Friday, January 31, 2014

In need of an update

I received this piece of mail Wednesday, from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They were letting me know that an inmate was being released from Federal custody to take up residence in Papillion, Nebraska. He lived here in Lancaster County when he was convicted, so maybe that's why they were notifying me.

Their Rolodex might need an update, though, because it has been more than 20 years since I've been the county sheriff. I don't mind the double S in my name. That was the way the family spelled it up until the generation just before the Civil War, when some of the cousins kept it and others dropped it. My namesake through eight generations was this Virginia soldier who served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War:

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Let it rip, Chief

As I've mentioned on a few past occasions, I participate in one and only one web forum, the International Association of Crime Analysts. Once or twice a week, I peruse the posts, and occasionally weigh in with a thought. Yesterday, a thread opened up when a South Carolina crime analyst sought some advice.

She was dealing with the problem of police reports being delayed by the supervisory review process. Here's how it generally works in police departments from Sidney, Nebraska to Sydney, Australia: an officer completes a report, and drops it in the inbox. His or her supervisor picks it up, notes any obvious errors, makes a determination about any needed follow-up work, initials the report, then forwards it to the Records Unit where it is ultimately filed. This process hasn't changed much in over a century.

These days, in many departments this process is entirely electronic: the report is created online, goes into a virtual inbox, is reviewed and signed online by the approving supervisor, and then goes into a database record in the primary police database (the Records Management System, or RMS), instead of a manila folder in a file cabinet. The electronic process completely mimics the paper process of the horse-and-buggy era.

Here's the rub: the review and approval process is dependent on the supervisor's schedule. If she's busy and doesn't get around to it until late in her shift, or the next day, or after her days off, the data can languish in limbo for hours or days, just as it did in 1884 or 1994. The fact that the report is now a .pdf, an .htm, or a blob,  instead of the pink copy of a three-part self-carbonated form (is that dating me?) doesn't change a thing it this regard. This is exactly what was bugging my warm-weather colleague: she was frustrated that she couldn't work with the data until the supervisor had given it the final stamp of approval.

I suggested to her that the solution might be to rethink the status quo, so that the data from the police report would go directly into the RMS as soon as it was created, rather than mirroring the paper process it replaced. The on-screen review and electronic sign-off by the supervisor could occur later, so the data would be available for anyone to access, read, and work with even though it was still subject to supervisory review and approval ex post facto.

This is exactly what we did in Lincoln several years ago. Despite a lot of hand-wringing and tooth-gnashing at first, predictions of Chaos and Doom never materialized. The reports were still reviewed by the duty commander, occasional errors were still corrected, follow-up work was still assigned, and the sun continued to rise in the east. If you tried to switch it back now, there would be a minor revolt by staff who have become accustomed to instant access to the gory details of the Incident Report narrative as soon as the originating officer has mashed to submit button.

The problem my colleague below the grits line faces will be to convince the management staff at her agency that a streamlined work flow need not be constrained by the oft-heard phrase, "Because that's the way we've always done it." To that end, I offered my good offices to speak to anyone in her department about our experience confronting the very same issue, to offer comfort that flipping the process on its head would need not portend the end of civilization, and would yield some nice benefits by speeding the information flow. Let it rip, Chief, it will be fine.

The grits line, by the way is the latitude below which the waiter or waitress no longer asks whether you want grits or hash browns with your eggs.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Climate change

Lincoln Fire & Rescue has applied for reaccreditation by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, CFAI. As part of the process, the Commission peer assessment team to applicant agencies, composed of specially-trainged professionals from other agencies around the country.

Our team arrived in Lincoln on Sunday. The four members are from El Paso, TX; Ft. Collins, CO; Durham, NC; and Winter Park, FL. With the exception of our colleague from Colorado, this is a decidedly warm weather team. They arrived in Lincoln on Sunday, when the high temperature was an unseasonable mild 56 degrees. They awoke Monday to a balmy four degrees, and a wild child hovering around ten below. It got a bit cooler this morning, presently negative eight.

We're rather accustomed to such fluctuations here in the middle of the continent, but it's a bit of a shock to the uninitiated. Somebody described it to the team thusly: "It's a dry cold." I'll still take a couple months of sub-freezing daily lows to the months of oppressive humidity of Florida and North Carolina, personally. Our shivering guests will have a good story about the climate change they endure when they return to the tropics on Thursday.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Evaluation important

I only participate in one web forum, sponsored by the International Association of Crime Analysts. Once or twice a week, I will look over the posts, and from time to time I'll send a message off-list directly to someone who has posted a question. Occasionally, if I think something might have general interest to the group, I'll post my reply to the list.

Such was the case earlier this week, when an east coast analyst sought advice on how she might best contribute to a quarterly meeting at which police command staff members would be discussing proactive strategies to impact crime. This is a topic near and dear to me, that consumes a lot of space on the Director's Desk. Clicking the "Crime Analysis," "POP," or "Crime Prevention" tags in my label cloud would bring you to scores of posts on this topic.

My advice to her was to make friends with the Problem Oriented Policing Center's website,, and to help her commanders devise simple, straightforward evaluations to proactive strategies they implement. Evaluation is an important, yet often overlooked step in problem solving. I'm a huge believer in evidence-based practice, which demands assessing results so you can determine what works.

I have found a basic multiple time series to be one of the most practical ways to answer this question. In her post to the IACA forum, the analyst used the example of a preventative strategy to reduce larcenies from automobiles at certain apartment complexes. I'd think of evaluating that by collecting data on the volume of these crimes around the target locations before and after the intervention, then comparing that with the same time frames at other similar apartment complexes, and in the city as a whole.

In a couple of weeks, I'll be teaching my regular two-day course on this topic to recruits in the police academy, where two of the key questions they will grapple with in such scenarios are these: How will you know if it worked, and where will you get the data?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Career kickoff

I love graduations. Last night, I attended one for 11 new firefighters, who now begin their careers at Lincoln Fire & Rescue. As I congratulated the graduates, I reminded them that they will have an opportunity everyday to make a difference in the community, and instructed them to make the most of that opportunity.

 Firefighters have the opportunity and the privilege of helping people virtually every single day, in small ways and large. These rookies are starting down a path that can lead to a fulfilling career and sense of contribution and accomplishment they will look back upon from retirement with pride a few decades from now.

Best wishes to James, Lance, Nate, Jason, Brad, Kyle, Travis, Webster, Amanda, Mat, and Nick, as they begin the journey!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Epidemiology of police assaults

Finally, after 1,200 posts and nearly seven years, I get to use the word "epidemiology" in a title. My opportunity arises now that Drs. Joel Caplan and Phillip Marotta have published their paper, Felonious Assault and Injury to Law Enforcement: Epidemiology and Spatial Risk Factors. It is a quick read, and worthwhile for police officers to peruse.

The researchers have examined data on felonious assaults of police officers and identified spatial and temporal correlates and risk factors. I like their format, where these findings are distilled into "implications for practice"--observations and recommendations set apart in gray boxes within the report. While much of this may be common sense for seasoned officers, it's still a valuable reminder.

I made a minor contribution to the content by providing some data and very rudimentary analysis to Dr. Caplan last fall, described in this post from October 16. Lincoln's data ends up as a case study on page 13 of the report. I'm very interested in research, and really enjoy the occasional opportunity to contribute to the body of knowledge in public safety.

Beware the wee hours, officers, and do not let your guard down at facilities where you may have a certain comfort level due to your familiarity with the surroundings, such as hospitals, detox centers, the jail, and--the police station.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Slice and dice

I came across this Wikipedia article yesterday, which provides a table of the data from the FBI's 2012 Uniform Crime Report data for cities with populations of more than 250,000. The data is accurate, and available on the FBI website. It is the most recent published data--the 2013 preliminary release will occur this summer, and the final release this fall. The value-added from this page is the simplicity of sorting the cities in rank order by simply clicking on the column headings for crime type.

You can have some fun with this, despite all the caveats, advisements, limitations, warnings, and so forth regarding comparing crime data. Let's face it though: lots of citizens, police, and elected officials are really curious about how our 'burg compares to their  'burg.

This table is for cities larger than 250,000.  Lincoln is one of the smaller ones in the group. When I do tables of this sort personally, I filter by population to select cities from 50,000 smaller to 50,000 greater, thus placing Lincoln in the middle by size. The results aren't that much different though.

Compared to other cities, Lincoln has a low violent crime rate--very low for robbery and murder, in particular; a moderate (but below average) rate for property crime; and a couple of crimes that are distinct outliers in these subgroups of violent and property crimes: high rapes and low auto thefts.

You can bank on that. It hasn't changed since I became police chief in 1994, and it won't change in my lifetime--or your's, since you are old enough to be reading the obscure blog of a middle American public safety director.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Negligent smoking

Lincoln Fire Inspector Rick Campos did a nice job yesterday briefing the news media about trends in Lincoln surrounding fires caused by negligent smoking. He had some interesting facts. Smoking materials are one of the most common causes of residential fires (cooking is the other biggie). The most common ignition occurs in refuse containers and bedding materials.

Rick had examples of people snuffing out their smokes in plastic flowerpots, plastic trash containers, and even (duh) a paper bag. We cited a person last week for negligent smoking--a city ordinance that prohibits careless disposal of smoking material. You can expect even more of this in the future, if the evidence warrant such charges.

This all reinforces my belief that the declining number of residential fires is a reflection, in part, of the declining percentage of Americans who smoke. I wonder if those new-fangled e-cigarettes will catch on and even further reduce fire risk among smokers--or, alternatively, will a proliferation of newly-available smoking materials counteract the effect?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A pair of memories

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the passing of a women well-known in the rather small circle of Lincoln's public officials and their staffs: Lois Neuman. Lois lived alone during her adult life in Lincoln, and had some idiosyncratic behaviors that were rather, shall we say, not the norm. Basically, she had no inhibitions at all about injecting herself into situations and conversations that most people would perceive as ill-timed, if not completely inappropriate.

If you think of Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, crossed with Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, you'll get a little insight into an interaction with Lois. Her conduct was both endearing and annoying, and while you might want to avoid her, you felt compelled to engage her--and often regretted doing so a half hour later. Lois was Lois. She died quietly and her passing almost escaped attention.

Tammy Ward, a long-time staffer of Governor and Senator Ben Nelson, however, was Lois's guardian  as the end of her life neared, and in an incredible act of generosity and love, organized a memorial tribute to Lois, held on Monday evening. I was one of about 100 people in attendance, in a room dotted with past and present public officials, public figures, and friends.

I had the opportunity along with several others to share some memories of Lois and her antics. Tammy did too, and produced a basket of some of her favorite momentos she discovered in

Monday, January 6, 2014

Stay warm

It's -8 F in Lincoln right now. If you're tempted to start your car in the driveway, though, and let it warm up for a few minutes, be forewarned: you're just tempting someone to steal it--unless you've got one of those fancy remote starters with theft-protection features.

Just before midnight last night, that's exactly what an owner did with his 2007 Lexus, which was gone a few minutes later. The thieves who benefitted from the warm car, though, were spotted about 45 minutes later by Officer Brian Golden. The pair bailed: female driver, male passenger. Bad night to be on foot in Lincoln, though, and they were quickly located by other officers and a Nebraska State Patrol trooper who flooded the area.

Turns out the suspects had switched drivers after a stop. The women was driving because she was the only one with a valid driver's license. Go figure.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Keep this trend going

During 2013 there were 33 police officers in the United States killed in the line of duty by gunfire. That's 33 too many, but still remarkable. It is the lowest number of firearms deaths since 1887. That's right, I said 1887, 116 years ago, when the United States was less than a quarter of its current population. Better training and tactics is the chief cause of the decline, but information technology, body armor, ballistic shields, more capable weapons, and communications technology have all played a role, too.

Motor vehicle crashes continue to be the greatest threat to police officers and firefighters alike. Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, wear your high visibility gear when working in or near the roadway, slow down, and stow the cell phone. Let's keep this trend going in 2014.