Friday, January 30, 2009

California crime analysts

I have been in California for a couple of days, hence the light blogging this week. Two groups asked me to come out and teach seminars, the Bay Area Crime and Intelligence Analyst Association, and the Northern Valley Crime and Intelligence Analysts Association. They were willing to pay my expenses, and I was willing to help out, so we figured a way to do this on two back-to-back days in order to minimize their cost and my out-of-office time. Day one was in Emeryville on San Fransisco bay, and day two was in Sacramento.

It was a nice respite from Nebraska’s January weather, and it felt to me like the attendees all got at least a couple of good ideas to take back to their home departments. I got a few good ideas from the participants, too. In policing, where most officers work their entire career at the same agency, there is a real risk of stagnation. We often lack the infusion of new ideas that occurs naturally in other occupations with the coming and going of staff. Rubbing shoulders with colleagues from other agencies is particularly valuable for police personnel, and I am grateful for the occasional opportunity. It has certainly helped me be a more effective chief.

The first session was hosted at the Emeryville Police Department, right on the bay and with a splendid view. I encountered a crime analyst in the audience with a strong Lincoln connection. Andrea, a bay area native, introduced herself and told me that she was a 2003 University of Nebraska graduate—in the same program from which I took my degree 33 years ago. She ended up in Lincoln for college through a family friendship with a Lincoln physician. Andrea had some vivid memories of January on the UNL campus. She returned to California for graduate school, and is now a crime analyst at the Oakland Police Department

Andrea is part of a new cohort of crime analysts that are entering the field: women and men who have professionally prepared for analytical work. The vast majority of working crime analysts today learned on the job by doing. They are often converted from records technicians, dispatchers, administrative staffers, and police officers. This isn’t to diminish their skills in any way: their job experiences have often enriched their understanding of the context immensely. We are beginning, though, to see more analysts who have prepared through their formal education for the work at hand. I think as they join the field and are mentored by the seasoned analysts who have learned the ropes, they will be well-positioned to advance the boundaries of crime analysis.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ex-husbands look alike

When you've been a cop for a few decades, you've come to expect the surveillance photos from a robbery to be fairly worthless--grainy, out of focus, dark, poor resolution. These days, though, things are changing. We are now getting much better photos and video.

It seems that convenience stores always have to best stuff first. Maybe it's because they are smaller and more agile than the big boys. A few years ago, one of our local banks had experienced four robberies at branches over a span of a few months. The COO, a friend of mine, called me up and asked me if there is anything I could think of that the bank could do. "Yeah," I said, "walk next door to the Kwik Shop, buy a big gulp, see what they have for cameras, and then buy the same thing for all your branch banks!"

Last week's bank robbery (the first since October 6, 2008) provides evidence that banks have caught up to 7-Elevens. This was a pretty good beauty shot of the robber--even better at full resolution. You can see his goatee, read the "B" on his cap, and notice the wedding band. Not bad at all. We got this out to the local media pronto, hoping to get some hot leads.

Friday afternoon, I encountered Det. Sgt. Luke Wilke in a workstation examining a screen full of mug shots and drivers license photos. "What's up?" I asked. "I'm chasing leads on the bank robbery," he said, "Everyone is calling to tell us it's their wife's ex-husband, and they all look just like the guy!"

Oh well, better to have plenty of leads than none at all. The photos and video will continue to improve, and we will have plenty of it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Crime stats 2008

Friday, Mayor Chris Beutler and I released Lincoln's crime statistics for 2008. These are for the FBI Part 1 offenses, the so-called crime index: murder and non-negligent homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, auto theft, and larceny-theft. Here are the slides we used at the news conference.

With the exception of robbery (up by 50 offenses), everything else fell, punctuating a long term trend from our peak crime year of 1991. There were fewer actual Part 1 crimes in Lincoln in 2008 than in 1986--when our population was 70,000 less. Careful observers of the Chief's Corner will remember our change in how we handle drive-offs from self-service gas pumps. That look place in late July, 2007, so it impacted the number of reported larcenies for about five months in 2008. This accounts for somewhere between 300 and 400 cases of the 1,682 decline. It's still a very impressive drop.

The elusive "why" is an unanswerable question. That doesn't keep me from trying, though, along with every other criminologist on the face of the earth. I continue to believe that this one is awfully important, along with our problem-solving approach to policing. We've had an exceptionally productive year, and our police officers and support staff should all take a bow.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Loss from crime

Friday, the Mayor will be releasing the 2008 crime statistics for Lincoln. I've been devoting time recently to analysis, some of which has been posted here on the Chief's Corner, with a little more to come in the next few days.

This one is the result of just summing the "loss" field in our Incident Reports. It may be a bit surprising to some people.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Factors in crime, 2008

As I reported near the end of last year, we now collect fields in police incident reports to note whether the case was related to gangs, drugs, or alcohol. Here's the data for 2008:

Since the total number of incident report was down almost 7% in 2008, I think it is fair to conclude that the increase in drug and alcohol related incidents is a reporting phenomenon--we've gotten better about pulling the lever when we think drugs or alcohol played a role in the incident.

These are soft data. It's the officers' best guess as to whether gangs, drugs, or alcohol played any role in the case. Since many cases aren't solved, and many others are solved several hours or days after the offense, there often isn't much of an opportunity to know whether or how these things factored in. Incidents like gang-related graffiti or alcohol-related assaults are fairly straightforward, but you may not know that a burglary (for example) was committed by a someone who was under the influence of alcohol, or that a forgery was committed by a suspect who needed to money to fuel a drug habit.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bar break crime

It appears that the issue of changing Nebraska's last call hour will be introduced in the legislature again this session. This will be the third time in recent years. I have rendered my views on this previously.

In preparation for the possibility that someone will want to know how that might affect the police, I prepared a little animated graphic on Friday. This was produced from 41,398 violent crimes occurring in Lincoln during the nine year period from 2000 through 2008. Most of those were misdemeanor assaults, but it also includes 8,853 aggravated assaults, 49 murders, 1642 robberies, and 945 rapes. Since you can't display more than about 100 crimes on a map of Lincoln effectively, I've chosen to use a density map that works sort of like a weather map.

If you click on the map below, you'll see the thunderstorm build (it continues to loop, so use the back button on your browser to return to the Chief's Corner):

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Effective intervention

Over the past couple of years I have occasionally blogged about the theft of high-value scrap metals, such as aluminum, copper and brass: an international crime problem. There have been two major efforts to interrupt this pattern in Lincoln. The first was the passage by the Lincoln City Council of a package of changes to Lincoln Municipal Ordinances, Chapter 5.41, which went into effect at the end of 2006. The second was the enactment of Legislative Bill 766 by the Nebraska Legislature, which became effective on September 1, 2008.

Click graph for a larger view.

These data demonstrate a dramatic drop off in this crime over the course of the three year period. It appears that the legislative changes were a particularly effective intervention.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Shots fired

I am engaged in my annual process of reviewing the past year, and will be looking at some of the trends and patterns that emerge.

Last year, in this city of a quarter million, eight people were shot in the course of crimes. Two of these were fatal: a police officer shot an assailant armed with a knife, and a women was shot by her boyfriend in a murder/suicide. One person was shot in a robbery; five were shot in assaults.

I have no source for comparison data from other cities, but I have the feeling that this number of persons shot during the course of a year is incredibly low. I do know that both our homicide rate and our robbery rate are very low in comparison to other cities.

Of these eight shootings, only one has not been solved. That case involves a rather suspicious story from an uncooperative victim, and will probably remain uncleared. In two of the cases, the suspects are currently fugitives, and those will both be cleared eventually when they inevitably surface.

Overall there were 224 crimes committed with guns in Lincoln during 2008. The largest single category was weapons offenses; such as discharging a firearm within the City limits, possession of an illegal firearm, carrying a concealed firearm, and felon in possession of a firearm. Here's the breakdown:

It is quite possible (actually, likely) that a good number of the assaults and robberies were not genuine firearms, but rather fakes such as bb guns or Airsoft pistols, but there's no way to know that except in the cases that are cleared and the weapon recovered.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Second arrest

I blogged about K-9 Brix's first arrest last week. Didn't take him long to notch number 2, an armed robbery suspect, no less!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Call me!

After writing my post yesterday, I was reading my email in the living room and came across a message sent by a Lincoln resident who was a little upset to learn that a neighbor had been arrested and convicted of sexual assault. Here's an excerpt:

"We just knew he had not been seen in awhile. Only after I did not see him around Christmas time did I start to ask questions. I was amazed to find the information I needed a year ago on the Nebraska Department of Corrections Inmate locator search engine"
The author was a bit unhappy that for a year between the arrest and conviction, this man, who appeared to be a respectable long-time resident of the neighborhood, had gone about his merry way without anyone knowing that he was awaiting trail for a felony sex crime. He was suggesting that we borrow the same technology used by Lincoln Public School's automatic dialing system to phone parents and advise them of people in the district who have been arrested or convicted of sex crimes.

I can just imagine the legal counsel's reaction to that one. I emailed him back, and told him I understood his shock and concern, but that in a I can't imagine we would really want the police, in a democratic society, making phone calls to an entire elementary school attendance district to let people know about the arrest of a citizen--especially when he or she has not been convicted. The concept that a person is innocent until proven guilty is fundamental to our system of justice.

I also provided him with some information about the Nebraska State Patrol's sex offender registry, since this man will be required to register upon his release. I also gave him some information about the fabulous VINE website, where he could sign up for an automated notification by either phone or email anytime the subject's custody status changes.

The conversation got me thinking, though, about post-release sex offender notification. For the general public, the method of finding out that the new neighbor is a registered sex offender is to check. You can look up your zip code area on the State Patrol's website, check a specific name, or keep your eye peeled for the fine print notices published from time to time in the local newspaper. I suspect that not many people do that, though. It's a "pull" process of going out and fetching information that you may not even know you want in the first place.

There is, as my correspondent suggested, another way: that information could be pushed out, either to people who register one time (like VINE) or when triggered by a geographic query (like our Crime Alerts through Florida does just that. I'm not necessarily advocating this. I have a few concerns that give me pause, one of which about the quality of geocoding sex offenders. The process of computer matching addresses to maps is something I am intimately familiar with, and even with excellent quality data (like our crime data) there is a certain level of error inherent in the process. Nonetheless, the technology is pretty straightforward, and we use it extensively in-house to push various kinds of notifications and alerts to commanders.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Another example

Monday, the City Council approved a plan to install roundabout near the intersection of Cornhusker Highway and N. 14th Street. That's a bad location, particularly for northbound traffic trying to merge onto Cornhusker. It definitely needs something, and I think a roundabout would work well. Lincoln was awfully chilly to the concept when the City installed the first two roundabouts that served busy intersections, but there is no arguing with the results--a topic I've written about before.

The concerns I've heard about a roundabout at 14th and Cornhusker usually revolve around the perception that since it's a larger street with a higher speed limit, it won't work. If you've ever been to, say, Cape Cod, and encountered the giant highway rotaries, you've seen that it really can work.

Another good example of a high-volume intersection re-engineering project that worked can be found at the dual intersections of S. 9th St., S. 10th St. and Van Dorn Street.

When the project was proposed, there were a lot of raised eyebrows--mine included. It was hard to visualize how this would work, but work it has. The northbound traffic (especially truck traffic) flows smoothly onto the West Bypass at Van Dorn Street, and the accidents have fallen precipitously since the segment opened last July. These intersections and the approaches have averaged about 28 traffic crashes per year since 2000. Although 2008 hit that average on the nose, 24 of these crashes happened prior to the opening of the redesigned segment in July, and only four occurred in the second half of the year after the redesign. Eight injury crashes in 2008 all occurred prior to the re-engineering of the intersection.

Traffic engineers know their business, and deserve a lot more respect than they receive for some of these projects that represent nice improvements in public safety.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Not just a camera

As I mentioned in the comments thread that took off after Christmas, we're in the process of making the conversion from film to digital photography. We have been creeping that way for several years, but 2009 should close the door on Polaroid and 35 mm film. This week, we'll begin issuing a large shipment of Canon digital cameras, so that each officer will have a decent point-and-shoot to supplement the more capable digital SLRs issued to each patrol team and to the criminal investigations team.

Moving to digital, though, is not just a matter of buying a pallet load of cameras. The more significant issue is dealing with the resulting files as digital evidence--which is exactly what those images are. Part of the conversion is building the capacity to handle digital evidence. This will require software, hardware, procedures, and training. It's a piece of cake to use a digital point-and-shoot, but what about after the shot? The present method of burning digital images to CD and tagging those discs into our Property & Evidence Unit is hardly an improvement.

We need to have a process for intake that loads those images onto a secure server and tags them with database fields for future retrieval and connection to our other records pertaining to the case. There must be a process for maintaining the chain-of-custody and security of those files--including backup and archival storage. It's important to create a secure log file that tracks the who, when, where, and what associated with the creation, input, viewing, printing, or manipulation of digital evidence; and of course the original digital file must be maintained intact and unaltered. Finally, we want to serve digital evidence--so that it can be viewed via our intranet, and so that workflow processes can be created that allow technicians to work with this evidence when needed without sneaker-netting CDs around the department.

Some officers will recall the days before digital mug shots, when getting a photo meant a trip to the Records Unit, searching through file draws, manually creating photo spreads for lineups, and so forth. With digital mug shots (especially the 2005 update to the software), the availability and access was dramatically improved to great benefit. It's pretty much the same thing with digital cameras: the type of camera is meaningless unless you are leveraging the digital evidence in a way that improves on the workflow and helps get the job done more efficiently and effectively.

Digital evidence is not just photographic images, either. A byte's a byte, and digital evidence files might be documents, audio files, video files, and so forth. This is going to be one of the more significant changes of the year, so standby for not just a new camera, but for changes in training, procedures, and a new way of thinking about electronic evidence as the year unfolds.

Monday, January 5, 2009

First arrest

We introduced our newest police canine to the public just before Christmas. Shortly after midnight last Wednesday, December 31st, Brix made his first catch. His handler, Officer Chris Vollmer, was summoned to the area of a disturbance near 9th and South Streets. The suspect had run off as officers initially arrived, and was lost after a short foot chase.

Chris and Brix started scouting the area, and Brix quickly found the suspect. He had crawled under a parked SUV, pulled his coat over his head, and was trying to be invisible. Brix sniffed him, and was quite interested in crawling under the SUV to join him. The suspect was willing to step out on his own before Brix did so. He went to jail for a variety of charges, including 3rd degree domestic assault, some outstanding arrest warrants, and 1st degree sexual assault.

Police officers usually have vivid memories of their first arrest. I suspect that our four-legged colleagues do, too.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Record smashed

The 34 year old record for DWI arrests by the Lincoln Police Department has fallen. Back during the year Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford was sworn in, LPD arrested 1,992 drunk drivers. In 2008 that record was finally broken. We closed the year with 2,253 DWI arrests.

Back in 1974 when the old record was set, an Alcohol Safety Action Program squad of six officers made over half the total DWI arrests, and conducted every one of the chemical tests with a gas chromatograph. Those officers worked from 7:00 PM to 4:30 AM, and had court appearances on virtually every weekday, beginning at 9:00 AM and often including 10:30 AM and 2:00 AM sessions, as well. It was a brutal schedule. Interestingly, of the six ASAP squad officers in 1974, three are still members of the Lincoln Police Department: Jon Morris, Steve Wetzel, and Mike Garnett.

Whether the breaking of the record is good news or bad depends on your point of view about the cause. If the cause is more drunk driving, the news is bad. If the cause is more police enforcement, I'd say it's good. Frankly, I think a variety of factors are at work.

The threshold for DWI has fallen from .10% to .08%. For those under the age of 21, the threshold has been sent at .02%. The population has increased steadily: we have about 70,000 more citizens. The number of retail alcohol outlets has more than tripled. Though the process has waxed and waned over the years, at present, the time involved in processing a drunk driving arrest for police officers is comparatively reasonable. Overall traffic stops and traffic citations have increased. The public support for drunk driving enforcement--particularly the efforts of MADD has certainly caused a difference. All of these factors have influenced the number of DWI arrests.

The smashing of the 1974 record represents a monumental effort by our officers. There is nothing a police officer does that is as certain to impact public safety as arresting a drunk driver. The officers who contributed to this result, and their coworkers and families who supported those efforts, should all be proud.