ago, it was an indicator of much more serious problems. You can argue all you want about prostitution being a victimless crime: when you arrest a john who's brought his baby along for the ride, bust someone who negotiates a $5 sex act with a desperate addict, or investigated a soup-sandwich robbery report in which the victim is lying about the hooker and pimp who jacked him, you'll soon discover that there are indeed many victims in street prostitution. One of those victims is the neighborhood.

Few things are more damaging to a neighborhood than street walkers hanging out while prospects slowly cruise by gawking. For that reason, our Southwest Team officers have worked hard to reduce street prostitution. This has been difficult and risky work. They should be commended for their dedication and courage. Their efforts should also be supported by an equal commitment by the rest of the criminal justice system.

I received this recap of sentences that have been meted out to johns seeking prostitutes in the Southwest Team area this year during our Project Safe Neighborhoods operations:

I'm encouraged, because I think this shows that these offenses are not being trivialized. I also think it has made a difference. The problem has been impacted, and the neighborhood has seen the results. It has been a team effort, and a good example of the collaboration of the community and the police to address a problem of mutual concern.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Be careful in the surf

Yesterday one of our local reporters from KOLN TV wanted a "law enforcement perspective" on couch surfing. Sounds like a neat idea to me, sort of like the newest version of youth hostels. As a baby-boomer, I grew up in an era when crashing on a stranger's couch, traveling to Europe with a backpack and a hundred bucks, and hitchhiking all over the place was pretty well accepted.

Alas, now we have to know stuff that we'd really rather not know. Particularly when you're in my business: you want three references and a cheek swab from grandma before you allow her to babysit. Same creeps were out there in the 1970's, we were just blissfully ignorant compared to today.

With a little time before the interview, I jumped on, put in a few parameters, and rendered a list of available hosts in Lincoln. I found an interesting guy who specified in his profile "no cigarette smoking." He's been arrested four times by my officers for smoking or possession of marijuana, though, and we have a slew of intelligence information about him dealing in various controlled substance.

I also found a registered sex offender offering his sofa. This particular guy was convicted of a felony count of child enticement, when he tried to romance what he thought was a 13 year old girl, and arranged to meet her to consummate the relationship. The forensic examination of his personal computer was rather interesting.

Another prospective couch host was taken into emergency custody by our officers quite recently after threatening to shoot himself.

So, if you're going to couch surf, take advantage of the free resources for background checks, email some of the references, don't go it alone if you can help it, and bring your own sleeping bag: never know what's been on that couch. No need to be paranoid, though. You can't live in a cocoon, and somehow the concept of people hosting travellers in their home is appealing to a guy who was on his own at an early age, and depended on the kindness of others to make his way for several years.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mystery solved

Two or three years ago, I noticed these annoying foam core signs popping up at intersections, posing the question "Single?" and advertising or I've also seen them all over in the Omaha metro area, with names like, or Someone has bought a boat load of domain names. Insert your City name with singles, dating, .com and .org in various combinations, and see for yourself. The mystery for me was where in the world these signs come from. Suddenly, you'd spot dozens of them in the right-of-way, as if a platoon of elves installed them overnight.

Signs placed in the public right-of-way are illegal in Lincoln and most anywhere else, but it's hardly a police priority. Nonetheless, we receive complaints about this from time to time. I've been quizzed a couple of times by members of the City Council about these. Finally, earlier this year, one of our officers actually found a person in the act of installing these signs, and issued a citation to a Papillion woman driving a Lexus. She declined to reveal who she worked for, and was ultimately fined a whopping $10. That'll teach her.

With the distinct lack of concern by the Court, I had totally lost interest in this minor offense, until last week. Just before Thanksgiving, I noticed a new bloom of signs. At the intersection of 56th and Highway 2, for example, I counted six--one on each corner and two stuck in expansion joints in the medians. Meanwhile, a reader of The Chief's Corner brought to my attention this rather lengthy but intriguing story of these signs, which goes a long way towards solving the mystery.

If you wade through the story (take a glance at the comments, too), you'll learn that a franchise dating service, The Right One, is the likely purveyor of the signs. They have franchises in Lincoln and Omaha and are registered with the Better Business Bureau. The Lincoln office is in the US Bank building at 56th and O Street.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Enough with the speed trap!

That was the subject line on this email I received last Tuesday, which I have condensed somewhat due to length:

"Come on guys, enough with the speed trap at the bottom of the hill on A Street right by 70th. It is the equivalent of entrapment. You have people going down a hill, so their rate of speed goes a bit faster, and so you are jumping on them there. I was astounded to get a ticket the other day, because I have to pull out from a side street where I live, I was ticketed for momentum, basically. And by an officer who was sullen. I have seen this speed trap there for the better part of a year, usually at the end of the month when you need to write more tickets. It comes off as abuse of power. It is these sort of actions by policemen that causes us citizens to lose respect for you and bad blood between you and the neighborhood. Thank you for your consideration."

The complaints about speed traps are almost as common as the complaints about the lack thereof. There is no single issue that citizens complain to me more about than speeding in their neighborhood. I would say that this is especially true for anyone who lives within a mile or so of a high school. This particular speed trap is midway between two: Lincoln East High School and Pius X High School. The value of the hill is not in creating "momentum," rather it is in limiting visibility: you can't see the radar until it's already seen you. Since the citation this correspondent received was for 11-15 MPH over the limit, I think we can safely assume that gravity was not the culprit.

Citizens who complain about speeding in their neighborhood, of course, are normally referring to speeders other than their own friends, family members, and selves. I sometimes have to shake my head at the mental process whereby someone complains bitterly about red light runners, but then himself guns it through every yellow light he encounters.

Let us dissect the concept of a speed trap. Colloquially, I think this means a location where speeders are easily snagged by police officers. Snagging speeders, of course, is part of our job. Before anyone has a conniption, let me reiterate that the Nebraska Constitution specifies that fines be paid into the general fund of the school district: a ticket benefits the City of Lincoln and the Lincoln Police Department not one whit. If we wrote no tickets at all, we'd actually save quite a bit of money.

In Lincoln, as elsewhere, speed traps tend to have a few common characteristics. First, it's a location where there is a suitable supply of speeders. This criterion is met at places near high schools, arterial streets with moderate traffic flows that allow you to isolate single vehicles, and collector streets in residential areas. Second, it is a location where speed enforcement can be established with a certain element of surprise. Third, it's an area that is accessible to the police. There are some places where it's tough to set up enforcement due to such things as high-volume, elevated roadways, the lack of an area where stationary radar can be safely deployed, no good place to safely pull cars over, and so forth.

Since the characteristics of speed traps can be described, they are rather easy to identify if you think about it. There are several locations in Lincoln where to this day I double check my speedometer. Call it muscle memory from 40 years of driving in this City, but I'm tapping the brake and checking the needle anytime I'm westbound on Vine from 46th Street. And that, folks, is the purpose of a speed trap: it is our job to enforce speed limits. That means writing tickets, and trusting that people will have that experience (or the sight of someone else having it) in the back of their mind as their speedometer creeps to 57 MPH on Old Cheney Road west of 70th Street.

Speed traps are predictable to the thinking motorist, and fairly easy to avoid if you use your head rather than your foot. Enforcing traffic laws is an important part of our role in promoting public safety. Why should we be criticized for doing so with a certain degree of efficiency? Nobody likes to get a ticket, but I think we all realize that there is only one person to blame.