Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Suicide prevention coalition

A new suicide prevention coalition has been impaneled, called together under the auspices of Lincoln Public Schools, although not an LPS committee per se. I was asked to serve, and readily agreed. The group of about 40 people convened for two hours last night at our first meeting, and I artfully avoided a leadership role by agreeing instead to assemble some data in advance of our second meeting.

I've blogged about suicide a few times before. I read all the suicide reports, and a fair share of the attempted suicides as well, particularly those reports that come in between midnight and 5:00 AM. I have access to lots of data, but I should really wait until the end of 2014 to do any serious work, so I'll be able to include the full year of 2014. Couldn't help myself, though. I was already digging in this morning.

Here's just a few tidbits of information. Over the past 20 years (sans the next two weeks) there have been 525 suicides in Lincoln, and 5,863 attempted suicides that came to the attention of the police. Of the completed suicides, 212 were with firearms, 40.4% of the total. The next most common method was hanging, followed by overdose and asphyxia. Cutting instruments and jumping from structures were 10 and 11, respectively.

After the first of the year, I'll be compiling some age and gender breakouts, creating some trend lines, and calculating some rates normalized by population. I will also be producing some maps, charts and graphs. Hopefully the members of the coalition will be better informed after looking at these products. I'll keep readers informed from time to time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Liquor licenses proliferate

Officer Conan Schafer has recently taken over responsibility for overseeing liquor license investigation and enforcement at the Lincoln Police Department, and liaison with licensees and the City Council on such matters. He has been working on the police department's liquor license database, bringing everything up to date. I asked him to straighten up the addresses a little bit during this process, to try to get them into a consistent format so they will geocode more easily.

A few times a year, I need a geographic layer of liquor licenses for one reason or another--most recently to provide this information to HunchLab for their predictive algorithm. I usually have to spend some significant time cleaning up the addresses before geocoding, but this time it was a snap. Here's a map of the 481 liquor licenses in Lincoln right now:

Click image for larger version

I found a slide in a PowerPoint I did for a 2005 conference presentation, which pegged the number of liquor licenses at 373. We appear to have 108 more licenses in 2014 than in 2005, a 29% increase in the past decade. My vague recollection is that the entire City had less than 100 liquor licenses when I pinned on the badge in the summer of 1974.

There's a lot of research about the correlation of alcohol outlets with crime and disorder, particularly associating the density of outlets with these phenomenon. We certainly have some areas in Lincoln with a dense concentration of licenses, but I'm of the opinion that the relationship of alcohol outlets to crime and disorder is quite different based on the type of outlets and their business practices. Don't let the customers  get drunk, and problems are considerably reduced, both inside the establishment and in the general neighborhood.

Friday, December 5, 2014


Last week, my lovely wife was hinting around about putting up some outdoor Christmas decorations. Our unadorned home is, well, standing out on the block somewhat. My position has been that those decorations you put up on a beautiful fall weekend, you'll have to take down on a bitter Saturday in January, so I have always resisted. Occasionally, especially when the kids were still at home, I would relent with a minimalist scheme intended to reduce my labor to the bare minimum needed in order to maintain domestic tranquility.

There is, however, another justification for my curmudgeonly refusal to participate in the garish commercialization of Christmas. Just as those pumpkins on the porch are nothing more than ammunition for vandals, those Christmas decorations are tempting targets for thieves. This morning in my inbox was this Crime Alert from

There you have it, boatloads of expensive décor swiped from lawns right in my own neighborhood. Yet another case-in-point I can pull out to explain to Tonja why I'm watching football tomorrow instead of stringing lights and inflating snowmen. I am vindicated.

Everyone in Lincoln should subscribe to Crime Alerts from For that matter, everyone in any jurisdiction that provides its data to the Omega Group for should do so. Here in Nebraska, that's Lincoln Police, Omaha Police, Lancaster County Sheriff, and Grand Island Police. I'm signed up for my daughter's address in Omaha, my son's in Lincoln, and my own. It's free, easy and lets me know in a day when a crime I'm interested in has been reported nearby.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

More not necessarily better

Back in 1994 when I was first appointed police chief in Lincoln, one of my priorities was to rewrite the department's policy manual, composed of a few hundred General Orders, covering everything from traffic direction to death notifications. The loose-leaf manual issued to every employee was bulging, bloated, and hopelessly inconsistent in style, individual General Orders having been authored by dozens of people over a couple decades, often in stilted, legalistic prose that sometimes seems to infect police work like a bad virus.

In 1995, I finally set to the task, and we rewrote the entire set. The result was a vastly more concise manual, slimmed down to about an inch. For the next 16 years, my operating rule was simple: if a new word went in, another word had to come out elsewhere. I did not want the manual to return to its former corpulence, because I have a strong belief that familiarity and compliance with a policy manual is inversely correlated with its length. It simply isn't reasonable to expect employees to ingest and remember a collection of policies that resembles the unabridged dictionary.

In the past few years, however, both the Lincoln Police Department and Lincoln Fire &Rescue have converted entirely to online policy manuals. While in most ways this is a good thing, one of the unintended side effects is that the swelling is less noticeable. The imperative to keep the manual svelte has to some extent evaporated. No one is sweating over every paragraph quite so much, trying to figure out how more succinct language could prevent page two from spilling over to a third page.

I acquired a great example of the problem several years ago, from another midwest capital city police department that shall remain nameless. It was a seven-page policy entitled "Escape of Zoo Animals." The seven pages included drawings showing the best shot placement, should it become necessary to deal with various large mammals. I can just imagine a police officer, confronted with a rampaging rhinoceros, reaching for the manual and thumbing to page 543 for instruction.

Of course, with an online manual you could just pull over to the curb and enter rhinoceros in the search box--that is, if you can spell rhinoceros. Some discipline will be necessary to keep the policies trim, and ensure that our employees really can be familiar with the most important guidelines they need to know, and to find the relevant content easily when in doubt.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Geocoding crucial

The Director's Desk readership includes a lot of analysts and GIS aficionados. I'm going to geek out in this post, so unless you are among them, consider yourself forewarned.

Public safety analysts and technicians mine data from dispatch records, incident report, and other databases in order to work with these data in a GIS framework. The dots don't appear on the maps magically, though. The geocoding process uses software algorithms to convert the text description of an address into a point on a map. 

Geocoding is both art and science, and accuracy is important. If large numbers of events will not geocode, or geocode improperly, the validity of any analysis is compromised. It doesn't take much to throw things off, either, because geocoding errors are often not random. Rather, they tend to be systematic: the same address gets missed over and over, or a tiny error in a street reference file results in the same address getting incorrectly placed on the wrong side of a census tract boundary, evey single time. 

Because of this, accuracy of geocoding should be a top concern for those of us who manage GIS applications. The key is to understand what isn't geocoding properly, and to systematically correct as much of that is possible. You may not be able to prevent the occasional fat-fingered entry where someone inserted an extra zero in an address field, but if you can never properly geocode the street address of a local high school, you've got to figure out why and correct that. 

Here in Lincoln, we're geocoding a few hundred thousand police and fire incidents and dispatches annually. I watch the unmatched records closely, in order to monitor any consistent geocoding problems. So I was pretty pleased to see this geocoding history report for recent fire dispatches yesterday morning:

Hard to top that, in almost a thousand records that are updated twice daily. That's the Omega Group's Import Wizard software pictured in this screen shot, which manages the data import and geocoding from both police and fire records systems in Lincoln, in order to populate CrimeView and FireView applications.

My advice to analysts is not to be complacent even if you have a high hit rate. Keep an eye on your unmatched records, find the repeats, figure out why, and fix the problem whenever possible. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Foiled by Facebook

An interesting case (B4-106047) early this morning caught my attention in today's police reports. Shortly after midnight, an officer was dispatched to a downtown bar, after an employee became suspicious of a customer's true identity. It seems the employee checked her ID to determine if she was of legal age, but noticed that the name on the ID and the name on the credit card presented for payment did not match.

The police were summoned. The customer told the investigating officer that the ID was hers, but the credit card was her mother's, which she had permission to use. The photo ID looked like her, but the officer wasn't completely certain. Lacking any evidence to the contrary, however, no further action was taken. Afterwards, the employees did a little research of there own, and found the social media profile of the name on the credit card. Sure enough, it was unmistakably the customer, who had apparently "borrowed" an ID from someone that looked similar enough to her that it wasn't obvious to the officer at the scene.

The customer had slipped out, so the bar employee notified the officer, and showed her what they had found. She then contacted the defendant by cellphone. She fessed up to the scheme, and voluntarily agreed to meet the investigating officer at police headquarters to receive her citations for minor attempt to purchase alcohol and providing false information to a police officer.

You can find most anything on the Internet these days. Nice work, Duffy's!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Learning curve

The blast of winter weather last week caught motorists in Lincoln off guard. Balmy temperatures in the 60s during the first week of November were followed by single digits last week, with a couple dustings of snow. It seems that every year there is a certain learning curve, as motorists try to adapt to winter driving conditions.

Tuesday morning's commute was light, due to the fact that government offices and financial institutions were closed for Veteran's Day, but Lincoln drivers managed to get involved in 84 traffic crashes nonetheless. It was not even measurable precipitation, but just enough to glaze the streets. On Saturday, a whopping 1.5 inches of snowfall resulted in 81 crashes: almost four times the daily average.

I noted an interesting pattern to the collisions when I did an hour-of-the-day analysis using CrimeView Dashboard. The first graph shows the distribution by time of day for crashes on Tuesday, November 11. The second graph is for Saturday, November 15.

As you can see, Tuesday's crashes spiked in a two-hour window during the morning drive-time, after which street conditions quickly improved. Saturday's crashes were spread more throughout the day. Notice the dip on Saturday at 1400 hours, when most Nebraskans were finding a TV in order to watch a football game that turned out to be something of a let down.

Time to refresh the basics: leave earlier, take your time, go easy on the gas when accelerating, keep a healthy following distance, anticipate your stops, and make sure you can see the spot where the tires of the vehicle ahead touch the pavement when you come to a stop in traffic. If you've been thinking the tread is getting a little worn, it would be a good time now to replace those tires and improve your grip.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Flyover country

Nebraska's are all familiar with the fact that millions of Americans living in big cities and on the coasts are geographically challenged. It happens like this: you encounter someone from Massachusetts in the airport lounge in Atlanta, and strike up a conversation. "Where are you from?" she asks. "Nebraska," you respond. "Oh," she says, "I love Las Vegas!"

There are, however, major advantages to living in flyover country, among which is that you generally can figure out east, west, north, and south--even up and down--quite a bit better than your fellow citizens in more populous places. Smug in the knowledge that Lincoln is actually the 72nd largest city in the USA, I simply smile at the misconceptions harbored by those who navigate by subway stops and freeway numbers.

So, I'm sitting in the living room yesterday morning, reading the news on my MacBook and encounter a bunch of links to news stories about the FBI's annual release of their statistical report, Crime in America. One of the links is to an online database at the Detroit Free Press. I'm always interested in these journalistic data projects, so I followed the link, and went to look up Lincoln--just to ensure the data was accurate.

Low and behold, Nebraska appears to have left the Union!

Monday, November 10, 2014

The F word

Dr. Samuel Walker, one of the most well-known experts on civil liberties and criminal justice in the United States, taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for over 30 years. His tenure overlapped my college career, and although I am a graduate of his department, I never had him as a professor. I don't always agree with Dr. Walker's positions, but last week he published a short paper which is spot-on.

It concerns the F word, and more broadly profanity and disrespectful language in general. This has no place in police interactions with the public, and I agree completely with Dr. Walker that it should be eliminated from the vocabulary. Profanity in public interactions is prohibited by policy, and I've dealt with several officers and deputies over this as a supervisor. Nonetheless, I'm not sure it has completely sunken in to everyone how corrosive it is to respect for the police.

We live in a culture where F-bombs are not uncommon, even in otherwise polite conversation. When it comes from a police officer, however, it has an entirely different connotation. I'm not naïve, and I'm not unfamiliar the salty language one hears in a squad room, and pretty tolerant thereof--so long as it is not racist, sexist, or homophobic--but this is way different than slinging profanity on the street and to the public.

All police officers need to practice self-control, even when confronted with people who are spewing the most hateful and vile language imaginable in their face.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Hidden cost of body-worn cameras

There is a growing movement afoot in the United States to put cameras on police officers. It is gathering momentum, perhaps as a result of the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri this past summer. The movement involves some strange bedfellows: both police supporters, and some groups that are, well, not exactly known as best buds of the police. Here locally, the ACLU has been advocating body worn cameras for Lincoln police officers lately.

I like body worn video. I handled a particular model several years ago at a conference, and thought it was the first really practical and affordable one I had seen. I came back to Lincoln, and we acquired four of those. They worked well, and didn't break the bank. I'd love to have even more, but I don't think we are anywhere close to ready, despite the clamor.

This reminds me of a similar effort to get cameras into police cars in the mid 1990's. The technology of the time, usually a consumer-grade camera recording to 8mm tape, was really not up to the task, and many departments plunged headlong into video systems only to find that they had inadvertently created their own nightmare. They didn't plan for such things as the cost  and logistics of storing and retrieving video, training, tagging evidentiary clips, installing, maintaining, and replacing equipment.

By the end of the decade, you could commonly read news stories about departments where half of the cameras were out of service at any given time, or the department was scrambling to find money to replace broken and outdated equipment.  The problem abated as some departments scaled back their installations to a manageable number, and as the technology improved. Today, digital in-car camera systems are a much more mature technology, and though expensive, we've learned the lessons of the 1990s on how to make such a program work. I'm glad in hindsight, that we didn't dive into the water too early in Lincoln, and waited until the technology improved.

I worry that the same thing is happening with body-worn video. In some ways, it is a disruptive technology: a game-changer that leap frogs vehicle-mounted systems. If I were a street officer today, I would want one badly, to both help me collect iron-clad evidence, and protect me from bogus complaints. But departments who head down this road better be cautious not to repeat the errors of the past.

The reason I think this is such a risk is that the cost of the cameras themselves is fairly modest (around $800 to $1200 for a camera and the accessories). That's a lot of money for a big department  but still, seems quite doable if you put your mind to it. As a result, equipping cops with cameras looks pretty attractive.  But there are much larger hidden costs, along with logistical and policy issues, and I'm not sure people have thought through these completely, and are fully prepared to deal with them.

Fortunately, the Department of Justice and the Police Executive Research Forum have both recently released very good reports on the myriad of considerations surrounding body worn cameras. These reports would be valuable reading for camera advocates and for police chiefs.

Just dealing with the financials, I did a little math on what it would cost to equip about 240 Lincoln police officers, sergeants, and detectives with body-worn video. I used the data from the two reports, which came primarily from New Orleans, LA and Mesa, AZ. The start up cost doesn't look too bad:

240 cameras and accessories x $1,000 = $240,000

Okay, that's a lot, but surely we could figure out a way. But there's more--the cost of operations that you'll experience every year:

One technician to support the systems and manage the data $65,000
Annual cost of data storage and management  $240,000
Replacement of one third of cameras each year  $80,000
Total annual cost $385,000

I think these estimates may even be a bit low. There is another hidden cost, though, in the time each user would need to devote to reviewing video, tagging and uploading video to a server or cloud service. If you figure that at ten minutes per shift, which would be very conservative, your looking at something north of 6,000 person hours per year--the equivalent of three full time police officers.

My guess is that there will ultimately be an evolution of this technology, so that storage costs fall, automatic uploading and tagging improves, and software tools get better, requiring less personnel time. Hardware will get better, with such things as longer battery life and lower pricing, and less expensive back-end storage-retreival-management solutions. Body worn camera systems will be more practical, and will become more widespread.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Public safety project FAQs

We're getting lots of questions and comments in response to the City's online survey about budget issues, "Taking Charge." Two pending public safety projects are highlighted in the survey, the replacement of our aging radio system, and the plan to relocate four fire stations, one of which would be a joint police/fire facility. I've been watching the survey feedback, and some issues are coming up repeatedly. I hit on one of these at length last Friday, but I've put together some Frequently Asked Questions.

Why hasn’t the City been saving the funds needed to replace the radio system?
While it would certainly have been possible to budget funds annually over a period of years in order to accumulate enough money for a radio system, this is seldom how large capital outlay projects are financed. To make an analogy, few people save for years in order to pay cash for a home, or for that matter even a new car. Past radio systems have been funded with general obligation bonds, like other major municipal infrastructure. Even if the city had attempted to save up $20.5 million to pay cash for a radio system, the tight budget since 2000 would have made it incredibly difficult to do so without major cuts to the services funded in the City’s annual operating budgets.
Why does there seem to be a lack of specifics about the radio system?
Public safety radio systems for jurisdictions of our size are complex, and not easily described in a few sentences. Detailed information, however, is available in our consultant’s full 81 page report, available online at: The consultant’s report, though, is not a proposal from an actual radio system vendor. After the City releases a Request for Proposals, each prospective vendor will need to develop their own plan to meet the City’s requirements. Different vendors are likely to have different approaches. Many of the specifics about exact system design and engineering and precise costs will have to await detailed proposals from the bidders.
Why is the radio system so expensive?
Public safety radio systems are engineered for reliability and redundancy. Towers and shelters are constructed to high standards, and sites include backup generators and power supplies. The radios carried by public safety staff and installed in police cars and fire apparatus are built to withstand the harsh use of law enforcement officers and fire and rescue personnel. The radio system directly impacts the safety of the public, as well as the safety and efficiency of our public safety professionals. Reliability, robustness, and resilience are necessary to assure that the radio system functions properly in critical circumstances. While a public safety radio system is certainly a major expense, to put it in perspective it will cost about the same as the replacement of the Harris Overpass a few years ago, and significantly less than a new elementary school.
How long will a new radio system last?
Radio systems need regular maintenance, software and hardware updates. A significant upgrade is likely to be needed about every 8-10 years, just like our current radio system. These costs are in our annual operating budget now, and we have done two significant upgrades during this system’s 27 year life. Some components need to be replaced regularly, such as computers and software, and some will last for decades with proper care, such as towers and shelters. With ongoing maintenance and updates, the radio system lasts as long as the technology is supported by the manufacturer. Our current system, EDACS, was launched in 1987, and vendor support ends in 2017. With the increasing pace of technological change our next system’s underlying technology may not last 30 years like the current system, but 20 would not be an unreasonable estimate. 
Can’t the public safety agencies just use cellphones for communications?
Ever dropped a cell phone, or got one all really wet? More importantly, cellular telephone systems are not engineered for the same level of reliability as a public safety radio system. Cell service is typically lost in events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or ice storms. In emergency circumstances, even if cell sites are not compromised, the capacity of these systems is often exceeded as thousands of customers attempt to use their cell phones at the same time. Basically, when you most need to communicate on a cellular telephone network, it is least likely to actually work.  Public safety radio systems are engineered to withstand the environments in which they are utilized. In addition, they are designed with redundancies to protect against a single point of failure, and to ensure public safety personnel do not lose communications in a disaster or during a critical event. 
Could our public safety agencies just use the State radio system?
The Nebraska Statewide Radio System does not have sufficient capacity in Lincoln and Lancaster County to handle the load of nearly 2,500 additional radios that presently on the City of Lincoln system. Moreover, it operates in the VHF frequency band, optimized for outdoor mobile (vehicular) coverage in a rural setting. The City’s system, on the other hand, operates in the 800 MHz band, which is superior for building penetration, and is optimized for indoor portable (hand-held) coverage in an urban setting. Nonetheless, we could build (at our own expense) infrastructure needed for coverage in Lincoln and Lancaster County, add that to the Statewide Radio System assets, and share some of the network components, particularly the switches and computers that control the system. This is an option that we are considering, and we expect to see one or more vendor propose such an arrangement in response to our Request for Proposals. At this point, we cannot say that joining the state system will be either the best or the least expensive solution.
Will the other users pay their share?
About one-third of the users of our radio system are not City of Lincoln agencies. Over the years, Lincoln invited State, County, and other users to operate radios on our system. We did so because it was advantageous for us to have nearby public safety agencies like the University of Nebraska Police Department, Lancaster County Sheriff, Capital Security Division of the State Patrol, and Airport Authority Police on the same network. Our police and fire personnel interact daily with these agencies. We also invited these users in order to spread the annual cost of operations across a larger user group. Each user pays an annual per-radio fee that offsets the total cost of operations. What these non-City users did not pay for was the central network and system itself. In a sense, as we had to build it anyway, revenue from non-City users was a good deal for Lincoln. With a new radio system, we will continue to charge an annual fee to non-City users, and we intend to recoup at least a portion of the system/network acquisition costs. 
Why do fire engines respond to medical emergencies, instead of just an ambulance?
Ambulances carry two personnel. For most medical emergencies, more are needed for patient care. Consider someone experiencing chest pain, for example. First responders need to assess the patient, start an IV, administer drugs, connect an EKG, maintain an airway, communicate with the emergency room staff, monitor vital signs, and perform several other tasks. This really requires a team. Think of the size of the team that will attend this patient once he or she arrives at the hospital. In addition, just moving a patient often requires more than two personnel. Back injuries are the leading source of firefighter injuries in Lincoln, and patients are not getting smaller. The team arrives in two vehicles. The crew from the fire station is usually closer, because there are more fire apparatus than ambulances, and because the ambulances are more likely to be handling another call. All of our firefighters are emergency medical technicians, and many of our fire apparatus are also staffed with at least one paramedic. They also carry defibrillators and medical equipment. Thus, the fire crew is the quickest way to get a trained EMS provider at the patient’s side. They travel on a fire engine or truck simply because that is the vehicle they have. We have been testing an alternate response vehicle lately, essentially a crew cab pickup loaded with supplies, and a smaller vehicle may be a growing trend for responses to most medical emergencies as an alternative to the fire apparatus.
What is so important about four minutes travel time from a fire station?
Four minutes travel time to life-threatening emergencies is a national standard for urban fire and rescue services, adopted by the National Fire Protection Association and widely used as the benchmark U.S. cities. It is important, because the amount of time from the onset of an emergency to the arrival by emergency equipment and personnel makes a big difference in the outcome. A few minutes delay in the event of a stroke, fire, traumatic injury, cardiac or respiratory arrest can literally be the difference between life and death. 
How far beyond the four minute travel time standard are houses and businesses in Lincoln?
There were 9,783 addresses in Lincoln beyond four minutes from a fire station as of August 25, 2014, 11% of the total addresses in Lincoln. The number goes up a little bit every week, as new building permits are issued and as construction occurs. Of those, 3,246 were more than five minutes from a fire station, and 613 are more than six minutes from a fire station. This is changing quickly, though, as considerable development occurs in northeast, southeast, and south Lincoln in the areas that are furthest from existing fire stations. Even more development in these areas is anticipated in the City’s Comprehensive Plan. 
What would happen to the two fire stations that would be closed?
These facilities could be declared surplus, sold, and returned to the tax rolls. Alternatively, they could be repurposed for some other public use. For the first 100 years of Lincoln Fire & Rescue’s history, we occasionally moved fire stations to new locations to deal with the expanding city. Five of these former fire station buildings survive today. Former fire stations have become such things as a community center, Greek house, consignment shop, restaurant, art center, appliance store, and a recreation center.
Why don’t we just add four more staffed fire stations, rather than moving two stations and relocating existing equipment and personnel to two other newly-constructed stations?
By far the biggest cost of adding fire stations is staffing. It takes about 14 firefighters to staff a single apparatus at a fire station around the clock. The annual personnel costs would exceed a million dollars for each station. Unlike the construction cost, the payroll is an ongoing expense every year. As we dig out from the largest economic recession since the Great Depression, the City budget simply cannot take on this added expense without massive cuts to other City services or large tax increases. 
What will the new fire stations look like?
We hired an architectural firm to produce a design. The new stations will look pretty much like newer fire stations around the country: utilitarian buildings with the basic areas needed for daily operations. These don’t vary much from city to city: a dormitory area, lockers and restrooms, an office, a day room and kitchen. The dominant feature of a fire station is the apparatus floor: the garage where the apparatus and equipment are kept. We hope to avoid two mistakes made on some of our older stations, insufficient apparatus space, and inadequate facilities to accommodate both male and female staff. One of the stations in Southeast Lincoln would be a joint police and fire facility, where about 50 police personnel would report for duty during the week. This would be significantly larger, with the same type of space found in Lincoln’s other two police substations at 27th and Holdrege and 49th and Huntington. Police officers who work in southeast Lincoln presently deploy from downtown. Response times and coverage are problematic due to the long distance these officers must travel at shift change. Significant fuel savings and personnel savings would also be realized with a southeast police station. With a joint facility, architectural fees, land acquisition costs, and some of the basic construction costs will be lower compared to separate police and fire stations. In addition, some of the interior spaces can be shared, lowering the total square footage needed in comparison to separate stations.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why not use cellphones?

I've been asked this question several times lately, as I make the speaking circuit and talk about the need to replace the City's aging radio system. It's a perfectly understandable question, as everyone these days is tethered to their smartphone. To be sure, cell phones are a terrific convenience. They are used all the time by public safety staff, but not for critical communications. There's good reason for that

Police officers and firefighters, are not having one-to-one conversations over the radio system. Rather, their radio traffic is one-to-many. It's a fundamental difference between a cell phone call and a public safety broadcast. Technically, you could use the same cell phone infrastructure to carry a group call, but the more serious limitations of cell phones for emergency communications lie in the design and engineering of the equipment and systems.

Ever drop your smartphone? If so, you had that sinking feeling, because we all know that the chances of it working when you pick it up are iffy. Cracked screens are a dime a dozen. How long do you think a smartphone would hold up in a foot pursuit? Do you think it would work if it got really, really wet, like directing traffic in a downpour, or on the fireground? Sure, you could encase it in the Binford 5000 case (is that reference beginning to date me?), but are you willing to bet your life on that? Public safety radios are weather-sealed, robust and mil-spec. The even greater concern, however, is not the end-user device, but rather the system itself.

Cell sites are not built to the same standard as public safety radio sites, which are engineered to withstand higher stress from such things as wind, lightning strikes, ice, and natural disasters. Public safety radio systems are designed with backups and redundancies to minimize the likelihood of failure. They also manage traffic differently, giving users priority for access to the system based on the criticality of their function. If you've ever tried using your cellphone at a big event, like a football game, festival, or mass gathering, you've probably experienced difficulty getting access to make a call. Traffic can overwhelm cell sites pretty quickly, as hundreds or thousands of users are competing for the same resources at the same time in the same area.

Experience around the country in critical incidents and events, like hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms, ice storms, and the like has shown over and over again that cell phone communications are simply too vulnerable to be relied upon for vital communications in emergencies. Simply put, when you most need communications, cell phones are least likely to work.

Overnight on October 24-25, 1997 Lincoln was hit be a devastating snowstorm. It was a late fall that year, and the leaves had not fallen yet. The weight of the wet snow was devastating. Huge limbs and trees were down everywhere. This photo below, taken by UNL climatologist Dr. Ken Dewey, depicts one of Lincoln's main thoroughfares, A Street at about 43rd. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were without utilities for up to ten days. Temporary shelters were opened around town, and the police and fire departments were in full emergency mode.

I remember standing in the Emergency Operations Center on the morning of October 25th, passing out City of Lincoln portable radios to Nebraska National Guard soldiers, who were teaming up with police officers and using HumVees to locate and evacuate home-bound citizens with complex medical issues. We had the only functioning communications system in Lincoln. It kept on ticking while telephone service--both landline and cellular--was crippled across the city for days. While this was the most severe event I remember in terms of its impact on commercial communications systems, it's certainly not the only one. Our next radio system needs the same level of reliability as the one it is replacing has delivered when the chips were down.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

More than four

Last week, the committee assembled by the Mayor to make recommendations on replacement of the City's radio system and optimization of fire stations held it's first meeting. I'm chairing the committee. Last week the committee considered the need for updating the radio system, 80% of the use of which is by public safety personnel. This week, our attention will shift to fire stations.

At the same time the committee is working, the City is also conducting what has become an annual process for engaging citizens in the discussion of the City's budget priorities. This year, the online survey portion of that process is also asking about these two public safety projects. I've been reviewing the results as they are compiled, and also looking at the comments. It's apparent to me that many people are still a little fuzzy about why we think it's important to have a fire station within four minutes travel time to as many addresses in the community as possible.

Four minutes is a national standard for urban fire and rescue services, adopted by the National Fire Protection Association and widely used as the benchmark U.S. cities.  The standard is worded as a percentile: travel time to life-threatening emergencies of four minutes or less, 90% of the time. In Lincoln, we are at 80% so far this year, and we've been getting a little worse as the years pass--primarily due to geographic growth.

It's important, because the amount of time from the onset of an emergency to the arrival by Lincoln Fire & Rescue equipment and personnel makes a big difference in the outcome. A few minutes delay in the event of a stroke, fire, traumatic injury, cardiac or respiratory arrest can literally be the difference between life and death. Right now, only about 89% of the addresses in Lincoln are within four minutes of a fire station. We'd like to get that up above 95%.

On the map below, you can easily see the areas most at risk for delayed response due to excessive travel time. Green is good, red is bad. The white outline represents the projected future service area of Lincoln in 2040. As you can see, the growth areas in the north, south, and east are going to be increasingly orange and red if we don't do something.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Great opportunity

The Lincoln Police Department is recruiting for a Crime Analysis Manager.  Since the Director's Desk is read by many analysts around the country, I am taking advantage of my blog to publicize the opening. Applications are open through November 14, on the City of Lincoln's website. Click here for the details.

Our Crime Analysis Manager, Drew Dasher, is relocating with his wife and family to Texas. He's done a great job for the past four years, and I am certain he would be happy to tell any prospects about the City, Department, and Unit.

As readers of the Director's Desk know, the Lincoln Police Department is in the front row when it comes to information resources, crime analysis, and problem-oriented policing. At all levels, our personnel make great use of our information resources, and are comfortable with information technology. Crime analysis is deeply embedded in our organization. Follow the links in the label cloud to “Crime Prevention,” "POP," or "Crime Analysis," for many examples of the type of work we do, and how crime analysis contributes to our success. 

Our five-person Crime Analysis and Intelligence Unit is an integral part of most everything we do. The unit is widely respected and appreciated by our rank-and-file officers, supervisors, and the management staff. You will work with a director, chief, and management staff who understand and appreciate the value of crime analysis and the contribution it makes to our success.

The Crime Analysis Manager will join the police department's other unit managers. Currently, our Communications Center, Records Unit, Information Technology Unit, Property & Evidence Unit, Police Garage, Accounting Unit, Victim/Witness Unit, and Forensic Unit are headed by civilian managers who participate fully on the department's management team on the same footing their sworn counterparts in operational units.

The salary range for this position reflects the relatively low cost of living in Nebraska  If you are on either coast, you will want to consider in particular the cost of housing in Lincoln. Take a look at home prices advertised by one of our local real estate brokers, or assessed values on the Lancaster County Assessor's website to get a sense of what your housing dollar buys in Lincoln. Transportation costs are also low. Lincoln is a bike-friendly city. My 15 minute drive from the southern edge of the City to downtown is 32 minutes in fair weather when I commute by bike, almost entirely on the paved trails network.

Lincoln is widely-regarded as a great place to raise kids. The City is unusually safe, and maintains its small-town feel despite its population of 270,000. Lincoln has great sports venues, a lively arts scene, a top-notch parks system, and the public schools are first rate. Lincoln lands on lots of "best places" lists every year.

If you are a crime analyst who is tired of a long commute to a job where you are treated like a second class citizen because you don't wear a badge, we offer an alternative.  If you are expected to fetch statistics and make PowerPoints for the brass, it's not like that here. If you are looking for a chance to grow professionally, we have a challenge. If you simply want to discuss this opportunity, Drew Dasher or I would love to talk you.

Drew Dasher

 Tom Casady

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

HunchLab 2.0

A few weeks ago, we began piloting HunchLab 2.0 in Lincoln. HunchLab is a crime forecasting product from Azavea. HunchLab seeks to forecast crime by analyzing historical crime data and other information related to crime, such as weather, population density, and land use. HunchLab uses these data to predict the most likely areas for crime today, in eight hour blocks.

The output from HunchLab consists of a map of Lincoln containing a few dozen color-coded cells about the size of two square blocks. These are areas where the risk of crime is forecast to be heightened during the prediction period. These cells are approximately two blocks square. The colors represent the particular crime type for which the elevated crime risk is predicted.

HunchLab predictions are based on the analysis of Lincoln's crime data for the past five years. Where crime has occurred in the past provides a good clue as to where it will occur in the future. This is particularly true for recent crime, so crimes occurring in the immediate past are given more weight. Historical data also reveals patterns in time: crime has large peaks and valleys across the calendar and the clock.

Population density is an excellent predictor of many crime types, as is income. Densely packed low-income neighborhoods suffer more crime than sparsely populated suburban neighborhoods. Land use and zoning impacts crime. Retail businesses, such as convenience stores, restaurants, hotels and motels, grocery stores, and so forth draw people together so the chance of offenders and victims encountering one another is increased. In addition, certain kinds of businesses are related to a significantly elevated risk of crime at or around the business, such as bars and liquor outlets.

Essentially, when you gather all these kinds of data together, you can make informed predictions about where crime is most likely to occur. All of the factors that go into the prediction are based on research about the causes and correlates of crime. In fact, the commercial product emerged from research conducted at Temple and Rutgers. HunchLab goes a step further, and tests the predictions: how well did the cells identified by HunchLab’s algorithm perform in predicting where the crime actually occurred in subsequent time periods? One of the distinguishing features of HunchLab is the ongoing testing of the model, and machine learning that adjusts the predictions on the fly.

HunchLab is far better at predicting crime locations than random distribution. Although Hunchlab is predicting crime at places where most seasoned Lincoln Police Officers would recognize higher risk from their experience, there are other places that aren’t so obvious. It is also worth noting that not all Lincoln police officers are equally "seasoned."

We have helped out with the development of HunchLab 2.0 by providing data and feedback, and we are one of a handful of agencies piloting the application. For a more detailed description of HunchLab under the hood, the underpinning in criminological theory, and the research upon which it is based, go here.

Predictive analytics are getting a lot of attention in policing these days, but the same techniques can be applied to fire and EMS work. I blogged about this a few years ago, when the concept was still pretty new. Here in Lincoln, it is possible to predict fairly accurately both where we'll be sending fire engines and medic units, and when those responses will be occurring. We are using this knowledge more than ever to make informed decisions about our operations at Lincoln Fire & Rescue.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Collective efficacy

Marvin Krout, the director of Lincoln's Planning Department, sent the police chief and me a link to a great story from the San Francisco Chronicle, about a guy named Dan who epoxied a two-foot tall statute of Buddha to a street median in his Oakland, CA neighborhood. Dan's not Buddhist, but he spotted the statue at the local Ace Hardware, and got a wild hair.

One thing led to another, and before long, a small shrine had been erected. Offerings began appearing, a few worshipers began worshiping in the morning, tourists began visiting, Anglo, black, and Vietnamese residents were meeting each other, and crime--which had plagued the neighborhood--went down like a rock.

What this story represents is the emergence in this neighborhood of collective efficacy: social cohesion among neighbors who are willing to work together for the common good. In my forty years of public safety service, I have seen over and over how collective efficacy is the key ingredient that separates a vibrant, safe neighborhood from one that is, well, sketchy.

Collective efficacy is independent of socio-economic status. I have seen some of the poorest areas of Lincoln where the willingness of people to work together to make things better was strong. Likewise, I've seen plenty of neighborhoods where income is high and housing is good, but the residents do not even know one another--much less work collaboratively to make things better.

You can create collective efficacy where little exists. You do so in big ways and small, by meeting your neighbors, by hosting a gathering on National Night Out or the Fourth of July, getting a few folks together to cover up graffiti,organizing a neighborhood watch group, recruiting others for a Saturday clean-up at the neigbhorhood park, painting the street, sitting on the front steps rather than the back patio, planting a flower in a cracked curb, and by gluing a Buddha to a barren median strip!

It's not rocket science, and it makes a huge difference to neighborhood wellbeing, and as in Dan's Oakland neighborhood, a positive impact on crime.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

While we were sleeping

Sunday morning before dawn, a pastor noticed an unfamiliar car with Wyoming plates in his church's parking lot. Thinking this odd, he called LPD. Two officers responded, and contacted a young man laying in the back seat with a suspicious story. He claimed he had come to Nebraska to visit a friend from Omaha who was supposedly in Lincoln on Saturday night. He had visited her for only one hour, and was now just napping in his car before beginning his trip back home.

In response to a question, he said that he was on probation for burglary, but that his probation officer was aware of his out of state travel. He consented to a search of the vehicle, which turned up nothing suspicious, but his explanation for his presence in Lincoln didn't make much sense. He left the lot at the officers' request. As he was leaving, one of the officers found him with a Google news search, named in a 2012 article about the arrest of a group of men for a series of over 40 burglaries in his home state.

Although he had not violated any laws that they knew of, one of the officers decided it wouldn't hurt to drive in the same direction that he claimed to be heading for a while. Our visitor meandered a bit, eventually continuing west on I-80. In the meantime, In the meantime, the second officer checked the surrounding neighborhoods for anything amiss, watchful for any lost travelers who might be afoot in the vicinity.

The car was registered to the driver's mom, who was contacted later and was not aware that her son had visited our fair city. Neither were the police back home, who offered to pass the information on to his probation officer, in the event that his trip was in violation of his probation order.

Such is the nature of police work that occurred in the wee hours on Sunday, while we were sleeping.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Public safety bloggers

There are a lot of sites out their that aggregate links to blogging police chiefs, public safety directors, fire chiefs, cops and firefighters. There is a new one, however, that I like. It's from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, of which I am a lifetime member for the past several years. They award you lifetime membership after you've paid dues for 20 years--theorizing, I suspect, that you're not going to burden the budget for much longer anyway.

IACPnet has a nice feed of a few prolific police/public safety bloggers. I'm enjoying seeing what my peers like Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forte, Madison Police Chief Michael Koval, Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, and Auburn Hills Public Safety Director Doreen Olko are thinking about. So might you.

Back in 2007, when I launched the Chief's Corner (now the Director's Desk), you could count police chief bloggers on one hand, and have a few digits left over. My inspiration at the time was Manny Diaz, Mayor of Miami. So here we are, in the eighth year, 1,290 posts and  nearly 15,000 reader comments down the road, still going strong after a burst of wee-hour productivity last week.

Though readership isn't quite what it used to be, Twitter has pretty much taken over the field, and writer's block has become my nemesis, I continue to enjoy blogging as a way of getting my unfiltered ideas and opinions in front a few thousand loyal followers every month.

As I always say, sometimes I even bore myself.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The last increment

All week long I've laid out my belief that racial disparity in traffic stops and in the outcome of those stops is being driven primarily by racial disparity in income, and to a lesser extent by police deployment practices--not, by and large, racial prejudice by the police. While my own analysis of the data convinces me of this, I also believe that racial bias accounts for some of the disparity--albeit only a fraction.

I believe this because I have seen it on occasion in Lincoln. I think in Lincoln, at least, it is almost always the result of an unintended or even subconscious bias, but it is real nonetheless. I've described some of my observations on this previously.

The last increment is what I'm most interested in learning about and impacting as public safety director. We will not tolerate racist police officers in Lincoln. We go to great length to weed out anyone with racist attitudes during the selection process--including a polygraph exam that explores this. We also have done mandatory training on cultural sensitivity, cultural awareness, and racial profiling for years. If racist police officers were the cause of disparity in traffic stops, you'd think it would be going down over the years, but it isn't.

Much of what I've seen, however, has not been the acting out of racist tendencies, but rather the failure to think about how well-intentioned activities can have a racially disparate impact that is unjustified and unfair. I want our police department and our officers to understand how practices they may engage in can have a disparate impact that is unjustified, and what they can do to avoid this unfairness.

An example: perhaps an officer has gleaned from her experience that there is a greater likelihood that drivers of an older sedan will be suspended, or have a warrant, than drivers of a late-model minivans or SUVs. As a result, she focuses much of her attention on the former, and not so much on the later, because she believes this strategy is will result in more higher-value arrests, rather than just traffic tickets. If there is racial disparity in the drivers of these two broad vehicle categories, her practice will result in racial disparity in her stops and arrests, as well. It's vehicle profiling, not racial profiling, but the result is the same: disparity, and disparity without much justification. Avoiding this is easy: spread your effort around, and don't fixate on older sedans. Plenty of SUV and minivan drivers are texting while driving, speeding, and pushing the envelope on red lights, too.

As our ability to target resources to areas most affected by crime and disorder improves, we must also be cautious to make sure our efforts are viewed as legitimate by the citizens who live in those areas. We should avoid policing tactics that can damage our relationships while returning little in terms of actually reducing crime and disorder. Strategies that emphasize collaboration, early intervention, problem-solving and prevention should continue to be a focus.

I also want individual police officers to understand what they can do to minimize the perception of racial profiling among minority citizens during traffic stops. Perception is everything, and there is no denying that the perception by African American citizens that the police engage in racial profiling is  quite high. You will not convince people otherwise with data: you will only convince them with your actions.

Those actions are not complex. It is really quite simple, and it is what I teach: Introduce yourself. Tell motorists why you stopped them. Be polite. Listen to what the motorist has to say. Explain  things calmly and thoroughly. Answer any questions. Be fair. Leave the motorist with your name and employee number on a ticket, a warning, or a business card. And above all, make sure your stops are always supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

Links to the series:


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Other disparities

So far this week, I've only dealt with disparity in the race of traffic stops. There is also disparity in the outcomes of those stops. Under the law, a police officer must collect data on what happens as the result of a traffic stop: custodial arrest, citation, warning citation, or none of these. If more than one applies, you pick the highest outcome.

Lincoln's data shows that black and African-American motorists are much more likely to be taken into custody rather than merely issued a citation, compared to white motorists. The ACLU concludes that this, too, is evidence of racial profiling by Lincoln police. I disagree. The primary cause for this disparity lies in the racial disparity in arrest warrants. Arrest warrants are issued by the court, in circumstances such as when a defendant has failed to appear, neglected to pay a fine, or fallen behind on child support payments. Warrants require the officer to make a custodial arrest. It is not optional.

An arrest pursuant to a court-issued warrant is the most common arrest made by a Lincoln police officer. Last Thursday morning, in preparation for the Crime Commission's Racial Profiling Advisory Committee meeting, I looked at the racial makeup of the defendants of the 3,432 that were held by the Lincoln Police Department at the time:

WHITE:                       1834     53.4%
BLACK:                         917    26.7%
HISPANIC:                    536    15.6%
ASIAN:                            37       1  %
NATIVE AMERICAN:    108      3.1%

Police officers conducting traffic enforcement routinely run a computer checks on drivers. An arrest warrant turns a warning ticket for into a trip to jail. If Lincoln's population is 5.3% black or black in combination with some other race, then the disparity of arrest warrants is a factor of five. This explains the disparity in custodial arrests from traffic stops. Custodial arrest is the outcome in only 1.3% of the traffic stops overall, so it's still rather uncommon.

This same racial disparity in arrest warrants also exists in suspended drivers, by the way. Suspended driving is a high-grade traffic misdemeanor, and an offense that frequently involves a custodial arrest. Thus, racial disparity in suspended drivers is also contributing to the racial disparity in the outcome of traffic stops.

While the disparity in warrants and suspended drivers helps explain the disparity in custodial arrest, it is also in part a circular argument: warrants and license suspensions occur when charges accumulate. One leads to the other. Something I'm quite interested in is whether we could do anything in our community to reduce the number of arrest warrants that are issued. This would not only reduce the disparity in custodial arrests, but it would save some considerable criminal justice resources.

****Message to Parents of Young Adults Living in Lincoln:****
You might want to bookmark this page, and put a repeating reminder in your calendar app so you remember to check once a month.

Links to the series:


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The correct denominator

For the past few days, I have taken issue with the ACLU's assertion that racial disparity in traffic stops indicates alarmingly high rates of racial profiling in Lincoln. I think their analysis is shallow. I would be the first to agree, however, that we need to better understand this phenomenon. I've reached the limit of my own ability to work with these data, but I am encouraged by what appears to be a renewed interest in this field of study, as evidenced by the Department of Justice initiative announced last week.

I have a second problem with the ACLU's report, and it concerns the denominator. Their numbers are wrong. I'll give them a do-over, because the Crime Commission's data is not right, either. Here's what the ACLU says:

"Black drivers in Lincoln are stopped by the Lincoln Police Department almost three times as often as they should be: the black population of the area is 3.5%, yet black drivers were 9.6% of the stops."

Lincoln's population is not 3.5% black. In the 2010 Census, it was 3.8% black. The ACLU is using the Lancaster County population data, not the City of Lincoln. The Crime Commission's report also uses incorrect data. While they have it right in table B on page 14, and in table C2 on page 17, they have this totally incorrect statement in the executive summary on page  4:

"The Lincoln Police Department stops Blacks almost three times as their local adult population (9.6% to 3.3%)"

The bad grammar comes directly from their report, and I have no idea at all where that 3.3% figure came from. Maybe it's a cut-and-paste error from a previous year's report, but it is wrong. To be clear, in the 2010 census, the one race only black population of Lincoln is 3.8%. That may not sound like much of a difference, but it is. It is the difference between "almost three times" and "more than twice." The fact that the mistake is in the executive summary doesn't help. I suspect some people read no further.

Moreover, that was the percentage of Lincoln residents who identified themselves as one race only. But a large number of residents identify themselves as black and some other race. Beginning n 2000, for the first time you could specify more than one race. The Census Bureau began reporting both one race only data, and two or more races data. In the 2000 census data,  3.1% of Lincoln residents were black, and 3.8% were black or black and one or more other race.  In the 2010 census, this had grown to 3.8% and 5.3%, respectively. Check the data yourself with the Census Bureau's excellent tool, American Fact Finder, but be sure you get the City of Lincoln, not Lincoln County.

Based on the change from the 2000 census to 2010, It appears that more and more people are identifying themselves as multi-racial. If the Crime Commission is going to use the population of black residents as a comparison for traffic stops, they should use the 5.3% figure, or should just report both figures. Here's why: Nebraska's law requires police officers to collect data on the race of all motorists stopped, but prohibits officers from asking the driver. Race is simply the officer's best guess. In a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world, these guesses are becoming more problematic. What would you select if you stopped Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal breezing down Vine Street 10 over the limit?

Here are a couple of rather prominent multi-racial Americans: Barack Obama and Tiger Woods. I think that if either of them was pulled over in Lincoln for expired tags, the officer would almost certainly select "B" from the drop down, not "W" or "A". Hence, the Crime Commission should use 5.3%, which is a lot closer to 9.6% of the stops than the inaccurate 3.5% quoted by the ACLU or, worse yet, 3.3% in the Crime Commission report's executive summary. The correct denominator is important.

Still, the fact that 5.3% of the population is black or black and some other race, while 9.6% of the stops were of black motorists is of concern to me. I'd like to understand that better, so we can apply the right strategy to the portion of that disparity that may be the result of actions that are unjustified, unfair, or ineffective.

As an aside, the 726 black drivers involved in traffic crashes reported to the police in Lincoln last year would represent 5.4% of the total, which was 12,915. Maybe it's coincidence, but that's mighty close to 5.3%, and tends to confirm my belief, described in Monday's post, that traffic crash driver demographics make the best denominator for examining disparity in traffic stops.

Links to the series:


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Income and disparity

Yesterday, I discussed the impact of police deployment practices on the racial disparity apparent in traffic stops by the Lincoln Police Department. Today, I am focusing on the Big Dog: income. More than any other factor, racial differences in income influence disparity in traffic stops.

Back in 2003, I wanted to explore this possibility. I obtained an export from our records management system of all traffic tickets written by LPD officers the preceding year, 2002, then dropped those data into an Excel spreadsheet. Using pivot tables, I produced counts and queries by offense type. The racial disparity for some offense types, such as driving while suspended, fictitious plates, no insurance, and improper registration, was exceptionally large: a factor of four or five for African-American motorists compared to population.

For the most common traffic offense, speeding, there was no racial disparity in the 2002 traffic citation data. The most disparate offenses were all related to one's ability to buy insurance, pay registration fees and taxes, pay fines, reinstatement fees, and the like. These income-related offenses were driving the overall disparity. I did the same thing the following year with 2003 data, then again last week with the over 50,000 traffic charges from 2013. Basically, the same results emerge by offense type, looking at tens of thousands of tickets.

I also did some work using the field in the data for the model year of the vehicle. I reasoned that the model year of the vehicle might be a rough indicator of income, and my thought was to use it as a stand-in variable. When you look at late-model vehicles--those in the most recent five model years--racial disparity pretty much evaporates.

I think these findings are intriguing, and suggest a significant influence of income on racial disparity in traffic stops. Research Methods was one of my toughest courses in grad school, and I'm no PhD. I have discussed my ideas and offered these data for a decade to several people who are, however, including faculty members in the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, from which I am a graduate.

Every academician I've talked to about this has been interested in what I have found, but so far there have been no takers. Last week, after reading the news that Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major Federal research effort on racial profiling, I contacted the portfolio manager for that research at DOJ with yet another offer. We shall see. All law enforcement agencies collect the offense type and the model year of the vehicle on their traffic tickets. The work I've done in Lincoln could be repeated almost anywhere, and a broader sample might provide more insight into how income affects racial disparity in traffic stops.

Here's why this is important: if most of the racial disparity is the result of income differences, we are barking up the wrong tree trying to fix it with the usual formula: screening police applicants for signs of racism, implicit bias training for officers, enhanced accountability systems, and so forth. This doesn't mean these steps have no value (they are valuable in their own right), but they are not likely to impact disparity because they are not related to its cause.

It is worth noting that racial disparity in police traffic stops is only the tip of the iceberg. We live in a country where there is huge racial disparity in educational outcomes, income, incarceration, health, and even life expectancy. Deal with the first one, educational outcomes, and the others will largely disappear over time. That's what I've been advocating.

Links to the series:


Monday, September 22, 2014

Disparity vs. profiling

As I mentioned yesterday, I take exception with the ACLU's assertion that racial disparity in traffic stop data indicates"alarmingly high" rates of racial profiling. Disparity and profiling are not the same. While I think the disparity should cause (and has caused) us to step back and take a good look at what's going on, to conclude that racial profiling is causing the disparity without further examination is a logical leap.

Profiling, the act of targeting people of color due to their race, assumes that police officers and agencies, either intentionally or subconsciously, are acting upon racial prejudice and bias. Disparity however, can occur for a variety of reasons. For example, the Crime Commission compares traffic stops to population demographics. But what if census data doesn't reflect who's actually on the road, or what their likelihood is of committing a traffic infraction? A better denominator than population might be the data on licensed drivers, or maybe the age profile of drivers (since we know age is related to traffic violations), or an actual roadside count of motorists.

After lots of thinking about this over the past 12 years, and lots of exploration in our data, I think the best denominator is involvement in traffic collisions. One's likelihood of being stopped, all other things being equal, ought to approximate the race of the 12,915 drivers who were involved in traffic crashes in Lincoln last year. Crash data would automatically account for racial differences in driving behavior, age profile, driving frequency, and mileage. What it would not account for, however, is where the police are actually patrolling, and the racial makeup of the people driving in these areas.

Some racial disparity in traffic stops may be the result of the common police practice of deploying officers into areas where crime and disorder problems are most prominent. We work very hard on this in Lincoln, as does Omaha, and we've gotten much better at it with sophisticated crime analysis and GIS. There are far more officers per square mile in the areas with high crime and disorder, and these also tend to be lower income and considerably more diverse.

This screen shot is from HunchLab 2.0, one of the analytical software products we use to forecast hotspots of crime in the next few hours. The colored blocks are individual cells or groups of cells. Each is a 200 meter square area where the risk of crime is elevated, and the colors denote the dominant crime type. The cluster in the core of the city south of downtown and along 27th Street is persistent, and this is the area of Lincoln where you will find the highest concentration of police officers. It is also among the most racially diverse areas in Lincoln.

As a result of the deployment pattern, the likelihood of police stops in these areas is greater in the areas where there is also a greater percentage of minorities than in the general population. You can question the deployment strategy, but if some of the disparity in stops is emerging from this cause, rather than from police bias, that portion is not racial profiling. If you want to impact this portion of disparity, all the sensitivity and cultural awareness training on earth will fail. Rather, you need to convince the police to deploy differently. We could have a healthy discussion about that, but I think people living and working in Lincoln neighborhoods that are most impacted by crime and disorder generally want more police presence and activity, not less.

The type of activity, however, is also relevant. I believe that problem-solving, prevention, and early intervention, ought to be an important part of the mix, and are less likely to be perceived as racially-motivated than some other tactics, such as intensive use of stop-and-frisk. When the community sees the police working collaboaratively with the neighborhood stakeholders, it is less likely to view such things as arrests, traffic stops, and hot spot patrols as bias-based, and more likely to view these are legitimate efforts to reduce crime and disorder.

Links to the series:


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Racial profiling series

Thursday was a busy day, beginning with a 6:45 AM radio show, where I talked about racial profiling, and ended with the same topic at a 6:00 PM meeting of the Lincoln branch of the NAACP. In between, I attended and testified at a meeting of the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice's Racial Profiling Advisory Committee.

I had been looking forward to the opportunity to discuss these issues. I think I provided the Crime Commission's committee with some good food for thought, and I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to speak with the NAACP. We don't talk enough about race in our culture, particulary with people of different races than our own, and it's refreshing to do so in an open, honest manner.

Racial profiling has been a hot issue lately, in part due to the release of a report by the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition, a coalition of civil rights organizations delivered a letter to the Crime Commission urging an investigation of four Nebraska law enforcement agencies: the Lincoln, Omaha, Lexington Police Departments, and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

I have never shied away from race or racial profiling, and it has been the subject of some of my past blog posts over the years. There is racial disparity in traffic stops by the Lincoln Police Department. This has been the case since the State started collecting these data in 2002. The call for investigation characterizes this disparity as an "alarmingly high" rate of racial profiling.

While the data on racial disparity in traffic stops is clear, we have very little understanding of its meaning. No one is more interested in a deeper understanding than me, but to make the leap from racial disparity to racial profiling is jumping to a conclusion that is quite premature. My second problem with the ACLU report is their explanation of why Lincoln is in their crosshairs: "...the black population of the area is 3.5%, yet black drivers were 9.6% of the stops."

I'll be explaining my problems with these two assertions in a series of posts on my blog this week, and providing some more thoughts about the issue of racial disparity and racial profiling.

Links to the series:


Monday, September 15, 2014

Somewhat alarming

Any police officer or firefighter knows that we go on a lot of burglar alarms and fire alarms, but that relatively few of those turn out to be actual burglaries or actual fires. Around the country in recent years, cities have worked to reduce the number of false alarms they respond to, and particularly what I call chronic false alarms: places that have many repeats, usually due to faulty equipment or faulty training. I've blogged about these efforts on many occasions in the past.

One of the reasons we have been interested in reducing unnecessary false alarms is to conserve resources, but another important reason (even more so, to me) is safety. Responding to alarms is dangerous. Driving Code 3 (lights and siren) exposes both the responders and the motoring public to heightened risk. A few times every week, I walk by the photos of three Lincoln police officers and at least two firefighters who were killed in traffic crashes during emergency driving. Nationwide, the risk of traffic fatalities is among the biggest threats to police officers and firefighters.

It isn't just the police officers and firefighters who are at heightened risk, either. There has been a lot of concern around the country in recent years about fatal traffic crashes in which emergency vehicles have collided with motorists. I can recall two fatal accidents of this type in Lincoln during my career, although there may we one or more that I'm not recollecting.

Last Wednesday, at Lincoln Fire & Rescue's weekly management staff meeting, our chief officers were discussing this. While this was underway, I used our GIS analytic software, FireView Dashboard, to run a query in our incident data for all calls that were originally dispatched as fire alarms, and the subset that actually turned out to be fires. In the preceding 365 days, we had responded to 1,327 fire alarms. Of those, 16 turned out to be actual fires. Of the actual fires, half were "cooking fires confined to container." Only one of the 16 fires caused any property loss whatsoever, $1,500 damage at a sorority house, when smoke activated a sprinkler head.

On the one hand, any one of those calls originally dispatched as a fire alarm could turn out to be the Real McCoy. On the other hand, we sent a lot of engines and trucks on Code 3 runs knowing that the chances were small:1.2% to be precise. It's a matter of weighing the risk. Is the risk we are trying to mitigate (an incident that has people or property in peril) greater than the risk we are creating by a fire engine and ladder truck running with lights and sirens to the other 98.8%?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Watch and learn

I had a speaking engagement yesterday morning with a business association. One of the topics that came up was the proliferation of panhandlers in Lincoln. The attendees told me stories about annoying and aggressive panhandlers. Some of what they described was completely legal, some illegal.

Illegal panhandling is a difficult offense to prove without a direct witness, and the simple fact of the matter is that arresting offenders for "aggressive panhandling" or other similar violations usually just does not solve the problem. The small fine, coupled with credit for time served, means that in many cases the illegal panhandler is right back out doing the same thing tomorrow.

I have blogged about it for years, spoken about it to the media many times, mentioned it several times on my radio interviews, and talked about it to numerous civic groups and individuals over the years. The message seems not to be sinking in.

The only solution is to convince citizens--whose instincts are entirely pure--not to give money to panhandlers, ever. Give your money to Centerpointe, Friendship Home, St. Monica's, the People's City Mission, Gathering Place, Matt Talbot Kitchen, the Center for People in Need, the Barnabas Project--whatever. But do not give it to a panhandler with a cardboard sign. Ever. 

I urge you to Google the words "panhandler" and "scam". Click the "videos" link. Watch numerous news stories from around the country, and learn that things are not always what they seem. Do not give money to panhandlers. You are enabling, not helping, and often simply being scammed.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Judgement proof

You can't squeeze blood from a turnip. It's an old idiom, which means no matter how hard you try, you cannot realize potential where none exists in the first place. The most common use revolves around money: if someone has none, your efforts to collect on a debt are fruitless.

Last week, the victim of a theft contacted me. The catalytic converter on her son's vehicle had been cut off by thieves in the high school parking lot, in broad daylight. On the same day, several other catalytic converter thefts occurred. Officers alerted the local scrap dealers, and Thursday morning two defendants attempting to sell the stolen converters, were apprehended. They were lodged in jail for felony theft, where they currently repose.

The victim wanted to know if there was any way for her to follow the progress of the case online, because she intended to file a civil suit against the thieves at the conclusion. I provided her with the URL to the County Attorney's criminal case search site, where she will be able to track the upcoming judicial steps through to the final disposition. I also dispensed some advice, telling her that there was a very remote chance she would ever see a dime from these two criminals, both of whom have served two prior prison terms for felony convictions, and have extensive criminal records. Don't get your hopes up.

Here is why it is so unlikely. People who are out cutting catalytic converters off cars on weekday mornings are unlikely to be employed, to own homes, to have savings accounts or investments. Even if you sue and win a judgement--which will cost you money--you will then face the challenge of executing the judgement, which will cost even more money.

When I was Sheriff, and responsible for writs of execution, I occasionally had to break the bad news to a plaintiff that there was simply nothing worth levying against. Bank accounts that can be seized are great. Wages that can be garnished are good, although there several exemptions and also a limit on the amount you can garnish (15% of weekly wages for a head of houshold, 25% otherwise). Personal property, however, is a decidedly mixed bag.

Let's say your defendant owns a nice four year old Ford F150. It's value in the Kelly Blue Book is $11,300. The chances are good that there is a loan against it, and sometimes the loan balance is greater than the value. Even if its not, the loan eats into the equity, and the lender gets first crack at the proceeds. To levy against it, you'll have to pay the sheriff's fees in advance, which includes the statutory fees for serving the process, the cost of the tow and storage for at least 30 days, the cost of advertising for four weeks (required by law) and the cost of the appraisal. These fees will easily add up to a few hundred dollars. You might not break even.

How about the defendant's Naugahyde livingroom set, collection of classic vinyl LPs, fancy hookah, 50-inch LCD TV, $100 acid-washed jeans, and that Coach purse she carries? You'd be surprised how little such stuff is actually worth at a sheriff's sale, Beyond that, the law provides for several exemptions from levy. These include the debtor's immediate personal possessions, his or her wearing apparel, and $1,500 worth of household effects. It also includes "tools of the trade" needed for his or her occupation up to a value of $2,400, which can include one motor vehicle. Finally, there is another $2,500 exemption for personal property of the defendant's choice.

By the time you make it through these exemptions, and pay the sheriff in advance for the cost of moving, storing, appraising, and selling whatever remains, the chances are high that you will be upside down, and victimized yet again. Someone who is completely insolvent, or who has such a small net worth that they are a turnip from which you cannot squeeze blood is known as "judgement proof." I'm afraid that this would describe the vast, vast majority of catalytic converter thieves.