Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tip 'o the hat

A couple weeks ago, I posted a blog about the increase in mental health cases that are handled by the Lincoln Police Department. The increase in these cases during the past dozen years has been dramatic--even when population growth has taken into account. I am not completely confident in conclusively identifying the cause of this increase, and suspect that a few different factors may be at work. I am, however, of the opinion that one of those factors is that community-based outpatient care and support for people with chronic mental illnesses simply has not kept up with the need.

As I have asked before, for what other chronic medical condition, normally controlled with outpatient care, is the response in the event of an acute episode to call the police? Would we rely on the police as the basic response to an epileptic seizure? Would our first impulse in the event of an diabetic reaction be to call the cops? Yet, this is precisely what happens with depressing regularity when a person with a mental illness suffers a psychiatric crisis. I am not the only one who sees the reliance on the police in the absence of more appropriate services as a problem.

While I think we can do better, I also acknowledge that the police have, as part of their fundamental purpose, a mission of protecting people, and assisting those in need. It's simply a pity that we often can do no better than summon someone with the power to use force and to arrest as the primary caregiver.

After posting the data on these incidents, however, Sgt. John Walsh caught up with me. Sgt. Walsh has taken over the role as LPD's liaison on matters involving the mental health system from Capt. Joe Wright, who recently retired to accept a position as the security director for the Lincoln Public Schools. Sgt. Walsh wanted to make sure I was familiar with the work of the Mental Health Association of Nebraska. You can read more about what the association is doing in collaboration with the police department at their website.

Here we have a non-organization, led primarily by volunteers who are themselves consumers of mental health services,  reaching out to help the police, and to help other people with mental illnesses in need of some community-based services, one on one. Here is the updated data that Sgt. Walsh sent to his colleagues yesterday morning:

MHA would like to thank the over 150 officers on the department who have made over 400 referrals to their program in the last two years.  They have made contact with over 50% of the people you have referred and over 80% of those folks have accepted services from them.  MHA is operated on a grant from the sale of LGH W, and state funds received after the regional centers closed.
Recently MHA has sent me the names of those you have referred during April, May and June.  We have looked at calls for service three months before the referral and three months after.  Included in the numbers below are those who have accepted and those who have not been located or accepted help.  Below are the results of those 52 referrals:  
                                       Before                                  After
Arrest/suspect                  19                                       14 
Victim                                 46                                       26 
Mental Health Inv.            75                                       12
That is an impressive result, showing that when the MHAN is able to find and contact the referral, his or her risk of arrest or victimization drops considerably, as does the frequency of police involvement in subsequent mental health investigations. The need remains large, but the Mental Health Association of Nebraska, is doing a great job trying to do something productive, and I tip my hat to them.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Same question

This week's fatal school shooting in Sparks, Nevada had me asking the same question again, and wondering whether my ideas are just too simple-minded to possibly have an impact on a few of these tragedies.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Close call

The news story scarcely does the case justice. After reading the investigative reports on the crime this morning, I realize what an incredibly close call we had, and I thank God once again for protecting our police officers. We are indeed fortunate that there are men and women who are willing to risk their lives to protect us from the darkest impulses of humanity.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When and where

Dr. Joel Caplan, a professor at Rutgers, and assistant director of that university's Center on Public Security sent out a request on Sunday for "expert knowledge" concerning the spatial aspects of assaults on police officers. He and his colleagues intend to produce a bulletin containing this "crowdsourced" information.

I didn't have a lot of time to devote to this, but Tuesday morning, I produced a little analysis of our data in Lincoln on assaults of police officers, dating back to 2001. There have been 826 such assaults as of midnight Monday. A healthy percentage of these (18%) have occurred at a handful of institutions:

72 Cornhusker Place Inc. (detox center)
42 Bryan LGH Medical Center West
19 Lancaster County Jail
7   Group hope for teenage runaways
6   Hall of Justice/Law Enforcement Center

Another 60 assaults occurred within two blocks of 14th and O Streets--the bar district in Lincoln that caters predominantly to the young drinking crowd.

We collect a two-digit location code on all crime reports, that describes the type of premise. Here are the premise types with 10 or more assaults:

181 Street
75   Correctional institution or treatment center
96   Apartments with 7+ units
74   Single family residences
64   Sidewalk
46   Hospital
30   Alley
30   Duplex
22   Tavern/bar
17   Public high school
16   Apartments with 3-6 units
11   Grocery store
11   Restaurant
10   County-City Building complex

There is not only a strong spatial pattern in assaults, but a very strong temporal pattern as well. From the map and the chart below, I think we can safely conclude that alcohol contributes markedly to the risk of a police officer being assaulted (click to enlarge).

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cheap fix

Over the years, I have occasionally pointed out traffic engineering projects that have led to a significant reduction in motor vehicle crashes. I am convinced by these examples that good engineering is by far the most important factor in crash-reduction. There is a recent change at an intersection along my commuting route that I think is destined to have a dramatic impact.

The location in question is the notorious triple intersection of S. 14th Street, Old Cheney Road, and Warlick Boulevard. I usually refer to it as the Bermuda Triangle. There are lots of traffic conflicts, and it is the scene of many collisions. Many of those crashes are in the red rectangle, where 14th Street traffic headed north must merge with the northeast-bound traffic coming in from the left on Warlick.

Here's what happens several times every year: a northbound driver on 14th ( vehicle A) looks over the left shoulder, and sees traffic approaching in the outside lane of Warlick (vehicle B). Unable to merge at the yield sign, vehicle A slows dramatically or comes to a complete stop. The driver behind him, also looking over his shoulder to assess the possibility of a merge, collides with the stopped or nearly-stopped vehicle A. Back in 2008, I got nailed here myself, when a Dodge Ram pickup lived up to its name, and set my teeth a-chattering.

The fix implemented in August by the Public Works Department involved striping the outside lane of northbound Warlick Blvd. beginning back at Old Cheney Road, thus forcing all the Warlick traffic into the inside lane. This effectively eliminates the need for the northbound 14th Street traffic to stop or slow drastically, and leads to a smooth merge between these two traffic flows. Any drivers that need to change lanes in preparation for turning movements at the next major intersection  have close to a mile to get things sorted out amicably.

It will take awhile for the data to prove my assertion, but as a regular user of this route, I am certain that there will be an immediate and long lasting reduction to the types of rear-end collisions that impacted me and about 100 other motorists in the past decade at the Bermuda Triangle. This will all be accomplished by the application of 50 bucks worth of paint.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Much faster than population

I have often said that the Lincoln Police Department is one of the largest providers of emergency mental health services in the community. You can add Lincoln Fire & Rescue to that claim, as well. One of the things I've learned in the past two years is that our police officers and firefighter/paramedics are rubbing shoulders with many of the same people, such as the denizens of A beat.

Over the weekend, someone challenged my assertion that this is a growing problem. I put together the data from LPD's records management system yesterday, querying each year since 2001 for two incident codes: 56400 and 56466. These two codes describe mental health cases to which police officers were dispatched. Here's what I found: there has been consistent, steady growth, from 1,276 incidents in 2001 to 2,294 last year. That is an 80% increase.

Lincoln's population, however, has increased since 2001, too.  To be specific, there are 35,004 more souls in the Capital City today than in 2001. If you calculate the rate of mental health dispatches per 100,000 population, it has grown from 554 to 864. Thus the population-adjusted increase in mental health calls is 56%. That is still a mighty large increase, even when population is taken into account.

No two ways about it: the cops and paramedics are called in mental health crises far more frequently today than in the past.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nice tool, but not available

Okay, I admit it: when it comes to data, I've never met a spreadsheet I didn't like. Whenever possible, I like to bring data to the table when decisions must be made. I realize that data isn't always available, isn't always complete, and isn't always accurate. But in many circumstances, there is good objective data that can help us manage more effectively.

I keep quite a bit of data on spreadsheets for all manner of topics, many of which are covered with some frequency here in my blog. Whether it's changes in false alarms, the impact of problem-oriented policing projects, the trend in fuel usage, or the pattern of pumpkin smashings, data can inform and even amuse.

So I was pleased a couple of weeks ago to discover that the FBI has launched a table-building tool for crime statistics. It is similar to the same kinds of tools the Lincoln Police Department and the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice have made available for years.

For managers and analysts who frequently need comparative data across time or from other cities, the FBI's new offering at is pretty sweet, and simplifies the task of wringing such data out of the full Uniform Crime Report.

Of course, due to the current shutdown of the Federal government, the site is not available at present. If the Congress gets its act together sometime, though, it's worth checking out.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

May not match the perception

There has been a lot of talk around Lincoln lately about crime, much of it concerning the perception that crime is on the upswing. At the risk of contradicting the conventional wisdom, I think it would still be best if the facts were clearly stated. Regular readers of my blog know that I generally have the data in order. Here you are (click to enlarge):

I picked 1991 as the starting point, because that was the peak year for crime in Lincoln. If you'd like to see the source data from which this graph is derived, I am happy to share my spreadsheet, which will save you the trouble of digging through a couple decades of Annual Reports, or compiling your own stats from our online statistical summary generator.

I realize these data may not match the perception, a phenomenon I tried to explain towards the end of this lengthy post a few years ago, which was a follow-on to this one from the day before.

Crime is but a small part of what the police do. The Lincoln Police Department provides many services and fulfills many duties that are very important in the community, but have little or nothing to do with crime. Every years we're going to handle thousands of non-criminal child abuse/neglect investigations, thousands of missing persons investigations, thousands of motor vehicle crashes, thousands upon thousands of disturbances, deal with boatloads of traffic problems, mental health crises, alarms, alcohol and drug issues, suspicious persons and vehicles, and on and on and on, ad infinitum. You need exactly enough police officers to provide the services your citizens expect, in the manner they wish to have those services delivered.