Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What are they thinking?

My blog, languishing in suspended animation due to lack of interest, has been awakened today for a rant that has been brewing for a considerable time. It's a topic I have blogged about on several past occasions: the practice of leaving your loaded gun stored in your motor vehicle overnight--compounded by not locking the doors.

Some follow-up investigation by the police department this week on a case earlier this summer is what caused my pot to boil over. Back on August 8, LPD was summoned to the parking lot of the Lancaster County Event Center on a juvenile disturbance. They arrived and spotted the primary disturber, a 17 year-old who made a beeline for his parked vehicle upon their approach. His escape was interrupted, and he put up a fight but was quickly cuffed and stuffed. A subsequent search of his car turned up a stash of cash, pot, scales, packaging material, and a loaded pistol.

As is normal practice, an e-trace was initiated through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The results came back last week, and identified the original purchaser of the pistol, which was acquired in 2014 from a local gun dealer by a 40 year-old Lincoln man who holds a Nebraska concealed carry permit. When he was contacted, he told officers that he noticed his pistol missing from his unlocked car back in November, 2016. He didn't report it as stolen, because he thought he might have misplaced it.

This encounter with a gun-toting teenager on August 8 could easily have ended quite differently. It reminds me of this case last fall, where another absent-minded concealed carry permit holder left his loaded pistol in his unlocked pickup. It was snatched by a teenaged runaway, and pulled from his pocket about an hour later after some fisticuffs with police officers who spotted him a mile away from the site of the theft.

Thefts of this kind are happening with depressing regularity. Noticing what seemed to be a trend last year, I started pulling these cases out and creating a spreadsheet to keep track. Since January 1, 2016, there have been 37 cases of this nature where a pistol has been stolen from a motor vehicle. Only two of those were locked. More than half of the stolen firearms belonged to victims who hold concealed carry permits.

Here's what I think is happening: people are acquiring concealed carry permits, but quickly learning what most rookie police officers learn--that carrying a concealed pistol has certain drawbacks. It ruins the lining of your jacket, pokes a hole in your driver's seat bolster, precludes you from stopping for a beer on the way home, limits your wardrobe choices, causes your pants to sag, your ribcage to hurt, and so forth. As a result, many of these permittees are deciding to just carry the gun in their vehicle. The practice of actually carrying it back and forth every night from the vehicle is apparently too inconvenient for some, so it simply remains in the console, under the seat, or in the door pocket pretty much permanently--easy prey for a thief who is trying door handles around the neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning.

It's one thing to lose your Ray-Bans and $2.25 in loose change from your cup holder because you either habitually or absent-mindedly leave your vehicle unlocked. It's another thing entirely when your Smith & Wesson .40 caliber semi-auto with a fully-loaded magazine is now in possession of a 17 year old drug dealer grappling with the police in the dark parking lot at the Lancaster County Fair. If you consider yourself sufficiently level-headed and disciplined to carry a concealed firearm, you ought to know better.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The case for encryption and delay

Lincoln is in the process of acquiring a new public safety radio system. The new system is from Motorola, and is a P25 trunked system, which is inherently digital. Since it is a digital radio system, encryption is easy to implement. It is our intention to use encryption to protect law enforcement-sensitive transmissions. We do not intend to encrypt Lincoln Fire & Rescue radio traffic. If we encrypt all of our law enforcement talk groups (colloquially, "channels"), this will essentially put scanners out of business.

People have been using scanners to listen to police radio transmissions, well, for as long as Lincoln has had police radio transmissions-the 1930's. Prior to the mid-1990's, this hobby generally required some relatively expensive equipment and a little expertise to set up. As a result, the number of people using scanners was rather small, and rarely caused problems for the police. This all changed with the advent of streaming audio on the Internet. By the mid-to-late 1990s, a scanner buff could simply publish the audio from a scanner to a URL, and suddenly anyone with an Internet connection could listen.

With the proliferation of smartphones, this became incredibly easy and popular, and scanner applications proliferated. Publishing the audio from police radio traffic to the Internet became a problem for those of us in law enforcement, because instead of a small group of dedicated hobbyists, the number of people listening to the police radio grew dramatically--including the number of people with ulterior motives: criminals. Part of the problem was that publishers of scanner feeds were often streaming audio that had no business out in public: information channels, tactical channels, investigative channels, and so forth. While the primary police dispatch channels were challenging enough, these private channels carrying even more sensitive traffic were especially problematic.

About five years ago, we decided to publish our own Internet feed of primary dispatch channels. Our motive in doing so was to occupy the market. We hoped that if we put out an official audio feed, the amateurs who were publishing their own feeds--sometimes with no regard for the most sensitive traffic--would fade away, as the official feed became the de facto standard. Most people looking for streaming public safety audio from Lincoln would choose the official feed, and since we controlled that content, the chance of someone inadvertently or intentionally streaming the most sensitive radio traffic would be greatly reduced. It worked; the official feed essentially pushed most of the freelancers out of the game.

Despite this, there is still plenty of radio traffic on the primary dispatch channels that is sensitive, especially early in the life-cycle of an emergent incident. Bad actors can, and have, used this information to evade the police, and to further criminal enterprises. We have many examples of this, but since most of these uses are never discovered, I am sure the practice is much more widespread then we know.

Recently, for example, a burglary occurred at Gateway Mall. There was good video of the burglars, and it was apparent that they were monitoring a smartphone scanner application, which allowed the thieves to skedaddle when the alarm was dispatched. We have documented examples of scanners or scanner applications used by criminals during everything from shoplifting, to kidnapping, robbery, burglary, and murder. While it is probably still a fairly small percentage of criminals who are organized enough and smart enough to use police radio transmissions to their advantage, it is easier than ever, and has become more common than ever.

With our new radio system currently under construction, it will be a simple matter to implement encryption, which would defeat the use of scanners and the rebroadcasting of Internet audio feeds from scanners. The technology is baked into the radio system.

Here's the problem: we also recognize that there is some value in the public being able to listen to our radio transmissions. Citizens may become more informed about emergency events, they may be able to avoid places of congestion or danger arising from those events. Citizens can be more informed about the work of their police department. You can't listen to the scanner for very long without coming away with a much greater appreciation of the sheer volume and complexity of work that we ask our police officers to perform. The drama, tragedy, and terror that fills the air waves helps build greater respect for the work of our officers, and greater support for the police department. It also demonstrates transparency, something we value in a democratic society where we entrust our police officers with immense power and discretion.

How, then, can we minimize the chance that evil-doers will use police radio traffic to their advantage, while preserving those benefits we realize from public monitoring of police radio transmissions? I believe the answer to this conundrum is to encrypt all police radio traffic, but to continue to publish an Internet feed consisting of the de-crypted audio from the primary dispatch channels--the same thing we publish today--but with a short delay to give the police officers a slight advantage over the criminals. Ten minutes is a good period because it matches our response time performance target for crimes in progress. We can be there in 10 minutes, 90% of the time.

With a ten minute delay, the audio is still fresh. In most cases, the incident response is still in progress, and citizens can still get a sense of what's going on. Most of the time, a listener would not even realize that the audio is delayed. The audio feed would still provide unfiltered transparency for police operations, but would protect against the burglar, barricaded suspect, suicidal party, or the individual seeking to ambush a police officer getting the jump by monitoring the police response in real time. It's a good compromise between the competing interests. It will not jeopardize transparency or accountability but it will help protect our police officers, and make it more difficult for criminals to use scanner technology to further their aims.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Unique dataset

Open data is the rage in policing these days, spurred on by the White House Police Open Data Initiative, which sprang to life after the release of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing  report.

A handful of early adopters contributed some of their data to the portal, which is now hosted by the Police Foundation. With the launch of Lincoln's open data website, I thought we might offer up our data to the Police Foundation portal as well, and I have been in contact to do so.

Since the early months of the initiative, the number of police departments providing open data in the United States has grown dramatically. Lincoln is not exactly the first wave, although as a percentage, the number of agencies offering license-free, machine-readable datasets is still mighty small.

Those departments offering open data typically have such things as police dispatches, incident reports, traffic stops, arrests, and so forth. Some have use of force reports,  and officer-involved shooting incidents. Here in Lincoln, we really only have one dataset that is somewhat unusual, and I would venture to say it's actually unique.

What we have that would fit the definition of unique is this: a dataset consisting of tens of thousands of surveys asking citizens about their recent experience after actual police contacts, and also about their perceptions of safety in the neighborhood where they live.

This survey, our Quality Service Audit (QSA) was originally developed in conjunction with the Gallup Organization in the mid-1990s. It is a telephone survey conducted by Lincoln Police Department student interns, volunteers, and recruit officers in training. Surveyed citizens have had recent police contact in one of three categories: arrested or cited, crime victim, driver in traffic crash. 

The survey is not random: it is only conducted with citizens who have had recent police contacts of these types; it only surveys citizens who surveyors were able to reach by telephone; and the volume of surveys completed is dependent on the availability of surveyors,which fluctuates throughout the year.

While many police departments conduct surveys, very few of these survey people who have actually had recent police contacts, even fewer of those include surveys of people who have been cited and arrested. And I am pretty comfortable in saying that nobody has two decades of individual row-by-row records open to the public: 78,134 survey responses from 1996 through 2016.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Open data for Lincoln

Today the Mayor is announcing our new Open Data and Performance Management website, The site brings together some extensive data applications and resources that have been available on various City websites, but may have required some deep digging. Now, they are also available in this single portal where they may be more easily accessed.

More importantly, though, the site also provides open data: license-free, machine-readable datasets that may be downloaded in such common formats as csv, kml, shp, and json. A bit over half of the 100+ resources on the site today are available as open data, including both tabular and spatial datasets such as police incident reports, traffic crash records, zoning, city council districts, and much more.

Information about the City's performance management process, with links to the relevant data and documents will also allow visitors to see how we are doing on the City's eight key outcomes, along with their associated goals and performance indicators. We have also included a link to the City's new performance management meetings, LNKstat. The status reports from LNKstat meetings will show you what we are working on and the action steps planned.

Lincoln is joining a select groups of cities in the United States that are making open data available to the public. It's a great way to allow citizens to use these resources in creative and entrepreneurial
ways, and to increase transparency in municipal government.

Our open data site is built on the ESRI ArcGIS open data platform, which several other cities are using, such as Washington DC, Minneapolis, Tampa, and Wichita. It is a work in progress, and I expect it will continue to evolve as we add more data and features in the future.

I've been pleased to lead the City's open data initiative for the first few months, as the convener of our open data governance committee. We got a start last summer, when our City Council unanimously passed an open data resolution introduced by council members Trent Fellers and Leirion Gaylor Baird. The resolution created the governance committee, which has contributed a great deal to this project, and continues to work through five subcommittees.

Last fall, we were selected by What Works Cities to receive technical assistance and support for performance management and open data. Eric Reese from GovEx (Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence) was our primary contact from What Works Cities, and helped us tremendously. Thanks to all of these individuals and organizations for putting Lincoln on the open data map!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Fifty years ago

It's Nebraska's 150th anniversary today. Nebraska became a state in 1867. I arrived here in 1967,  Nebraska's centennial year. I was reflecting on this today, and came upon an interesting statistic from 50 years ago. In 1967, there were 445 traffic fatalities in Nebraska. Last year, there were 194. This huge decline is even more dramatic when you consider the population increase over the past 50 years, and the increase in miles driven. Here's what the trend looks like since 1995:

There are probably many factors that contribute to this decline, such as better roadway engineering, air bags, anti-lock breaks, stability control, better emergency medical care. Nothing, however, is as important as seat belt usage. Roadway surveys show that about 83% of Nebraskans were buckling up in 2016. Unsurprisingly, 68% of those who died in Nebraska collisions last year were not wearing their seatbelt.

Last night, as I was preparing dinner, a PulsePoint alert fired off on my phone. It was an injury traffic crash at 29th & O Street. I pulled up the nearest traffic camera, which is at 27th Street. It looked bad. An SUV was on its side, and it appeared to be a high-speed right angle collision. The driver of that vehicle, however, walked away with only minor bumps and bruises--because she was buckled up.

There is probably nothing you can do today that is more important in protecting you from death or injury than simply using your seatbelt. Make sure your passengers do the same, and that your children develop the lifelong habit through your example.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Getting the message?

Yet another pistol has been stolen from a vehicle that was apparently left unlocked overnight from Friday to Saturday. The gun was in the console. As in many of the past cases I've chronicled here, this victim has a concealed carry permit. I continue to advise against leaving your pistol in the vehicle overnight, for just this reason. If you accidentally forget to lock up, the pilferer picks your pistol, rather than just the loose change in your cup holder and your Ray Bans.

This is the first one in several weeks. Maybe, just maybe, people are getting the message.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Public safety at the Airbase

Lincoln's Airpark West is getting a lot of public safety attention lately, as we've opened a new firearms range and training facility, and are about to break ground on a replacement for Fire Station 11, near NW 48th and West Adams Streets. 

One of the most interesting periods in Lincoln’s history was from the early 1950s through the mid 1960s, when the Lincoln Air Force Base served as one of the largest and most important components of the nation’s nuclear shield. Not to forget the importance of the Lincoln Army Airfield’s role in World War II, but during the cold war the stakes were raised even higher. 

Lincoln’s huge airbase was the home of B-47 squadrons on hot alert 24/7/365, loaded with nuclear bombs, ready to roll around the clock during the height of the cold war, including the 13 days in October, 1962, when the world stood on the brink of Armageddon. It is a fascinating part of our history, and one that is rapidly fading.

Today, however, considerable visible evidence of this 15 year window of history remains. The concrete pads on either side of the runway where eight B-47 Stratojet nucler bombers awaited their mission are still there, slowly disintegrating into the earth. The bunkers that held both nuclear warheads and conventional munitions remain, and will probably outlast virtually every evidence of Lincoln’s very existence. Many of the buildings have been demolished, but many remain; including Lincoln Parks & Recreation’s Airpark Recreation Center.

Along Highway 33, between Lincoln and Crete, lies a Nike missile site, which protected the Lincoln airbase from Soviet bombers, and where over 100 soldiers and K-9s worked around the clock to ensure the security of the base, the City, and nearby Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile installations. A companion Nike site north of Lincoln still stands as a daily reminder of these sentinels. The Integrated Fire Control center for the north site is now the campus of Raymond Central High School. 

When I was a student at Rountree Elementary School in Springfield, MO, fire alarm drills were not quite as memorable as the drills we practiced in the event of a nuclear attack: duck under the desk, hands behind the neck, fingers interlocked. A few years later, when the family moved to Lincoln, I had no idea that a significant component of the forces protecting us from this threat, through nuclear deterrence, were right here in my new hometown. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

LNKstat kick off

Taking Charge, the City of Lincoln's performance management process, by which we set goals, develop performance indicators, and monitor progress, jumped up to a new level today with the inauguration of LNKstat: a meeting designed to collaboaratively focus the attention of the City's management staff on our municipal government's performance. LNKstat meetings are patterned after a practice that was originally developed in policing during the 1990s, COMPSTAT, which here in Lincoln our police department calls ACUDAT

LNKstat is designed to serve the same purpose as ACUDAT, only by more broadly examining all eight of the City's outcomes, from safety & security to efficient transportation. We have been receiving some top-notch technical assistance from the What Works Cities initiative to develop and refine LNKstat, and this morning's meeting begins a series of six coming up in the next few months. 

Today's focus was on the City's first outcome area: safety & security. Our police and fire chief, along with our Parks & Recreation Department and Public Works Department, reviewed the public safety performance indicators from Taking Charge with Mayor Beutler and his staff, and fielded questions and comments from the other City department heads.

The City's performance management team, a group of representatives from most of the departments, led by the Mayor's Chief of Staff, has been working for the past few months with What Works Cities to prepare for this process. The first meeting was excellent. Lots of good information was shared, several action steps were identified, and we all had a productive meeting examining how things are going in the effort to ensure a safe and secure community, and what we need to do to keep on track. 

Next week, LNKstat will shift focus to outcome area number two: livable neighborhoods. This one may be even more challenging than safety & security, because there are eight City departments with a   portion of responsibility for this outcome. What's exciting to see is the City's top management staff focused together on these outcomes, not just those within our own individual domains.