Friday, December 28, 2012

Public place cameras

The police department has been experimenting with a public place camera at 14th and O Street, monitoring the street and sidewalks in this area.  The camera (actually, it's a pair) is on a 36 hour recording loop, with the idea that this strikes a balance between the police desire to capture evidence in the event of a crime on the one hand, and the discomfort some people have with government recording them on the other hand.

While many police agencies around the world have implemented camera monitoring of some public places, often reporting significant reductions in crime, I have a little discomfort with the concept. Simply put, I am concerned over the extent to which our daily lives are being cataloged by all manner of electronic gizmos and databases.  I'm not sure there is much we can do about it, since most of this is done by non-governmental entitites.  Our own desire to use such things as debit cards and smartphones is apparently greater than our concern that the bank and the cell phone provider have data about where we've been as a result.

It is noteworthy that privately-owned cameras are plentiful in such places as retail stores, parking lots, shopping malls, parking garages, a growing number of apartment complexes, office buildings, and the like.  It is also worth noting that government-owned cameras are also commonly operating at such places as schools, public transportation facilities, and university campuses. Private enterprise is already operating several public place cameras in the downtown area.  Nevertheless, when the police decide to install cameras in public places, I think it is beneficial to do so after some public discussion, and a consideration of input from citizens.  Because of this, the police department's cameras have gone dark until this discussion can take place a bit more broadly in the community.

If Lincoln is going to have any public place camera monitoring by the police, 14th and O Street is the logical choice, because it is simply the most troublesome location in the city.  This is due to the density of bars and the combination of testosterone and alcohol that converges there--espeically on weekend nights as bar break approaches.  So far this year, there have been 122 assaults reported to LPD that occurred within 1/2 block of the intersection--basically the effective range of the camera to potentially capture useful evidence outdoors. There is no other place in Lincoln that comes close to that concentration.

This is a good discussion to have, and I look forward to the dialog.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Easy solution

Keeping with my recent penchant to reuse blog post titles, you may want to read the eponymous post from 2009 (and yes, I've waited almost six years to use the word eponymous in a sentence.)

My latest example of a simple solution to what is undoubtedly a somewhat more complex interpersonal problem comes from this ruling on a petitioner's request to the Lancaster County Court for a protection order, sought by mom and dad in order to keep their daughter's ex-boyfriend away and enjoin him from being mean to her Facebook.  This court order is a public record, but I redacted the names, to avoid embarrassing the individuals. Click each page image to enlarge for more comfortable reading.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Christmas story

If you think you've seen that title on a previous post on my blog, you're right. I've reused the title with another story that will warm your heart as the big day approaches.

It starts on Wednesday, when Flora left Chicago to come visit her son in Lincoln.  On the way, she stopped at a rest area in eastern Iowa.  In the ladies room, she found a black Coach purse, apparently left behind by another traveler.  Flora made it to Lincoln in the grip of a major winter snowstorm, and yesterday morning, Flora dropped the purse off at the police station.  Toby, one of our staff members in the Property & Evidence Unit, decided she would try to find its owner  She found the ID of Audrey in the purse, from Hebron, Kentucky.

There was no answer at the home phone number in Kentucky, and Toby surmised that Audrey was probably still on the road.  She couldn't find a cell phone number in the purse, but she did find an appointment card from a doctor's office back in Kentucky. Through the receptionist at that office, Toby was able to get Audrey's cell phone number, and called to let her know that her purse--contents intact--had been found.  When Toby told Audrey that a citizen had found the purse 300 miles away, but had turned it in to the police in Lincoln, Nebraska, there was a moment of silence on the phone, and then Audrey stammered, "I can't believe this!"

Audrey, a military wife travelling with three little daughters to her mother's home in Oregon, was actually in Lincoln, too! She was at the Cobbler Inn--on the west edge of town, stranded overnight by a good old fashioned Nebraska blizzard that had closed Interstate 80 westbound by the time she realized her purse had gone AWOL.  She had no cash, no credit cards, nothing for food or gas.  Her mom had been able to get the motel room Wednesday night with a credit card number phoned in from Oregon, but Audrey was facing the daunting logistics of getting back on the road Thursday in her penniless condition after leaving her life on a bathroom counter a couple hours east of Des Moines, Iowa.

Officer Mario Robinson overheard the telephone conversation between Toby and Audrey, and learned that Audrey's car was running on fumes when they pulled into the Cobbler Inn the previous night.  Rather than directing her to HQ and risking running out of gas, he volunteered to get the delivery made.  He passed the football to Sgt. Grant Richards, who reunited Audrey with her Coach a few minutes later at the motel. I can only imagine her relief.

You've got to appreciate the incredible coincidence that brought Flora and Audrey to the same place at about the same time in a blizzard, not once, but twice, a few hundred miles apart, and resulted in getting the girls back on the way to grandma's house for Christmas.  Or (if you're like me) rather than coincidence, you can consider this just another example of the Hand on the chessboard.

Merry Christmas Audrey and Flora, and thank you Toby, for going the extra mile to make the season bright for a soldier's family caught in a big storm and a small crisis!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Not that way everywhere

A rather common theme on my blog is information technology and information resources.  I have often asserted that Lincoln police officers have access to more information at their fingertips than any police department I have ever seen, anywhere. As a result, they can be more productive--and safer.

Many of our officers don't even realize how good we have it in this regard.  If you haven't worked at (or closely with) a few other agencies, you may not understand what par for the course looks like in much of the rest of the law enforcement world. This editorial column in the Sunday edition of the New York Times is worth a read, not so much for the proposed solution as for the first-hand description of the problem by an outside observer: a law student accustomed to 21st century information technology who spent a semester rubbing shoulders with police officers.

While the author provides a nice description of the antiquated workflow for criminal cases, he's only seeing part of the picture: it's even worse in some respects, then the convoluted process he has witnessed.  By comparison, we live in a veritable Tom Cruise movie: well, maybe sans the transparent data wall navigated with hand gestures--for the moment.

Although I enjoyed the author's description, I also think he oversimplifies the solution.  As much as I love my iPads, and have advoacted for their value in policing, it's not the hardware so much as the information systems that really matters.  I don't care if you access it on a mobile data computer in a patrol car, a Windows desktop, an Android, iOS, or Blackberry tablet or phone, or on a VT100 terminal: it's the information that matters, and easy access to it by the people who really can use it to get the job done.

By the way, after spending a few minutes a couple weeks ago in a Microsoft store with a Surface tablet running Windows 8 RT, the near-term future of mobile computing in police and fire service is starting to come into focus for me. We shall see, when the Windows 8 Pro version arrives in early 2013.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gun control needed

The title of this post is guaranteed to cause a spike in traffic, but I'm not talking about the type of gun control you might think.  The kind I'm interested in is the most basic type of gun control: the control of guns by their owners.  In several mass shootings during the past 20 years, someone with a serious emotional disturbance obtained their firepower by theft from an acquaintance or family member of unsecured or lightly-secured weapons.

I've published a few examples of careless gun storage here on my blog in the past.  That's just a snapshot of a larger problem, though.  Police officers investigate gun thefts with some frequency in which the security of the firearms is pretty poor: an unlocked door, a $15 key-on-knob lock meant for a bathroom, a window screen, and so forth.  Guns demand a little more security than your collection of garden tools.  I've seen plenty of tragedies and crimes committed when Junior helped himself to an unlocked gun in the household of his parent, grandparent, or friend, or when a disturbed person was able to get a hold of a firearm with minimal effort.

Here's what I suggest for gun owners: at the bare minimum, your firearms should be secured with a trigger lock. Better yet, use a gun safe, preferably one strongly mounted to the floor joists with some major lag screws, or (even better) to concrete with hefty anchors. I'd prefer the thief require something like a reciprocating saw, rather than merely a good-sized screwdriver. I like combination locks better than keyed locks. Anyone who thinks their 12 year old can't figure out where the hidden key is located fails to recall their own skill at the same age in finding mom and dad's hiding spots. If you worry about quick access, their are plenty of  lock boxes that will provide rapid access and at least a little bit of security, too.

Gun safes and lock boxes aren't a panacea.  The cheapest are easily defeated with hand tools, and as with everything, the good ones tend to be expensive. A decent box for a pistol or two will start at around $150, though, and still provides a fair degree of protection from a hurried, worried, and not-so-bright thief.  If you can afford a firearm, you can afford a proper storage solution.  A skilled thief with with a cool head (and even an amateur with plenty of time) and access to a tool box may be able to steal guns even when stored in a good strong box--but for protecting your guns against the less organized, less competent, and less determined, a gun safe is pretty, well, safe.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Knew what to do

The latest mass shooting incident in the United States, at  a shopping mall in Portland, OR, made me wonder about where we are headed.  I was in Seattle on Tuesday night when the news broke. I was standing in front of a TV monitor at SEATAC, watching the breaking news on a local station.  As the evening wore on, more video footage and more interviews with customers began to flow.  Here's what amazed me:  people really seemed to know what to do in order to improve their chance of survival.

As I listened to interviews and watched some of the video from both inside and outside the mall, it appeared that when the shooting began, customers were taking cover, staying low, and moving quickly; employees were getting people into back rooms, locking and barricading doors; people exiting the mall were voluntarily raising their hands to make it evident to the arriving law enforcement officers that they were unarmed; and so forth.  Basically, people have learned some important things to do (and not do) in a mass shooting event. In one way this is good, but what in the world does it say about our society and culture?

Monday, December 10, 2012

In the event of an emergency

A lot of periodicals land on my desk, and I just don't have the time to read them.  I will, however, occasionally thumb through the table of contents, scanning for any articles of particular interest.  One of the best of the lot is Emergency Management magazine.  In the current issue, the cover story was "When 911 Fails."  Having been through a few of these episodes in the past 38 years, this one caught my eye as I scanned the pile on Friday morning.  On my way to page 16, however, my eye was drawn to this blurb on page 14:

Emergency Management, Nov. / Dec. 2012

That looked like a candidate for the best news of the week.  I circled it, ripped the page out, and handed it to our Health Department director, Judy Halstead.  She read it to the last sentence, noting "...but the flavor was altered."  "What numbskull do you suppose they got to taste it?", she asked.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The environmental approach

In last week's post about Project Extra Mile, I praised Diane Riibe for her advocacy of the environmental approach to underage drinking prevention.  Just what is the environmental approach?  It is perhaps easiest to explain by contrasting it with an individual approach.

The individual approach focuses on young people who are under the legal drinking age.  It uses strategies aimed at convincing them that they should refrain from consuming alcohol until they reach the legal age.  It threatens them with consequences for violating the law.  It attempts to educate them about the effects of alcohol, and about the risks of underage drinking.

The environmental approach, conversely, focuses on making changes not in the individual, but in the external environment.  Such changes often involve public policy and legislation.  Typical examples would be raising the legal drinking age, lowering the threshold for driving under the influence, strategies to reduce access to alcohol by those underage, increases in alcohol excise taxes, heightened accountability for adult providers. Tools for an environmental approach might also include compliance checks for retail establishments, efforts to reduce marketing aimed at youth, and more.

I am a strong believer in the environmental approach, and these are strategies that we used extensively during the 12 years I co-chaired Lincoln's campus-community coalition to reduce high risk drinking by young people, NU Directions (which subsequently transitioned to the Nebraska Collegiate Consortium).  These strategies, however, do not entirely replace those aimed at individuals. I still firmly believe in holding individual underage drinkers responsible for their actions, and for doing what we can to ensure that they understand the consequences.  An environmental approach, however, is appealing in its efficacy: it offers a big bang for the buck.

At last Wednesday's Project Extra Mile recognition dinner, a speaker did a good job of explaining the a dozens of overheated students on the verge of heat-related illness.  You could rush about to each, have them stop their physical activity and sit or lie down, apply cool damp washcloths to their head and neck, and provide each with cool water to drink.  That would be an individual approach.  Or, you could turn down the thermostat, and turn on the ceiling fans--an environmental approach.

Better yet, you could use a combined approach: tweak the HVAC, ramp up the fans, stop the scrimmage, and push the liquids.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Missing backbone

The daily listing of selected police Incident Reports published on the web contains a short summary comment for some crime types.  These one-liners can sometimes be rather amusing.  This one from last Thursday was interesting.

Click image to enlarge
Officer Pat Knopik investigated this theft, and brought the case to my attention.