Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Slashed in half

I have been giving annual updates in recent years on the reduction in false burglar alarms in Lincoln. I neglected to do so in January, but I am catching up now. False alarms fell to 2,383 in 2012. We can now say for the first time that the number of false burglar alarms has been slashed in half (and then some) from the high-water mark in 2002.

Since every one of these involves at least two officers being dispatched and some emergency driving, this has had a significant impact not only on workload, but on public and officer safety. This appears to have been achieved without impacting the number of actual burglaries. There were 1,593 burglaries reported to Lincoln police in 2012, compared with 1,964 in 2002.

There is still a little room for improvement. Although the number of chronic repeat addresses has fallen even further (242 in 2002 to 45 last year), there are still a handful of places that rack up impressive records of repeat false alarms. One local restaurant, for example, had 35 false alarms in 2012, and paid $6,000 in fees. That's a lot of onion rings.

Beginning this year, we are including false fire alarms in the ordinance. A false fire alarm is an even riskier proposition than a false burglary alarm, and consumes even more resources. It is a bit too soon to evaluate this, however, since it has only been in effect for a few months, and since the number of alarms is smaller. You can bet that I will be watching the data, though.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Easy maps

I wrap up the series this week of "quick wins": tips for a new crime analyst, looking for some projects that can be spun up fairly rapidly and at low cost.

Maps are useful for visualizing crime, which explains why police officers have been sticking pins in maps since the early 19th century. The human eye is a powerful instrument, able to discern information from a map that would be far more difficult to conceptualize in a list, table, or stack of paper. These days, geographic information systems (GIS) enable some very sophisticated analysis and visualization. Jessica, the new crime analyst at the Grand Island Police Department, understands this, and it was her exploration of GIS software that caused her to contact me in the first place.

Implementing GIS for crime analysis is a very worthwhile undertaking, but will require some significant time and resources.  In the meantime, though, some simple yet useful maps can be produced using free and easy tools. This has changed dramatically in the past few years. For a new analyst who has yet to acquire the software and training she will need for geographic analysis, these free services could be used in the interim to produce some simple maps of interest to officers.

Two good examples are cartodb and batchgeo. These services let users drag-and-drop tabular data that contains addresses onto a webpage, which geocodes the data and produces a credible map in a matter of seconds. The free version usually has some limitations to encourage you to spring for the pro version (such as the ads in this sample), but the free service could still have a new analyst producing a useful map or two every week.  As an example, I went to the Fargo Police Depaartment's website, screen-scraped the dispatch data from April 1st, dropped it into batchgeo, and created this map in less than five minutes of traffic crashes on April Fool's Day in Fargo. It's interactive: pan, zoom, try Pegman, click on an icon.

View April 1 Crashes in a full screen map

You can also build maps for free with Google My Maps, ArcGIS online, and others. You could make a quick map, take a screen shot, and paste it into a bulletin, or onto a PowerPoint slide to provide a visual cue to officers to go along with the text.  In Grand Island's case, they can create basic maps within their records management system, and they already have a public-facing crime map, as they participate in crimemapping.com from the Omega Group.  

Like any other Ciy whose data is published to crimemapping.com, Grand Island officers could download the CrimeView NEARme app for Android or iOS, and have a pretty useful tool even though it would be displaying the public crimemeapping.com data until and unless they signed up for the real McCoy. Those data, even though mighty basic and cleaned for public consumption, still have some value to police officers.  

The Series:

Impromptu visit
Weekly slideshow
A place of your own
Better bulletins
Easy maps

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Better bulletins

This post continues this week's series on some tips for a new crime analyst.

The crime bulletin is a bread-and-butter product for the crime analyst. We all create them. You know the drill: you're the only person at the PD who actually reads all the reports every day. During the process you find interesting intelligence, uncover links between cases, develop potential suspects, and find patterns and trends before they become well known. When these findings have a broad audience of interest in the department, you commit the information you've gleaned to print, perhaps supplemented with a graph, chart, map, or photo, then copy your publication to stuff into the mail cubbies.

What I want to do, however, is to build a better bulletin by following four steps. First, KISS.  Keep it simple, seriously. Bulletins should be short. Two pages is usually one too many. Three is way too many. There may be a place for an analytic report of greater length, but a crime bulletin ought to be something you could read while standing at the urinal. Fewer words and more white space makes for a better bulletin.  If you use graphs and charts, make sure they are easily understood. This is the Achilles heel of many crime analysis products that are just too obtuse. The acid test is to hand the graph to your teenage daughter and see if she can tell you what it means, without any knowledge of the subject matter whatsoever. You'll find hundreds of graphs and charts in my previous blog posts, and most will be mighty simple.

Second, create a brand. Find a logo you like. Make a masthead, a header, a footer, a text box with disclaimers, confidence and sensitivity level, distribution restrictions, your contact information, or whatever you wish to include, but avoid unnecessary and redundant clutter.  Create a template with these elements. Use that consistently on all your bulletins. You'll find lots of examples on the website of the International Association of Crime Analysts (IACA), which, by the way, you should definitely join. For $25 per year, it's well worth it for the listserv alone, which buzzes with tips and solutions.  IACA has great publications, training of all kinds, fabulous resources for members, a certification program if you are so inclined, a fine annual conference, and more.

Third, optimize your bulletins as electronic documents.  Think of your bulletins as more than a piece of paper and supplement the printed word with interactive content.  My blog is a good example.  Most posts contain several hyperlinks that provide more information or supplement the text. Publish your bulletins in Adobe Acrobat portable document format, the ubiquitous .pdf. The Adobe Acrobat reader is free and as near universal as you can get. When relevant, build hyperlinks into your bulletins. This is easy to do in word processing or desktop publishing software, and your officers will know what to do with the blue underlined text in an online .pdf.

Posibilities for links abound.  Tag your name in the footer as a link to your email address. Tag addresses in your bulletin to Google Maps or Bing Maps to that precise address, with or without StreetView or Bird's Eye View. To do so, open the map and navigate to the spot you want. You can turn StreetView on in Google if you wish, or Bird's Eye view in Bing.  Look for the link icon in Google, and the Share button in Bing, and copy the URL. Next, highlight the address text in your bulletin, and paste the URL as the hyperlink. The text will be a blue hyperlink, just like all the links in my blog. Does your bulletin contain an out-of-state license plate number? Find a photo of that State's plate on the web, copy the URL and turn that plate number blue! While your at it, highlight the vehicle type and link to a beauty shot of the particular make and model. Here's a tip: most free .pdf distillers will not preserve the hyperlinks when you convert the .doc to .pdf. The full version of Adobe Acrobat works, but CutePDF (my favorite freebie) does not. If you use "save as .pdf" in Microsoft Office 2010, the hyperlinks will be preserved. OpenOffice also preserves hyperlinks when the document is saved as a pdf, and it is free.

Fourth, create an online repository of crime bulletins. It should be a link on that Intranet page you built yesterday, with the bulletins themselves parked on the same server. There are several benefits. You will have a chronological archive for future reference ("Wasn't there a bulletin about something similar a few months ago?").  You will save a tree or two. You will be able to email the hyperlink to the bulletin, rather than choking the pipe with a large attachment going to several dozen addresses.  You will be able to search the archive. The search mechanism can be quite simple. When you create the HTML page listing the links to the bulletins, include a title and keywords. Then, a user can just use CTRL-F (that's Edit/Find from the browser's menu) to search for the keyword.  It might look something like this:

The Series:

Impromptu visit
Weekly slideshow
A place of your own
Better bulletins
Easy maps

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A place of your own

Create a place of your own, an informational website for the use of your police department. There are tons of websites that are useful for police officers. Most are public. Here in Nebraska, for example, you've got such things as the State Sex Offender Registry, the Department of Correctional Services Inmate Locator, the Nebraska State Statutes, the State employee directory, and the Department of Roads  highway cameras.

You need not guess what a blue triangular pill might be, wonder whether the VIN checks out, what an Oregon license plate looks like, whether a Fusion's taillights are round, what the name of that street is just to the west of West Lawn Elementary School who owns the house at 1432 Howard PL, or what's coming up on the training calendar.

This, of course, is barely scratching the surface. Everyone on the department has links they find useful in their browser's favorites folder. What sites do some of your officers, detectives, and sergeants find helpful? What sites has Deputy Chief Steve Smith bookmarked on his desktop in Anchorage? Ask around, and winnow the wheat from the chaf. You could gather up all those links, create a page full of them, plop it on a City web server, and point all the department PCs at that link as the browers' home page. Then, everyone would have the benefit of access to these useful sites.

It's easier than you think to build such a page, even if you can't afford Dreamweaver, and don't have time to take the class. If you gathered up the links in advance, you could ask around the faculty lounge at Grand Island High School, and identify a sharp student could make your page in an afternoon. And I guarantee you that one of those kids down the street at Central Community College taking INFO 1500 would be excited to do this, just for the benefit of being able to put this paragraph on his or her personal resume:
2013:  Intern, Grand Island Police Department   
Assigned to Crime Analysis Unit. Designed and implemented website for department's law enforcement Intranet. 

Keep it simple: nobody needs fancy-pants graphics or Flash. I want your page to work in any browser, and to wrap onto the small screen of a Kindle Fire or iPhone without much problem. Trust me, you can really do this. Basic HTML is a breeze, and you can learn it fast on the web at a million and one online tutorials.  You will quickly learn the secret to all computer programming is cut 'n paste.

Since your page 'o links would be composed of public web sites at the outset, security would not be an issue. It would, however, be even better if your City IT department would help you find some secure web space as the landing spot for an Intranet site. In the future, you're going to want to develop some of your own resources that will require that you control access to the content with basic security.  We're not talking about the blue prints to a nuclear reactor here, but you won't want the general public to be accessing things like the forms library you'll be creating on that site later this year, or your archive of crime bulletins coming up tomorrow.

The Series:

Impromptu visit
Weekly slideshow
A place of your own
Better bulletins
Easy maps

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Weekly slideshow

This is the first in my series this week about some fairly simple and quick ideas for a new crime analysis unit or a new analyst.

Make a weekly slide show with PowerPoint, containing mugshots of a few people that your police officers ought to become familiar with. This might be a frequent flyer, a recently-released prolific offender, a dangerous character with fresh intelligence information, or a wanted subject that officers might unknowingly encounter. While it wouldn't have to be limited to mugshots, that's an easy place to start.

Loop the slideshow, and plop it onto a screen that officers will see: the assembly room where officers gather for roll call at the beginning of the shift would be ideal. The break room or the report room would be other possibilities. There might be an unused hand-me-down computer in a closet somewhere around the department that would work satisfactorily. If not, a low-end desktop with a  24" monitor would suffice for well under a grand.

I'd really like you to get an even bigger monitor to mount on the wall, and a good wireless keyboard and mouse, because you will eventually want to use this equipment for another purposeThere are four 60" monitors in Lincoln's assembly room, and I saw a wall-full at the Los Angeles Police Department, but in Grand Island one would do the job. I just bought a 52 inch LED for the family room for $600 at Sam's Club, and it looked great streaming the family photos at Easter. It would work just fine in Grand Island. In a city of 50,000, I imagine that somewhere between 3 and 8 officers are typically coming on duty at shift change, depending on the time and day. A set up similar to the Council Bluffs Iowa Police Department's assembly room would be perfect for such a group.

Your slide show can just run continuously when the computer and monitor are not being usedfor other  purposes. Keep the number of slides low, and resist the temptation to pack it with more information. Sometimes less is more. I'd recommend four to six mugshots--no more. Use a dark slide background, light-colored text, a subtle transition, a big font, and very few words:

Luke N. Long
Window Peeker.
Blue F-150,  BENCNU

The Series:

Impromptu visit
Weekly slideshow
A place of your own
Better bulletins
Easy maps

Monday, April 22, 2013

Impromptu visit

Last Thursday I was 125 miles west down Interstate 80 in Kearney, Nebraska to give two presentations at break-out sessions during the Nebraska GIS Symposium. As I was preparing to head home, I checked my email. Among my messages was one from Jessica, a new crime analyst at the Grand Island Police Department. She was introducing herself, and seeking some information. Grand Island was just 35 miles away, and right on my way back to Lincoln, so rather than a phone call, I just invited myself to drop by her office. I sent her a 45 minute Glympse, so she'd know when I was getting close.

Jessica is new to crime analysis, but has lots of law enforcement experience.  She wanted some information from me about geographic crime analysis software, which I was happy to provide.  More importantly, though, I gave her some advice that I have shared  over the years with many other crime analysts in a similar position: starting out in a new position in a department that previously has not had an analyst.

Even though she's been on the job for less than a month, she has a lot of irons in the fire. She's evaluating software, learning the department's records management system, she has training scheduled, and she has a lot of good ideas already. She has some very strong assets  strong education and experience, a competent records management system, a mobile network with computers and broadband in the patrol fleet, and a supportive chief.

I recommended that she focus on a few "quick wins": projects that she could pull off with very little expense, rather swiftly, that would noticeably improve the information flow within her department.  Some early success sets the stage for bigger projects that will take more time and resources. It also makes a new analyst feel good about his or her job, and starts to show officers the value of their new crime analyst!

By the time I had to bug out, I'm sure her head was spinning.  Although she was taking notes furiously, I thought it might be helpful to both her and to other new crime analysts for me to commit my ideas for a few quick wins to writing. I will be using my blog this week to do so, describing a few projects that a new analyst just starting out could get rolling right out of the gate.

There's nothing novel here, all these things are being done in lots of places around the country. Some of my colleagues will look at these ideas and surmise, correctly, that there isn't really anything analytic about what I am suggesting. This is quite true. Spatial statistics, kernel densities, standard deviation ellipses, predictive forecasts, risk terrain modeling, and such are down the road. Let's just think about what a new analyst in a city of 50,000 could get cracking on as a starting point to get more information about crimes, criminals, trends and patterns to the troops.

The Series:

Impromptu visit
Weekly slideshow
A place of your own
Better bulletins
Easy maps

Thursday, April 18, 2013


A loyal reader of the Director's Desk who goes by the moniker Gun Nut posed a question in a comment yesterday that merits a more prominent response:
"Maybe I am slightly off topic with this question but here goes: There is a link that Journal Star providers can access to show current inmates lodged in that fine facility. I refuse to pay the price to LJS to subscribe to their service for various reasons. Is there a website the general Public can use to get this information for free? The reason I ask is recently a lady friend wanted me to check to see if her boyfriend was in jail. The LJS website would not let me access that information without a subscription."
Yes, Gun Nut, there certainly is. VINE stands for Victim Information and Notification Everyday. It is a data service that mines the online records system of participating state and local prisons and jails. The website, vinelink.com, allows you to search for inmates by name access 46 participating states. Moreover, you can subscribe to an inmate, so you are notified by email or phone when he or she is released, or when the custody status changes.

VINELink is an excellent service, and I use it myself. I am presently subscribed to a serial burglar in the care of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, so that I can prepare for the uptick in burglaries when he is released--again. VINE has been around for more than a decade, and is free.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

View your own time-lapse

Friday's post of three aerial photos in the vicinity of Hollywood & Vine was a lot of fun. It brought back a lot of memories for some readers of drive-in movies. The area of these photos was my stomping ground during my first few years in Lincoln. The Casadys lived in the Buffalo Motel for a few months when we first moved to Lincoln in 1967, then to a rental at 5611 Vine.  We often dined at the Monterey Cafe or Shakee's Pizza.

I first met Tonja in 9th grade at Charles Culler Junior High School that year, although it was a couple years before she noticed me.  I subsequently took her on many dates to Cool Crest, the Drumstick, Gateway Bowl, A&W, the Cork 'n Cleaver, and the Starlight Theater. All these are visible (albeit at low resolution) in the 1964 image, and with the exception of Culler Middle School, they are all long gone. If I had clipped those images a little better, we would have picked up the site of our junior prom date (KenEddy's), and senior prom date (Tony & Luigi's).

You can view a little time-lapse imagery yourself. The City's public GIS viewer has a slider that let's you move from 2005, through 2007, to 2010 images. Click on the "Aerial" button at the top right of the window, and drag the slider. It's fun to look at some of the rapidly-developing areas of Lincoln and see the change over those five years.  Hopefully, we'll be adding 2013 imagery to the mix later this year.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sounds familiar

That was the subject line of the email sent to me last Friday by Zach Pluhacek, reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star. The content of his email was simply the link to this Thursday article in the New York Times. The reason the story sounded familiar to Mr. Pluhacek is because he had authored this Friday article 2½ years earlier.

If you've followed my blog a bit, you know that I'm interested in the mobile data technology and specifically location-based services. An idea that popped into my head while visiting Los Angeles in November 2009 morphed into a 2010 grant from the National Institute of Justice to develop a location-based services application for police. The application, built by a small team of developers at the University of Nebraska Department of Computer Science and Engineering, was originally named P3i, Proactive Police Patrol Information. It is now branded CrimeView NEARme, as the developers have commercialized the product in collaboration with the Omega Group. The app is available for Windows, Android, and iOS. Lincoln Police Officers are using it laptops, smartphones, and tablets with all three operating systems.

It is interesting to see that the New York City Police Department has followed suit, piloting a smartphone app designed to deliver similar information to their officers in the field. The description of Officer Donaldson using the information available at his fingertips in the article will ring very familiar to Lincoln officers, who are quite accustomed to operating like this. Here's one difference, though: Officer Donaldson entered the address of the building in Harlem in order to bring up the information he sought. In Lincoln, that step would be unnecessary for an officer using NEARme, because it is a location-based service. The icons representing points of interest (like the addresses of arrest warrants, parolees, recent crimes, or sex offfenders) simply appear on a map based on your device's current location, beckoning your finger to tap for further details if you are so inclined.

Police officers equipped with timely and relevant information in the field can work far more effectively, efficiently and safely than when such information is back at headquarters buried in cumbersome programs or on paper. During my career, Lincoln's police information systems have moved from file cabinets in the Records Unit, to terminals on desks, to laptops mounted in patrol cars, and now to tablets and smartphones in the palm of your hand. It has been a dramatic shift that I saw coming long ago, has now gathered momentum in the rest of the country, and will shape the future of police information technology.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Things have changed

I mentioned in a recent post that the City is in the process of acquiring a new set of aerial photos, since the last ones were taken back in the spring of 2010.  Things have changed in the past three years, and reasonably up-to-date imagery is helpful to many of our municipal operations, including public safety.

On the subject of change, here are three images of the same area of Lincoln, taken in 1941, 1964, and 2010.  We'll see who the first reader is who can correctly identify this area, and the most prominent feature visible in 1964, but missing in 1941 and 2010. You can click on each for a slightly larger view.




Thursday, April 11, 2013

Report it online

The Lincoln Police Department has just announced the availability of online reporting for citizens who wish to report certain kinds of property crime with a loss of less than $500. If someone walked off with your walking lawn sprinkler, broke the sapling in your side yard off, or lifted your cell phone from the bench at the gym while you showered, you can now make a report online if you prefer.

We're more than happy to dispatch a police officer to these crimes, too. It's entirely up to the victim. We will handle these like any other crime report: the case will be reviewed by the shift commander, follow-up investigation will be assigned if it appears likely to be fruitful, and we will notify you if we subsequently locate the stolen property or make an arrest.

Online reporting has been discussed here in Lincoln for years, and many other cities have implemented this previously. We have intentionally delayed because we frankly prefer to investigate even minor crimes in person. There is, however, a growing demand for online reporting from people who want to let us know about a crime, make sure there is an official record, and would prefer to do so as conveniently as possible. People have been finding ways to report electronically that aren't very efficient: sending an email, for example, or even posting on my blog. I The demand has risen to the point that we think online reporting, rather than representing a downgrade to our customer service, is actually an enhancement.

I'm one of those people who would appreciate the convenience of online reporting.  If I were the victim of a small-loss vandalism or theft with no suspect, I would still feel obligated to report the offense. I'd want to police to know about my minor crime just in case it is part of a larger series, an emerging pattern, or in the event that the miscreants have been identified from another related case. The easiest way for me to do so, however, would be online submission. If I could make the report in my flannel jammies and fuzzy slippers, that would be my preference.

Last time I showed up in jammies and slippers at HQ, people looked at me funny.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Annual article

The release of the 2012 Traffic Stop report by the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (AKA "the Crime Commission") spawned the annual article on the racial disparity in traffic stops in Lincoln.  I am intimately familiar with these data, and have closely followed our reports since 2002, when the reporting process became law.

The data are virtually unchanged over the years. The headline finding every year has been that in Lincoln and Omaha, black motorists are stopped at a rate significantly greater than population data would predict.  We do not know why, and the collection of these data by the State does not even remotely answer the questions.  I suspect, based on my own analysis of traffic citations, that income is a major factor--though not the only one.  The racial disparity in speeding tickets is virtually nil, yet the racial disparity in expired plates, misdemeanor arrest warrants, suspended drivers, uninsured motorists, and improperly registered vehicles is huge.  These are violations closely related to one's ability to fork over the cash needed for fines, insurance premiums, sales tax, wheel tax, motor vehicle fees, SR22 filings, license reinstatement fees, and the like.

When I did my own research into traffic tickets in Lincoln several years ago, I discovered that when you controlled for the age of the vehicle (perhaps a surrogate for income), racial disparity virtually evaporated. At any rate, I do not propose to know what portion of the disparity is attributable to various potential sources, including bias--whether conscious or unconscious--by police officers. Most importantly, I acknowledge the possibility and likelihood of multiple sources, including institutional practices by agencies that tend to have a disparate impact, with scant or no justification.

Disparity in traffic stops seems somewhat inconsequential compared to the racial disparity in income, educational attainment, employment, incarceration, drop out rates, crime victimization, and even life expectancy in the United States. Think about this: in Nebraska, a black citizen is 18 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than a white resident.  My heavens.  Should we not all be shocked by this, and should we not all be committed to doing whatever we can, in our own way, to rectify this horrible reality?

To me, the important thing is for police officers and managers to understand these data, to think about this issue, and to commit themselves to doing their best to treat everyone fairly without regard to race. That's what I teach, and that is what I aspire to practice. My opinions on issues of race and racial profiling are not too hard to discern.