Thursday, January 31, 2013

The King's English

Hang around  police or fire command staff meetings for a while, and the subject of report writing will inevitably surface.  A common topic of conversations concerns the quality of writing.  Often, someone will lament the decline in writing skills, and a chorus of agreement will follow.

Some of this is just another example of the ancient complaint of "kids these days." Some, however, is a genuine concern over what seems to be a decline in writing skills.  Personally, I am something of a stickler for proper grammar, spelling, and word usage.  As my blog reveals, however, I occasionally dangle  my own participle.  I try, though, to use language well.  It drives me nuts when someone confuses exacerbate with exasperate or exaggerate, or turns a perfectly good phrase such as "graduated from high school" into an abominable one lacking the requisite preposition. And the next time I hear someone using the hackneyed expression "kick the can down the road," I think I will be ill.

Nevertheless, I realize that English is a living language.  Today, it is increasingly living in short snippets contained in emails, tweets, and text messages.  Despite my preferences for precision and elocution in language, you can actually communicate a lot of information in a short message that is perfectly understandable, though nowhere near the King's English.  There, I've got that off my chest.  I'm thru.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Drone to phone

An article in the Lincoln Journal Star last week caught my eye, in which it is reported that a Nebraska state senator is proposing legislation to outlaw the use of drones by law enforcement agencies, ostensibly to protect citizens from the eye-in-the-sky.  I am unaware of an police agency in Nebraska using drones, but I have increasingly noticed marketing of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) aimed at both police and fire departments.

When you think about it, a UAV offers some pretty significant advantages over a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft--which are commonplace in policing.  They are drastically cheaper to acquire and operate, require no pilot, and can be put in service swiftly from just about anywhere--no airport required.

Back in the 1970s LPD operated a helicopter, and during my term as Lancaster County Sheriff in the early 1990s, the Sheriff's Office operated a fixed-wing airplane.  These aircraft are very expensive to operate.  Only the largest agencies can afford to fly on a regular basis.  A UAV, on the other hand, can be deployed quickly when needed, and carries none of the big costs associated with an air wing.

I think this is probably why this senator (and many other people) are apprehensive about police use of drones: it's just far more "doable" than putting a helicopter in the air, and drones are much less conspicuous.  If you were sunning yourself on the deck behind your privacy fence, you'd probably notice a police helicopter in your neighborhood. A police drone, even though not necessarily intended for stealth, would be much smaller and quieter. I share these concerns to a point, but it seems to me that drones may have their place as a tool in emergency services, in certain circumstances and when protections are in place to minimize unnecessary intrusions on privacy.

In some respects, the proliferation of fixed cameras fills some of the needs that used to be the province of the police helicopter.  We used to put the Bell in the air for such events as the State Fair and Nebraska home football games in order to provide on-the-ground supervisors with information about traffic.  Today, some of the Citys' traffic cameras provide an even better view of those traffic patterns.  The full-resolution streaming video from these cameras is really nice, and a far cry from these public 15-second screenshots.

Lincoln came close to having a police drone last year: mine.  I really wanted to buy a Parrott AR drone after I saw some kid flying one in a Brookstone store, using an iPhone app as the controller.  I thought I could have some great fun with the grandkids, and annoy my wife until she gave me that look.  I even tried to convince myself that it had practical uses around the house, like checking the condition of the shingles, or inspecting the second-floor dryer vent.  How dumb is that? (Don't answer that, it was a rhetorical question.) Alas, I just wasn't willing to part with $299.99 in order to stream video from a drone to a phone.

As the legislature considers the bill, I intend to avoid  the legislative committee hearing, where testimony sometimes drones on and on.  By the way, there's a support group for people afflicted with that:  On and On Anon.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Criminal element

A hot topic recently on some of the research-oriented web forums I monitor has been an article published this month in Mother Jones. Author Kevin Drum posits a theory that the meteoric rise of violent crime in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the precipitous fall in the 1990s and 2000s is the result of the effects of rising and falling levels of environmental lead.

Environmental lead, in turn, tracks the growing use of leaded gasoline in internal combustion engines, and the 1970s switchover to unleaded fuels. The bell-shaped curves of lead and crime look like mirror images, lagged by about 20 years. Could this indicate that a generation of children exposed to high levels of lead was more likely to produce individuals with violent propensities? And could the unexpected decline in violence in recent decades simply be the result of getting the lead out thirty years ago?

It is an intriguing thought, but as seasoned readers of my blog know, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. The author is a journalist, not a scientist, and Mother Jones isn't exactly a peer-reviewed professional journal. Nonetheless, the article was thought provoking, and might even stimulate more rigorous examination of the possible link.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Caught on camera

Earlier this month, officers Chad Staley and Conan Schafer made a nice arrest of an alleged serial graffiti vandal.  Among his dozens of targets was the statue of Abraham Lincoln that stands right in front of the Law Enforcement Center and Hall of Justice. The vandal painted the letter V in a circle on the base of the statue--similar to the emblem in the film (and comic book) V for Vendetta.

There is an interesting back story concerning how the arrest was made. Officer Nate Flood, who investigated one of the vandalism cases, reviewed video from the camera systems at the Hall of Justice, which showed the vandal walking towards the statute from the convenience store on the opposite side of 10th Street.  Officer Flood went to the convenience store, and found video of the suspect from that vantage point, too. The convenience store's footage (is it still called "footage"?) was even better.

The video was not of sufficient quality to identify the suspect by facial features, but it did reveal a rather distinctive logo on the suspect's back pack.  Still images from the video were shown during daily roll call briefings (we actually call it "lineup") at the police department the following day.  Later that evening, two officers preparing to  do a little traffic enforcement a mile or so south of Abe's location happened to see a pedestrian sporting a backpack with a logo they recognized from lineup, and made the arrest.  The backpack, of course, contained several cans of spray paint.  Case cleared--or rather 34 cases cleared.

Images from various privately-owned and operated CCTV systems are helping to clear a lot of crimes in Lincoln.  Sometimes it is an eagle-eyed police officer who makes the identification, and often it is a citizen.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cool Tool

A comment was posted on Wednesday by someone pertaining to my earlier post this week about car v. building crashes.  The author asserted that the economy in Colorado is booming, due to the legalization of marijuana. How a story about car/building crashes turns into a discussion of the merits of legalized pot is another matter, but you'd really have to follow the thread from Monday to figure that out.

Regardless of what one might think of the proposition, I doubted that there was any conclusive research to back up this assertion.  I also reasoned that the economy in Colorado couldn't be any better than in Nebraska, and figured I'd provide some evidence of that by grabbing the two States' unemployment data. I Googled "Colorado unemployment" and almost immediately discovered the cool  tool that produced this comparative graph in a New York minute. The information you can gather in 30 seconds today is rather amazing.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lincoln Fire & Rescue museum

Everyone in my family can testify that I love museums, and rarely pass a roadside historical marker.  I have annoyed them on more occasions than you can imagine, poring over some exhibit while everyone else in the family was rolling their eyes and hoping we could move along to something like dinner, or the rest of the vacation.

Although I love the Smithsonian, the Nebraska Historical Museum, the Nelson, the Joslyn, the Art Institute, and so forth, my favorites are smaller little places: county museums, corners of local libraries, and so forth that I occasionally discover off the beaten track.  There are a few little-known collections in Lincoln that I am particularly partial to, one of which is the museum at Lincoln Fire & Rescue Station 1, located at 1801 Q Street.   
A few years ago, Chief John Huff orchestrated an effort to clean out the closet, reorganizing the collection of artifacts in a back room at LF&R HQ.  The room was transformed from something akin the junk drawer in my garage into a top-notch little museum, that every LF&R employee can truly be proud of.  

It is a fascinating collection of equipment, memorabilia, documents, and photos spanning about 130 years of Lincoln's history.  The museum is suitable for all ages and can accommodate all but the largest groups. We invite the public to visit, and all we need is an advance phone call to make arrangements, so we can be certain have someone available to host.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thanks, Judge Blue

William D. Blue, who retired as a judge of the District Court about a dozen years ago, died suddenly and unexpectedly on Monday.  Judge Blue was appointed to the bench by Governor Jim Exon, a couple of years before I became a police officer. Our careers in criminal justice overlapped for a quarter century, and our acquaintance for a decade beyond.

I had immense respect for Judge Blue.  He presided over the most emotional case of my career (for me, at least), the trial of Terry Reynolds, who murdered my colleague, Deputy Sheriff Craig Dodge, in 1987.  Judge Blue also presided over my first homicide case, the prosecution of Clyde Rice for the death of Donald Edelman in 1977.

He was on the bench for many of the most notable cases of the 1980s and 1990s in Lincoln, and from the time I was a young police officer, until my mid career as the Lancaster County Sheriff, and later the Lincoln police chief, I saw him in his element on many occasions.  Judge Blue was simply the model of judicial restraint, deportment, and objectivity.  Not every ruling fell in the direction I personally wished, but I never, ever doubted that this man was committed above all to the law and to justice.

After he retired, Judge Blue moved into my neighborhood, right around the corner. For the next decade, Tonja and I would frequently encounter him on our daily walks and enjoy a conversation with both he and I "out of uniform" for a change.  A couple years ago, the Judge moved into Legacy Estates, where my mother-in-law, Joyce, also resides. There our paths continued to cross once or twice a month.  He was almost always chuckling with someone, and never alone.  Judge Blue was an instigator of fun at the Legacy--an informal social director, always meeting, greeting, laughing, and story telling.  I enjoyed seeing him in this role very much, and I know how sorely he is missed by his friends, family, and his fellow residents and the staff at Legacy Estates.

I never felt very comfortable addressing him as "Bill," but you would find no more affable, likable  and admirable man than Bill Blue, with a dry sense of humor that never ceased to bring a crease to my face.  One of my fondest memories was an encounter with the Judge outside Pershing Municipal Auditorium in the mid-1980's, accompanied by another esteemed jurist, on their way to a boxing smoker.  Out of the robe, His Honor was as down to earth and friendly as any man on earth.  Doing his job, he was a serious jurist who understood the awesome power and responsibility of a District Court judge, and rose to the task each and every time.  I am fortunate to have been his student, and honored to have been among his many friends.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Car vs. building

Last Thursday morning I was listening to KLIN radio.  Jack Mitchell and Dave Miller, the morning show hosts, were yucking it up over this accident, in which a disoriented driver turned a pizza restaurant into a drive through--even placing his order from the front seat after the crash.

Mr. Mitchell has a fascination with car/building crashes, and every time one of these hits the news, he launches into a monologue claiming that Lincoln drivers smash into buildings more than anywhere else on earth.  Thursday, he announced that he had started a Google Docs spreadsheet of these recent crashes, and he invited listeners to edit his work. In a rather short time, several additions were contributed, as people recollected crashes from the past, and in some cases even found links to related news stories.

I was pretty impressed at Jack's concept of a crowd-sourced spreadsheet, but I also knew that it would be woefully incomplete, since it is based on what contributors recall, and what a web search of news items returns. A tiny percentage of these crashes would ever make the paper or the newscast. I, on the other hand, have millions of records of police dispatches, and anyone who knows me or reads the Director's Desk for any length of time realizes that I am a database geek.  This was a challenge!

So while the coffee was brewing, I searched the past five years' crashes.  There is no data field that identifies car/building crashes, however, as these are included in the broader category of fixed object collisions.  My work around was to look at the "remarks" field in the traffic crash dispatch records.  This is the field containing the free-form shorthand comments keystroked by dispatchers at the time a call is received. I searched for three keywords: "house," "garage," and "building."

The search returned about 450 candidates, and I scanned through the table to identify and remove the false positives: cases that weren't really car building accidents, but in which the remarks field contained one of the keywords.  The net result was 196.  This is probably not entirely accurate, as my ten-minute search and scan likely missed a few false positives, and there would also be a few false negatives: actual car/building crashes in which none of those keywords appeared in the dispatch record.

Nonetheless, I think we can safely conclude that there have been around a couple hundred motor vehicle vs. building crashes that have come to the attention of the police in the past five years.  The big surprise, Jack, is that you've got way more of these than you ever dreamed in your wildest imagination.  The bad news is that your theory that Lincoln driver's smack brick more than anywhere else is completely without any basis.  Since Lincoln has a relatively low accident rate, it is likely that the subset of car v. building crashes is also low. No one has comparative data on such things, and there is no way to know how many buildings get creamed in Lubbock, Louisville, Laredo, or Lexington--only in Lincoln.

My favorite car building crash occurred sometime in the late 1970's or early 80's, when a reckless driver left the roadway and collided with the Fotomat in the parking lot of the Safeway at 23rd and O Street--now an Office Max store.  I wasn't a witness, but legend has it that the building virtually exploded. Luckily, it was after hours and unoccupied.  If you are under the age of 40, you'll probably need to find someone a little older to explain what a Fotomat was.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Where did the gun come from?

Yesterday morning at 11:30, Bill Kuehn, the security director at Lincoln public schools, and I had a speaking engagement at the Leadership Lincoln hot topics luncheon, well-attended by about 50 past and present Leadership Lincoln fellows.  The topic was school safety, in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

There was a spirited Q&A, with lots of strong feelings and opinions, and a dose or two of reality. There are 76 public and parochial K-12 schools in Lincoln, and at any given time, we average about 42 uniformed officers on the street. Moreover, at key times when school begins and dismisses, we are already in the midst of two of our three daily peaks:  those officers for the most part are already responding to the plethora of incidents described in excruciating detail in the pages of this blog for the past six years.  It costs about $79,000 per year to keep a single police officer on the job; composed of salary, benefits, equipment, and mileage. That doesn't even factor in the indirect costs: worker's compensation, training, supervision, liability insurance, support services, and so forth.  Police officers are an expensive resource, and we have been struggling mightily in the past decade trying to keep up with population growth and budget constraints.

Bill and I had been outlining what is being done now to keep schools safe, and what things are under consideration as cities and school districts around the country are examining this issue anew.  As we were speaking, the news was breaking--unbeknownst to either of us--about another school shooting in Taft, California.  The irony is hard to escape.  The looming question, hovering in the meeting room during the luncheon and my living room after the nightly news last night is this: "What can we do?"

I have no profound answer to this question, but I do think there is something to be learned by "reverse engineering" these episodes: studying how they happened, what the precursors were, and especially this: "Where did the gun come from?"  We know that in many cases (such as Sandy Hook) the guns came from home: they belonged to mom or dad or some other family member.  They were unsecured or very lightly secured, and the shooter essentially just helped himself.  I'm wagering that the Taft Union High School shooting follows that same pattern, but I imagine we shall see in the next few days.  My experience with local cases where teens a have wreaked havoc with guns is just that: it was easy for them to take an unsecured weapon and ammunition from the home.

Every time you hear of one of these tragic cases where a young person commits a crime, a murder, or suicide with a firearm, ask that question: "Where did the gun come from?" I think there are some pretty obvious steps that might help, based on the most common answers.  If we can make it more difficult for a psychologically unhinged or just foolishly reckless young person to acquire the guns, we have made it less likely that he or she, in a moment of disconnect from reality or utter failure to comprehend consequences, is able to complete an unthinkable and irrevocable act of violence.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

National mentoring month

January is National Mentoring Month.  I'm a big believer in mentoring, and I serve on the board of directors of one of the best mentoring programs around: Teammates, founded by former Nebraska football coach, athletic director, and congressman, Tom Osborne, and his wife Nancy.

At our last board meeting, the staff asked board members if they would consider writing short stories for the Teammates blog concerning their own mentors, with a theme of "Who mentored you?" Tom Osborne's story about one of his mentors, Woody Varner, inspired me to think about the people who guided me during my formative years, and I contributed this story about Pete Wagner.

I blogged about Pete one other time, in a post that ranks as one of my personal favorites. It still puts a lump in my throat when I think about that Thursday evening in 1949, how profoundly that small act of kindness impacted Pete over the next 60 years, and how he did the same thing over and over for me.

My wife, by the way, ran into Frank Hilsabeck's widow a few months and shared this story with her family, to her great delight.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Nothing is really new

A few weeks ago Lincoln Fire & Rescue installed a video recording system in BAT 1, the battalion chief's vehicle.  The camera can both stream and record video from fire scenes.  If properly positioned, the camera will capture some footage (are their "feet" in digital video?) from fire grounds that will nice for situational awareness for other units, after-action review, and training.  

Battalion Chief Bruce Sellon, however, discovered evidence that the dash cam isn't really a new concept, when he found this video of Fire Chief John Kenlon from the Brooklyn Fire Department responding to an alarm.


Looks like the problem of motorists failing to yield the right of way to an emergency vehicle isn't new, either.  Note that the driver jumps up onto the sidewalk, to avoid congestion on the street, he has a few close encounters with pedestrians.  Too bad he didn't have the Binford 5000 bell.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Depressing statistics

My apologies for ignoring the blog this week. I've been battling some nasty bug, and just haven't had the energy to keep up my usual early-morning routine.

Yesterday, the Mayor asked me to do a little research for him.  We have been talking about school safety lately, and he was interested in the relative frequency of school shootings at high schools compared to middle schools and elementary schools. I thought that would be a 10 minute job, but it proved to be a little more complicated than I imagined.

While I could find lots of compilations with a simple Google search, I quickly noticed that not all of these lists agreed: there were shootings on some that were not on others, some of the dates didn't line up, and so forth.  In some cases, the details were too sketchy to determine how many people were killed or injured, or what kind of school it was, without further research.  There doesn't seem to be a definitive and authoritative tally, and most of these appear to be assembled from news reports around the country. I finally settled on three lists, and cross checked to try to get as close to a complete picture as I could.  While I imagine there still may be some missing data, here's the summary I put together for him of school shootings by school type over the past twenty years: