Thursday, July 31, 2008

Top POPs

POPs are problem-oriented policing projects. I've blogged about them on many past occasions. Around 14 years ago, I created a little one page form called a POP Project Summary, so we could collect a few brief details about these projects. Sgt. Don Scheinost collects the POP project summaries, maintaining an archive and using these as proof that we do what we claim to do when it's time for our accreditation.

Sgt.Scheinost sees some really good POP projects that follow the classic SARA problem-solving model: Scan, Analyze, Respond, and Assess. Some POP projects are a little weaker on the analysis and assessment, but they all represent an important aspect of our style of policing: don't just respond to incidents and take reports, think about the problem or the conditions, and how we can address that more effectively. The Chief's Corner contains lots of examples of good police work wrapped up in creative POP projects.

Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. at the expense of the National Institute of Justice, serving on a panel to discuss the use of police data to support broad community initiatives. With time on my hands, I attended some of the other presentations. Dr. Gary Cordner intrigued me with one of the slides in his presentation "Taking the Information Highway Beyond the Next Interchange." It was a screen shot of another police department's web site, Port Washington, Wisconsin.

The Port Washington PD posts a short description of their POP projects on their public web site. I liked that idea a lot. I think it gives citizens a little bit more insight into what the police do, beyond what they see on the latest episode of Cops. I sent an email to Chief Richard Thomas, letting him know of my intention to steal his idea, complimenting his 19 officers on the work reflected in their POP projects, and suggesting that he tell his city manager I said so.

We can't post them all (we completed 160 last year), but Sgt. Scheinost and our public information officer, Officer Katie Flood, are going to pick a few every month and maintain this short summary of POP projects on our web site. Look for it in the "What's New" box, and under "Information and Events".

Surprised me

Yesterday's post about riding as close to practicable to the right side of the road went a little crazy. There were 1,029 visits to The Chief's Corner, just edging out 1,024 on September 7, 2007 as the highest number of daily hits in the life of the blog. Apparently a good share of North Platte read this very short post from September 5, 2007 when a local online newspaper put up a link.

I've got to admit, the flurry of activity yesterday caught me by surprise. When I was writing the post yesterday morning, I thought it was pretty lame, covering a old topic that would be pretty apparent to the people who read The Chief's Corner. I figured that critic who nails me from time to time with the nonsensical comments about "mustard and onions" (as a means of mocking, I think, what he/she believes to be stupid posts) would hit me again, and that I'd deserve it.

Little did I know.

Despite the heavy traffic and accolades, the tone of the comments concerned me a little bit--sort of a "finally, there's a police officer who understands" theme. Thanks for the compliments, but I think my remarks were awfully obvious, and hardly a revelation to police officers. Frankly, I think cycling enthusiasts miss the pretty obvious fact that lots of police officers are cycling enthusiasts themselves. I suspect that cyclists are significantly overrepresented in police departments, in comparison to the general public. That's always been my experience. This is probably true of other fitness activities, too--running, weight training, and so forth. I think you'll find plenty of police officers just about anywhere who commute, train, and participate in triathlons, adventure races, and so forth. I can only recall a couple of road racers, but those numbers are very small in the general population as well. Suffice it to say that our bike racks at work have no cobwebs.

Stow the stereotypes, and I suspect you'll find that most police officers are well aware of the content in yesterdays post, would render the same advice, and are generally inclined to support and defend cyclists rights to use the road like any other vehicle, as established in their State and local laws. I realize there is a strong undercurrent of doubt and suspicion among cycling enthusiasts concerning the police and cycling, and I've never really understood that. That same suspicion was there 25 years ago and doesn't seem to have changed much. Maybe the occasional horror story about a bike-hating officer somewhere gets blown out of proportion and generalized as the norm. It's not, based on my 34 years of observation.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Share the road

Last week, a regular reader of The Chief's Corner asked me if I'd blog about bicycles and the rules of the road. "Sure," I replied, "I'll put that on my list of future topics." As the price of gas is causing all of us to flinch, I am sure we will continue to see more people consider the two-wheeled option. It is almost certain that bike-car conflicts will increase. I've blogged about road rage before, and t is not limited to car-on-car situations. Lincoln's bike lanes are pretty limited and many of our recreational trails (although nice for a leisurely ride) are not suitable for commuting, so drivers and riders will increasingly share the road.

Sharing the road is not just polite, it's the law. Bicycles essentially enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as motor vehicles on the public streets. Motorists need to accord bicycles the same right of way, following distance, and passing protocol that they would another automobile. I see a lot of impatience here. Some motorists view a slower-moving bicycle as an obstruction. Any avid cyclist has their stories of Beavis & Friend flipping them the universal peace sign, crowding them to the curb, making a right turn directly in front of their path, launching a Big Gulp grenade, and otherwise pestering them with obnoxious and dangerous behavior.

Fortunately, these incidents are mostly rare--at least the intentional type. The unintentional stuff, though is sometimes the result of a phenomenon all bicyclists and motorcyclists must learn as a matter of self-preservation: you are invisible. Defensive driving, for a cyclist, is an issue of survival.

In Lincoln (and everywhere else I know of), bikes basically are treated like any other vehicle by the municipal ordinances. The major exception to that would be the required position in the lane. City ordinance states that bicycles must be ridden "as close as practicable to the right-hand side" of the roadway, if the bike is travelling at less than the "normal speed of traffic." Crowding the curb is a safety risk for a cyclists, so a couple feet to the left is generally what is practicable--but not always.

The seam where a concrete curb joins the pavement is prone to cracks, crevices, and pot holes, so a wider berth may be needed. Some roadways have drainage grates that will swallow a 1" tire and wheel. A row of parallel-parked cars is risky, and cyclists generally need to move out to the left by the approximate length of a 1972 Monte Carlo's door. The right-hand side of the roadway is impractical when you are preparing a lane change, a left turn, or getting positioned at an intersection to avoid right-turning cars from cutting across your path. Moving away from the right side in these circumstances complies with the "close as practicable" rule in the law, and motorists just need to deal with that, treating cyclists with the same respect as any other vehicle.

Trouble is, some motorists don't treat any other vehicle of any kind with respect. Aggressive driving seems to be a common condition for a growing number of motorists. It's not solely motorists, though. Some cyclists seem to think that traffic signals are optional. Occasionally, I will see cyclists in pairs or groups riding side-by-side, which violates the law. From time to time we get complaints about groups out for training rides who will form up into a peloton and basically occupy an entire street. The echelon may be good form, but it is also illegal. For the most part though, cyclists aren't the problem--rather, it's a nincompoop behind the wheel of a gas-guzzler, who views anything that slows his route as an annoyance.

I commuted to work by bike for a decade, back when running and triathlons were among my passions. For a good deal of that period, my seven mile trip home followed a shift that ended at 1:30 AM. That was interesting. Here's some advice for cyclists: When operating your 21 lb. road bike, do not get in an argument with a probable drunk who has poor impulse control and drives a 4,500 lb. weapon.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Can't make this stuff up

What more can I say? (click to enlarge)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Not quite what it seems

You would think a website with the url "" would do what the name implies. Not exactly. Lincoln Journal Star reporter Micah Mertes contacted me last week to answer some questions about the proliferation of various crime mapping web sites, including our own CrimeView Web, for an article published on Saturday. One of the sites he asked about was

There are are growing number of web sites that gather public record police, court, or prosecutorial data then geocode that and display the results on maps. Microsoft Virtual Earth or the Google Maps application programming interface are the usual tools for these site. While I was on the phone with Mr. Mertes, I was looking at, and noted that it's using the Google Maps API.

While Google Maps/Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth are pretty remarkable applications, mapping addresses is never perfect. Geocoding tabular address data is inherently inaccurate: it's an estimate of the location of the actual phenomenon, usually interpolating a real-word address along a street segment. Some geocoding is better; some is worse, depending on the quality of both the reference data and the data to be mapped, and the specific techniques employed. Here's an example:

The red marker is the address of our Northeast Team police substation at 4843 Huntington Avenue, geocoded by Google Maps. The Blue marker is the actual location, right at the front door. I pointed out this relatively minor problem with mass-geocoded data to the reporter, but there are other problems with these sites that are potentially more significant.

One of those problems is missing data. One of the other sites the newspaper article mentions is The DEA's national clandestine lab register. One would think that this would map the location of all, or at least most, of the known meth labs. If you drill down to Lancaster County, Nebraska you will see that Lincoln has only five meth labs listed, with dates from 2004 through 2007. In reality, we investigated 34 meth labs during those years. It's not that the data on this website is wrong, just that it is incomplete.

Another problem is that some sites may give a false impression. Back to after clicking the "neighborhood watch" link, I ran a few addresses, one of which was my home during high school, at about 56th and Vine. Here is the resulting map (click to enlarge):

A couple of those icons are Nebraska registered sex offenders. is essentially mapping the public record data already available on the Nebraska State Patrol's public sex offender registry web site. The others, though, are various records from States like Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, North Carolina. Apparently these States have public record court or prosecutorial data that is readily available.

The "criminals" searched near 56th and Vine include a 2004 ticket for an illegal U-turn in Oklahoma, a 1996 ticket for speeding in North Carolina, and a 2001 ticket for no seat belt in Oregon. Moreover (expect for the Nebraska sex offenders), there is little chance that any of these people still live at the address that was on a ten year old traffic ticket issued in another State. You may notice that two of these people appear to live in Bethany Park. The addresses on their records is actually quite a ways down the street to the west, in apartments across Cotner Boulevard. Looking at another area of Lincoln, I found an icon on S. 2oth Street. It was denoting the address of a person who received a ticket for no operators license in North Carolina back in 1996. The ticket was dismissed by the prosecutor . The person who received the ticket is in my database, too: he died in 2005.

I believe, that when it comes to public record information about sex offenders, felons under correctional control, and the locations of crime, that public agencies should not attempt to shield citizens from the uncomfortable knowledge that stuff happens, and that there are people in our community with some pretty problematic behaviors. We may have been oddly happier when we weren't as informed about these facts, but the truth is the truth, and when we hold such public record information, I think we obligated to let it rip. But I also think we are obligated to take reasonable steps to insure that it is accurate as best we can, and to provide the context that helps citizens understand these data--such as this dialog.

To their credit, if you read the fine print, these sites have extensive disclaimers that describe some of these shortcomings. Just don't take it all at face value.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"318, 810."

That would be Officer Paul Aksamit (318), calling out of service (810) at the end of his shift in Lincoln police radio code, circa 1974. After 34 years, Paul turned in his gear yesterday, as he retires and begins his next career. Paul has taught several hundred young police officers the ins and outs of working third shift: feathering your emergency brake to slow your already-slow patrol car without the brake lights coming on; flashing doors to find the glint of fresh tool marks, or the missing cross bolt; rolling your windows down so you can hear what's going on. Parking on the high ground, and just listening.

Cory Mateson, a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star did a nice story about Paul in this morning's newspaper. It's a nice profile of a good police officer who has dedicated his entire adult life thusfar to this City. Paul and I worked together for a good long time. We were in plenty of tight spots and scrapes, pulled innumerable practical jokes on one another, and had a good deal of fun off duty. There are few places more pleasant then Paul & Butch's dining room table after a long shift. I'm going to miss him, but it's a good thing he will still be around the building.

Paul's 34 years have almost exclusively been on night shifts, and predominantly on deep nights: the 1100 to 0700 shift. He's had the seniority to pull any shift he wanted (he has socks older then his coworkers), but he's worked nights by choice. There is nothing like the smile on Paul's face when he's headed out the door in a white t-shirt, portable radio in hand, on his way home after snagging a couple of people overnight from a larceny in progress, or chasing down a guy one third his age in a foot pursuit.

Everyone admires Paul. He's easy with a joke, can dish it out and take it, has an incredible knack for being in the right place at the right time, and never backs away from work or trouble. He's the golden retriever of police officers--loyal, friendly, always at your side. But Paul's primary accomplishment has nothing to do with his 34 years as a police officer. Rather, it's his 34 years as a husband to his lovely wife, and 33 years as a great dad to four great kids. Now that is an accomplishment. What a family!

Paul stopped by my office yesterday morning, and returned something I loaned him 25 years ago. Here it is:

That's a box of templates and stamps that I used for accident report diagrams. Paul was forever borrowing my collection, and when I was headed for administration, I gave him my gear. The flexible curve is missing, but it is otherwise intact. The plastic hinge on that cheap blue pencil box has miraculously held together and the original Sanford ink pad is actually still functional after a few thousand accident reports. It's just like Paul: well-used, worn-in, and ready for the next crash.

If you're looking for a nice set of stamps, come see me.

Oh, by the way--that bottle of white-out was not part of the original kit, Paul.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Headed home

I'm still in Washington, D.C.. The panel presentation about the use of police data to inform broader public policy seemed to go quite well. One of my fellow panelists, Michele Hummer from the Knoxville, TN Central Business District Improvement District, gave her presentation about the efforts to ameliorate problems in downtown Knoxville. She described the same kind of problems we deal with in downtown Lincoln, and Knoxville's efforts to deal with the issue.

Tuesday afternoon, I attended a very interesting breakout session on Geography, neighborhoods, and crime. Dr. David Weisburd made a strong case for changing the police focus from offenders to places, and implementing prevention strategies that are more effective than the normal kind of offender-based strategies police agencies generally focus on. He was speaking my language. Identify specific places that are problematic, engage in strategies to impact those locations, and you can have a huge impact on crime and disorder.

Later, I attended an interesting panel discussion called Taking the Information Highway Beyond the Next Interchange. It concerned using the Internet to advance community policing and problem solving. One of the presenters, Dr. Gary Cordner, used The Chief's Corner as one of his examples of interesting ways police are using the Internet to engage the community. I was intrigued by presentations during this panel by Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum on web-based surveys--a similar theme to our long-standing Quality Service Audit--and by a third panelist, Lawrence Green, who manages a Yahoo group connecting citizens to Oakland, CA police officers. Oakland has some pretty significant problems, and police officers in Oakland deal with some pretty challenging events.

I'll hit a couple more morning sessions, before heading home this afternoon. As usual, I learned a lot more than I imparted.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In the Nation's Capital

I am in Washington, D.C. this morning at the annual conference of the National Institute of Justice--the research arm of the United States Department of Justice. I was invited (at their expense) to serve on a plenary panel discussing the use of police GIS data to support broader public policy initiatives. I'll be discussing three: efforts to control the density of liquor licenses, the University Place redevelopment project and the Northeast Team substation, and the Stronger Safer Neighborhoods initiative. All three of these public policy initiatives were propelled in large part by police data.

About 1,800 people are attending the conference, a mix of academic researchers and criminal justice personnel. I am also attending conference presentations. Yesterday, I went to some interesting breakout sessions concerning sex offender residency restrictions, cell phone forensics, and new developments in crime analysis. The luncheon presentation by Dr. David Kennedy concerning race, crime, and common ground was quite thought provoking. The sex offender session covered many of the same issues intern Kyle Heitbrink worked on, and ground that has been covered before in The Chief's Corner.

My panel session is this morning, and I hope my PowerPoint runs OK. It's got some twists and turns in it that could be a little tricky.

I ran into a bunch of old acquaintances here, including Dr. Greg DeLone (UNO School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Dr. Julie Horney (Dean of the School of Criminal Justice, State University of New York at Albany, formerly UNO Criminal Justice Department), and lots of others. A short "hello" from a young crime analyst at the Rochester, NY Police Department made my day, though. Chris Delaney introduced himself, and told me that he is a regular reader of The Chief's Corner. "Get a life," I told him. ;-)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Metal theft update II

About this time last year, I gave an update on The Chief's Corner regarding thefts of brass, aluminum and metal. The update was a comparison between the first six months of 2006, and the first six months of 2007. The data seemed to show that strategies initiated in late 2006 had worked.

Recently, we've had a few metal thefts that have caught my eye, and I was wondering what the situation is in 2008. Had the thefts rebounded, or did it just seem that way? I ran the data for the first half of 2008, and here's how the past three years line up:

Looks like the reduction is holding. It could be that the State legislature's action last session in passing LB 766 will help keep this crime tamped down. The new laws passed in the 2008 session all became effective last Friday, unless they carried the emergency clause. We'll have to keep an eye on metal thefts for the remainder of the year, and see what happens.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Losing ground

With the population of Lincoln growing by about 1.4% per year, we need to add 4.4 officers per year just to tread water (317 officers, times .014). We haven't been keeping up, and the department has slowly been shrinking. Here's where we've been since I got this job in 1994, and adopted the goal of getting the department to 1.5 officers per 1,000 (click to enlarge):

We did pretty well during the decade of the 1990's, but when the economy headed south and Lincoln's sales tax went on the skid, we started falling back. Here's all the cities of 10,000 or greater in Nebraska and all the surrounding states, ranked in order of the number of police officers per 1,000 residents. The most recent comparison data available is from the 2006 FBI Uniform Crime Reports, so it's two years behind now, but we'll be in about the same place.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Growth spurt

One of the items in the news last week was the release by the United States Census Bureau of the latest population estimates for Lincoln. The newspaper's headline, Lincoln may reach quarter million mark in coming year, is itself a year too late. We've already topped a quarter million. By my estimate, we are now at 252,226.

Here's why: the Census Bureau population estimates (which are quite scientific, by the way) are always a year behind the release data. The information last week was the population estimate as of July 1, 2007. The city has continued to grow in the past year, and assuming we've been growing at the average rate for the last decade, 1.4%, we're now at 252,226.

In the 2000 census, Lincoln's count was 225,581, so over the past eight years we've added 26,645 souls. That would make a pretty big city itself, by Nebraska standards. Our added population would be sixth, right behind Kearney, and right in front of Fremont and Hastings

Our new population estimate makes us the 73rd largest city in the United States. We jumped up one spot from the previous year, passing St. Petersburg, FL. Seems like that ought to be large enough for a P.F. Chang's.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Quite a morning

Normally, the time period between about 4:00 A.M. and 600 A.M. is the slowest part of the day at the police station. For late shift officers, it's time to catch up on reports, make a last check on some of your burglary-prone commercial strips, and roll the windows down so the breeze keeps you awake. The day shift personnel start coming on duty at 0600, and the first order of business for many is to grab a cup of coffee before briefing.

Thursday, the calm was broken by a series of events that started at 0510, when a south Lincoln resident heard his car alarm sounding. He stepped outside to find a couple of guys who had broken out his side window. He confronted the thieves, when one pulled out a gun and fired four rounds from a .45 cal. pistol before running off on foot northbound.

Shortly later, at about 0548, a home invasion robbery occurred at about 30th and O Street. The victim heard a loud noise followed by footsteps, then gunfire. She was confronted by two men who had kicked in the back door and popped off a couple rounds, also .45 cal. The robbers were seeking money, but got none, and left.

A suspect was identified on these two cases, and several miles across town, the suspect vehicle was located. The primary suspect had just recently been acquitted in a jury trial of another shooting, and was suspected of these two cases, so they were considered armed and dangerous. A perimeter was established, and the SWAT Team summoned. It happened to be a regular training day for the Team, so they were quickly mobilized. Ultimately, the suspects were apprehended without incident at 0906.

While the SWAT Team standoff was proceeding in Northeast Lincoln, the first bank robbery of 2008 went down in Southwest Lincoln at 0842, when a man entered a Westgate Bank branch with what he claimed was a bomb. A witness who saw the employees with their hands in the air called 911, which gave us a jump on the alarm. The robber forced the employees to the floor, then took off, abandoning his fake bomb nearby, and peddling away on a bicycle.

Det. Sgt. Chad Barrett spotted the suspect about a mile away at 20th and C Street, and the arrest was made about 6 minutes after the robbery was reported. The suspect has been convicted of two prior bank robberies, and was on Federal probation for the most recent of those, a 1999 case. He was just released from prison on that case late last year. Interestingly, his first conviction, in 1991, was for a robbery at the same bank he held up on Thursday morning. Det. Sgt. Sandy Myers, one of the investigators on the 1991 case, knew he was our guy when the description came out.

All in all, it was an eventful morning of great police work. The normally desk-bound left their coffee mugs and hit the bricks for some intense action. Nothing like a few violent crimes to get the blood flowing in the morning, and nothing like a few arrests for those violent felonies to put a smile on the faces around the station all day.

Friday, the morning crew at one of our local talk radio stations, KLIN, had me on the air for a few minutes. Jack Mitchell asked me what my role is during events such as those on Thursday morning. "Stand back and get out of the way," I replied. Around a crime scene, a chief is a boat anchor. My head is so buried in stats, budgets, meetings, and the politics of being a City department director, that regrettably, I rarely get to play. Corny as it sounds, though, on days like Thursday, I feel that what I do somehow helps make this all possible in some small way.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Little gangsters

Many people in Lincoln don't realize that despite our seemingly bucolic lifestyle, the City does indeed have it's own gang problem. I suppose that unless you're a police officer, a teacher, or you live in the right neighborhood, you just don't pick up on the signs. But they are there, and we've had plenty of significant gang-related crimes.

There was a small one this week that folks should cause more people to set up and take notice. We cleared up a dozen gang graffiti cases after an alert citizen heard the tell-tale sound of the bead shaking inside a spray can. The suspects were located with some good beat-knowledge and follow-up by Officer Megan Schreiner, Tom Stumbo and their Southwest Team colleagues. It was the second set of good graffiti vandalism arrests of the month.

Who are these desperadoes caught red-handed this week (actually, silver-handed)? Two twelve year olds and a thirteen year old. That's sixth grade, isn't it? Well, I guess the 13 year old might be a seventh grader. He's becoming an habitual offender, though--he was just picked up earlier this year for the same thing, and is assembling an impressive string of offenses for a guy that won't be shaving for a few years.

No one should relax and think of these kids as "wannabes." When kids that should be playing with Hot Wheels are aspiring to be Vice Lords, tagging their neighborhood with their marks this is not a good thing, and it does not make me feel any better. We best not let down our guard or be lulled into a sense of complacency as a community.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Budget, round one

Yesterday, we had our first hearing with the City Council on our proposed budget since Mayor Chris Beutler released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2008-2009 last week. We had 45 minutes to discuss our $34 million expense budget--the largest general fund tax budget among the City departments. Our hearing followed the fire department.

Following the Mayor's format of an outcome-based budget, I presented the department's goals related to the City's outcomes, our methods for achieving those goals, and the indicators we intend to use to gauge whether we are meeting those goals. There were lots of questions from Council members, most at the meeting, some in email (paraphrased as best I can):

"How are we doing on the size of the department compared to the population?"
"Why are you comparing our crime rate to other cities'?"
"Do we really need to replace police cars at 80,000 miles?"
"What's going on with fuel usage?"
"What included in the line item 'contractual' ?
"Why is an administrative assistant to the Mayor in the police budget?"
"Describe the 25 computers on page 9."
"Could overtime for UNL football games be avoided by subcontracting with private security?"
We addressed all of these thoroughly. I don't envy City Council members, part-timers trying to understand the operations and finances of a far-flung enterprise like municipal government.

It's getting to be something of an expectation among the council members that I will have a color graph related to every question imaginable. I had two accordian files with handouts related to the questions I had anticipated. There were 12 copies of each, carefully arranged in folders labelled for fast access with short titles like "OVERTIME" and "FUEL."

Councilman Ken Svoboda, however, asked a question about our workforce. Ken knows that it's been our goal to maintain a ratio of at least one civilian support staff for each four police officers. He wanted to know how we were doing on the ratio, suspecting that we hadn't been able to maintain it, since some civilian support positions have been cut from several recent budgets I have submitted. "I'm sure you have a graph," he said. I knew that we had slipped under 25% (it's 23.98% to be precise), but I had no stacked-bar chart to show the trend. Everyone was a little surprised, in a humorous sort of way, that I had been caught graph-less.

Regular readers of The Chief's Corner have probably figured out that I'm pretty comfortable using data to produce simple, informative charts and graphs. I used several of the same graphs that I have posted in the blog previously. One of our indicators is maintaining a 75% positive response to the question asked on our Quality Service Audit: "How safe and secure do you feel in the neighborhood where you live?" Councilman John Spatz asked if there was anyway those data could be broken down by geographic area. I hadn't brought that with me, but after we finished up, I printed a dozen copies and dashed them over for hand delivery as the meeting was breaking up around 6:00 PM. Hopefully my reputation was restored.

The Mayor's proposed budget fully funds the police department at our current service level. There are no vacated positions or service cuts. We are one of only a few agencies so fortunate. In a second lean budget year, with the City trying to balance a $6 million shortfall for the coming fiscal year, that's a strong statement. We are clearly prioritized among the diverse City services, and I think our reputation for strong fiscal control is rewarded during the budget cycle.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In need of a break

Our police officers could use a breather after another fun-filled Fourth of July weekend. I tend to think that the Fourth falling on a Thursday or Friday is (from a police standpoint) about the
worst. So, what did we do, other than chasing all those fireworks complaints? About 1,237 things, to be precise. Here's some exceprts:


And on top of that, we handled one of the City's largest annual special events. That's a good amount of work over three days. And it's not done. Many of these cases will require on going follow-up work, additional report writing, and court appearances. In policing, the grind never ends. That's particularly true for a small police department like ours, where the workload falls upon a small number of police officers in comparison to our population.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Did it work?

It did not. Taking a harder line on illegal fireworks does not seem to have had any significant impact on the number of complaints received from the public.

It's hard to say, though, because there are many variables that could influence the number of complaints other than the efforts of the police to warn people that we would be less tolerant of violations. In fact, that very warning may have encouraged more people to call in complaints--figuring that maybe it wasn't a worthless effort. This is a constant problem in dissecting the impact of policing strategies: there is not a direct production function for much of what we do. I suppose if there were, someone would be providing the services as a business. That's not to say that we don't have any impact at all--just that human behavior is too complicated to tease out the impact of the police from all the other variables that effect social phenomena: the weather, the work week, the economy, popular culture, and so forth.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Peddlers permit

I have nothing against peddlers. Door-to-door sales is a tough way to make a buck, and requires some real gumption. But some peddlers (or at least some criminals posing as peddlers) use the role to take advantage of criminal opportunities. Every year, we investigated burglaries and thefts by door-to-door canvassers. A couple of cases last week were typical. When you think about it, it's pretty obvious: a peddler walking around a residential neighborhood knocking on doors finds out who's home and who's not and can essentially case the block pretty carefully before letting himself in a lightly secured door. We get a fair number of calls like this:

Probably because of this risk, Lincoln, like most cities, requires peddlers to obtain a permit, and the application includes a criminal record check at the police department. You are ineligible for a permit if you've been convicted of a felony or a crime of moral turpitude in the past 10 years. We're processing quite a few of these right now--60 in the past 30 days. We probably have a few hundred peddler permits (which are valid for one year) out there right now, with peddlers hawking fruit, cable TV and phone service, lawn care, siding, magazines, cleaning supplies, and vacuum cleaners.

Many permits are denied based on our record check which reveals disqualifying convictions. But I have no doubt many slip through, because of the nature of criminal records. Contrary to popular belief, there is no computer system into which you can enter a name and obtain a complete and accurate nationwide criminal history. That's a myth. Most criminal history records are local, and the State and national repositories are not complete. Moreover, juvenile records are never included in these repositories.

I am particularly concerned with what we know about out-of-town peddlers. During the summer, crews are recruited by companies that shuffle young people around the country flooding residential neighborhoods selling wares--most commonly magazines. We'll have a group of six or eight in our lobby sometimes, and the oldest in the bunch will be 20. They are from all over the United States, so a check of our rather detailed and complete local records is pretty worthless. A Nebraska criminal history is better, but probably not a great improvement if the applicant is from, say, North Carolina. We can't run a national criminal history, but even if we could, it would be unlikely to help much--if any of these people have a criminal past, it would likely be for misdemeanor crimes, or processed in juvenile courts. We have no idea whether they are hard-working students trying to make tuition on summer break, or deadbeats who've skipped their own town for greener pastures.

We also have a problem with peddlers who do not get permits at all. Sometimes these companies and their peddlers are willing to run the risk that they'll get some 19 year old thrown in jail for peddling without a permit. They bond him out for $50 and move on. The permit costs $25, so it's a calculated risk. The defendant skips town, a warrant is issued, but believe it or not Nebraska is not going to extradite someone from Las Vegas to face to music on a misdemeanor back in Lincoln. So far this year, we've arrested 29 people for peddling without a permit. Here's the locations of those cases:

The lean to the northwest is probably due to proximity to the Interstate. The defendants come from 17 states. Only four are from Nebraska. Only four cases have resulted in the defendant actually showing up in court. The remainder have gone to warrant, or are pending right now--waiting for the defendant to fail to appear and the warrant to be issued.

Of the four that have been through court, the defendants were fined $25, $100, $150, and $250. The higher fines were all in the same group. One of these three had applied for a permit and been denied based on a felony conviction, but peddled anyway. The second didn't apply because she knew she'd be denied, and the third was a level 3 high risk registered sex offender. This group was selling Kirby vacuum cleaners. You'd be a little surprised, I suppose, to learn that the guy in your living room sweeping up the sample confetti was a sex offender.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Will it work?

The kinds of fireworks that are legal in Lincoln are pretty limited. Basically, if it goes bang, it's probably illegal. The most common fireworks, firecrackers and bottle rockets, are both prohibited. In addition, you can only discharge the legal type on two days: July 3 and July 4. I laid out more of the details in The Chief's Corner last year. We get fairly deluged with complaints, and the violations are so numerous it's hard to know where to start.

Last week I did interviews on our two local news radio stations, KLIN and KFOR. One of the subjects that came up was fireworks. During the two interviews, I floated a new approach--warning listeners that we're going to give enforcement the old college try this year, by encouraging our officers to issue more citations for violations. It may be a lost cause, but we'll see if the hardline approach is any more effective.

You can watch for yourself, as the week unfolds. I'll throw in July 5, too, since the legal time period ends at midnight. Here's the numbers for last year: