Friday, May 28, 2010

Chasing The Needle

Chasing The Needle
This article is a repost from one I wrote for the blog The Crime Map. I figured with all the other posts about crime stats this week it was appropriate to revisit this.  

When I was in the Navy, the helmsmen, the person who actually steered the ship, had to learn an important lesson. The ship's rudder controlled the direction the ship was traveling. The rudder was controlled by either a wheel or by a lever from the bridge of the ship. Near the helmsman's station was a compass repeater that indicated the direction the ship was traveling. Usually, the helmsman would receive an order to steer the ship a certain direction on the compass.

An experienced helmsman would often tell a new helmsman to avoid the temptation to "chase the needle". When the helmsman would turn the wheel, it might take a bit before the ship would begin to turn and the compass would then begin to show the desired course. If the helmsman was over anxious, they would wrongly assume that their rudder input was not having the desired effect and would overcompensate. When the ship then began to turn it would often overshoot the desired heading and lead to a back and forth fight between the helmsman over-steering and the ship slowly responding to this heavy handed input.

As a crime analyst I tell my Chief and his staff members this story often to help them avoid the desire to "chase the needle" over every variation in crime stats. Over the years, crime statistics have become more and more important in gauging the effectiveness of a law enforcement agency and by implication, the leadership of that agency. We've seen a number of studies that hint that this accountability is a major driving force in the reduction of crime we've seen in the past few years here in the U.S. An effect of this new accountability is that it is not uncommon for a police chief to be sacked if the department's crime numbers are high. This increase in accountability also leads to a tendency to overreact over apparent changes in the crime stats from month to month or even worse, week to week. 

Understanding The Reason For Change
The DOJ funded Center for Problem Oriented Policing has a great book called Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers In 60 Small Steps. In the section Step 26 - Take Account of Long Term Change the authors look at time series analysis, or measuring events over time. This is what we do when we count the numbers of crimes or events and graph them over time. The authors state that there are three important factors to understand when conducting this type of analysis:
  • Random Fluctuations
  • Temporal Cycles
  • Overall Trend
The first two, Random Fluctuations and Temporal Cycles are the probably the two factors least worthy of your Chief's anxiety. The authors of Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers describe Random Fluctuations as change "a large number of minor influences". Temporal Cycles are those daily, weekly or seasonal variations caused by the changing rhythms of normal cyclical patterns.

The Importance Of The Long Term
The last one, Overall Trend is the one that you should pay the most attention to. Generally, the overall trend is something that is measured over a longer period of time. This is where we answer what happened with our crime rate at the end of the year. These are the trends that are reported in the FBI's publication Crime In The United States which is published annually. 

Thankfully, there are a number of tools to help us determine the Overall Trend. One technique involves graphing a three month moving average of month to month crime data to smooth out random fluctuations.  Looking at successive time periods of data as discrete series in the same chart can help you to identify temporal cycles. Most spreadsheet programs can graph a trendline onto an existing chart to show you where your data is headed long term.

Separating minor temporal changes from the important ones will help you to know where you are actually headed and avoid "chasing the needle" with all the wasted effort and stress that goes along with it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More Outside The Box Thinking

More Outside The Box Thinking
NPR's website has a story on the Los Angeles Police Department's efforts to clean up the Skid Row area. A few years ago LAPD began using legal injunctions to combat gang activity. Now, they are going to use this tactic to target the drug dealers that ply their trade in LA's notorious Skid Row.
A proposed new legal strategy is meant to lock up Skid Row drug dealers for longer. The injunction targets 80 well-known dealers. They'd be arrested for so much as stepping foot in the area, and they'd face at least six months behind bars.

LAPD Capt. Todd Chamberlain says it's the first time L.A. is going after the dealers by name — those who've been arrested multiple times.

"They're here because the people who buy their drugs are here, the people they can exploit, the people who they know are weak, and it's an easy target to sell to them," says Chamberlain. "We're not going to just throw up our hands and say, 'This is a no man's land.' That might have been done for too long, for too many years. That's why it's so important to have this other tool available, to say, 'We know you're doing it, now you just can't do it here any more.'"
It will be interesting to see how this will work for LAPD. This tactic follows the 80/20 rule I posted about here. By targeting the prolific offenders, they can create the biggest impact for their efforts.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why Crime Stats Matter

Since this week saw the release of the FBI's Preliminary 2009 UCR Report, I thought it only appropriate to repost this piece that I wrote originally at the blog The Crime Map

Around the beginning of the New Year, many law enforcement agencies take stock of the things that occurred in the previous year. Oft times in January, police chiefs around the country will ask their crime analysts for a preliminary work up of the crime statistics so they can get an advance look at the numbers. Then around mid-year, the FBI will begin to issue preliminary crime statistics and eventually the Uniform Crime Report will be released. The issuance of the Uniform Crime Report will start a flurry of stories in the news about crime statistics, and an equally frantic run on antacids by the heads of law enforcement agencies.

But instead of looking at crime stats as just another reason for the local media to make your Chief’s life miserable, we need to see them as a tool to help us improve our agency’s operations. There’s a great quote attributed to the American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes that says:
“In order to understand what is, we must know what has been, and what it tends to become.”
Crime statistics help you to understand what is going on in your community by measuring what has happened, and by projecting where you are headed.

How Crimes Are Counted
Back in the 1920’s and 30’s, law enforcement made great strides in professionalization. The International Association of Chiefs of Police made an effort to encourage law enforcement to collect detailed statistics on crime in their jurisdictions. By the 1930’s, they had convinced Congress of the value in this and the FBI was made the clearinghouse for the data collected under the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) program.

Every month, law enforcement agencies compile statistics on crimes reported to the police in their jurisdiction and send the information to their state’s designee. In Texas, we send our crime data to the Texas Department of Public Safety. They in turn, collect the rest of the state’s crime data and send it to the FBI’s UCR program.

UCR is divided into two parts, Part 1 Crimes and Part 2 Crimes. It’s the Part 1 Crimes that are usually what people are talking about when crime stats are published and the stories start making the news. UCR Part 1 Crimes are:
  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Aggravated Assault
  • Burglary
  • Larceny-Theft
  • Motor Vehicle Theft
  • Arson
While these aren’t every possible type of crime, they are a pretty good representative sample of both violent and non-violent crimes.

The biggest shortcoming in the UCR program is that the UCR program counts crimes reported to the police. Many crimes are never reported to the police for one reason or another. In fact, the results of a recent study detailed by the Police Foundation indicated that nearly 50% of the crime types studied were never reported to the police.

To counter this trend of under-reporting, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) attempts to fill in the gaps. For the most part though, the data obtained in the NCVS doesn’t make news like UCR data does. It’s also not as well used by law enforcement agencies as UCR. Part of the reason might be that it’s hard to hold a police agency accountable for solving crimes that are never reported to them. The most important thing that law enforcement agencies can take away from the NCVS is that under-reporting of crime is prevalent and to examine their agency’s processes and remove as many barriers to reporting crimes as possible.

One common use of UCR data is to take the data and to compare one city to another. In fact, about the time UCR data is published you’ll see a number of folks issuing press releases with their lists of “safest” cities. Unfortunately, there is a problem with this simplistic approach to ranking cities. In fact, this blood sport has gotten so common that the FBI puts this or a similar caveat on nearly every UCR publication:

Each year when Crime in the United States is published, many entities—news media, tourism agencies, and other groups with an interest in crime in our Nation—use reported figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rankings, however, are merely a quick choice made by the data user; they provide no insight into the many variables that mold the crime in a particular town, city, county, state, region, or other jurisdiction. Consequently, these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents.

The link to the article Variables Affecting Crime from where this quote was taken has a great explanation of why this simplistic approach to ranking cities is shortsighted. I encourage you to hit the link and read the whole article.

What Are They Good For Then?
If not every crime gets reported to the police, and even when they are, every community is different, what good are crime stats? The answer to this question lies in holding ourselves accountable. In fact, this accountability is a large part of the CompStat process that has become so common in American law enforcement. In fact, the name CompStat is a contraction of Computer Statistics. Many believe that when properly implemented, the CompStat process has led to lower crime rates in those cities.

A recent article in Police Chief magazine describes CompStat this way.
CompStat pushes all precincts to generate weekly crime activity reports so that they can be held accountable for the achievement of several objectives. Crime data are readily available, offering up-to-date information that is then compared at citywide, patrol, and precinct levels. Instead of simply responding to crime, commanders begin thinking proactively about ways to deal with it in terms of suppression, intervention, and prevention; commanders also must explain what tactics they have employed to address crime patterns, what resources they have and need, and with whom they have collaborated.
It may not be valid to compare my city’s crime statistics with another city, but I can compare my city’s stats from last year to the year before, or better yet, from last month to the previous month. What areas did you do better? What areas were worse? This isn’t the end of your analysis but just the beginning.

Houston, We Have A Problem...Kinda

Houston,  We Have A Problem...Kinda
The Killeen Daily Herald has a story about a Killeen Police presentation to their City Council showing an increase in robbery and burglary crimes in Killeen.
Baldwin distinguished carefully between the two words, concern and alarm, when giving his quarterly report to the Killeen City Council Tuesday.

The presentation carried sobering news to city officials, as Baldwin reported a 37.97 percent increase in first-quarter burglaries between 2009 and 2010. In the same span, robberies more than doubled from 27 to 64.

Baldwin reiterated throughout the presentation that three months is not a trend and he believes the numbers could level out by year's end.
Of course, earlier this week we saw the release of the Uniform Crime Report's preliminary 2009 numbers. This all points to just how important these crime numbers are. Many times, police chief's careers live and die based on what happens with crime numbers. There is a ton of pressure on Chiefs to present acceptable crime numbers to the community. Sometimes the pressure to show effective numbers gets to be too much and allegations surface about agencies fudging the numbers. A demonstration of this pressure comes in this story from Nashville.
Secret files and audio recordings that were part of a private investigation about the way former Police Chief Ronal Serpas kept Nashville crime statistics were reported stolen this month.

Jack Byrd, a lawyer for the Teamsters union when it represented the city's police officers, said he had worked with some Metro police officers over four years to collect information.

Those materials — including secret recordings of Serpas — were stolen from Byrd's Murfreesboro Pike offices sometime between late afternoon May 12 and early morning May 13 in what several people familiar with the incident have characterized as a "professional" burglary.According to Byrd, the investigation focused on Compstat, the numbers-driven system pioneered by the New York City police department that uses crime data and mapping to help spot patterns quickly and throw resources into troubled areas. Under Serpas, who implemented the Compstat program in Nashville, crime statistics declined for six consecutive years, but some rank-and-file officers and city leaders questioned their accuracy. 
It is appropriate for city leaders to hold their police chiefs accountable for the performance of their police departments. However, it is important to understand that the responsibility for every uptick in the numbers does not always lie with the Chief. Some things are out of his or her direct control. What is probably more important in terms of accountability is the Chief's response to that uptick.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The UCR Numbers Are Here

The UCR Numbers Are Here
The FBI released the preliminary 2009 UCR crime numbers yesterday. Nationwide, violent crime is down. Even in long suffering Detroit, the numbers showed a decrease in violent crime according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. Of course it may take a while before the realization begins to sink in especially with politicians who love to raise the specter of crime while trying to get reelected.
The rate of decline has accelerated in recent years. In 2007, violent crime fell 0.7% from the prior year. In 2008, it fell an additional 1.9%.

But it often takes time for falling crime rates to affect popular perceptions of how safe the streets are. Researchers note that it took years for the dramatic crime reductions in the latter part of the 1990s to register with lawmakers and voters.
In case you were wondering how Texas did, here are the 2009 numbers for Texas cities with a population greater than 100,000.

For comparison, I calculated the crime rates calculated for these same cities. Remember, crime rate is the number of crimes per a given population, in this case we use the industry standard crimes per 100,000 population. To arrive at this calculation we divide the number of reported crimes by the population and then multiply the result by 100,000.

At the bottom of the sheet I've calculated the average rate per 100,000 for all Texas cities with a population greater than 100,000. I've also highlighted the highest rates in red and the lowest rates in green.

In case you want to know the raw numbers and not the rates, the first tab has the rates, the second tab has the raw numbers.You may have to scroll around a bit to see the whole thing. If you get tired of scrolling, here's a link to the document in a separate page.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Step 34 - Look For Crime Facilitators

I have been posting about the excellent crime analysis book, Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers. In this post we’re up to Step 34 - Look For Crime Facilitators.

If you have been in law enforcement for any length of time, you'll recognize that certain environmental conditions facilitate crime. For instance, a concert or festival with a free flow of alcohol, is likely to generate a rash of fights and altercations. The authors of  Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers classify crime facilitators into three types:

  • Physical facilitators are things that augment offenders' capabilities or help to overcome prevention measures. Trucks extend offenders' capacity to move stolen goods, telephones allow people to make obscene phone calls, and firearms help overcome resistance to robberies. Some physical facilitators are tools, but others are part of the physical environment. Felson and colleagues describe how the old layout of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York facilitated a variety of crimes. Types of crimes had specific ecological niches created by the variety of design features in the old station.
  • Social facilitators stimulate crime or disorder by enhancing rewards from crime, legitimating excuses to offend, or by encouraging offending. Groups of young men, for example, can provide the social atmosphere that encourages rowdy behavior at sporting events. Gangs and organized criminal networks facilitate criminal activity by their members.
  • Chemical facilitators increase offenders' abilities to ignore risks or moral prohibitions. Some offenders, for example, drink heavily or use drugs before a crime in order to decrease their nervousness.
Identifying facilitators is important because these facilitators can either create favorable conditions for crime to occur, or to make your crime reduction efforts less effective. In our example about a festival with a free flow of alcohol, the alcohol is a chemical facilitator. If you can take steps to encourage more responsible consumption among the participants, you can likely reduce the number of crimes that occur due to alcohol soaked participants.

There is a really nifty chart in Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers that offers suggestions as to the types of strategies that are most effective with the various types of facilitators. I encourage you to hit the link and read the whole chapter.

Next time, we'll cover Step 35 - Understand The Crime From Beginning To End.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Step 33 - Measure Association

This post in our walk through Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers is going to cover Step 33 - Measure Association. This post is important to being able to put the previous post, Step 32 - Conduct Case Control Studies into practice.

One consequence of providing detailed crime stats to your department is that occasionally you will get that person who will look at the numbers of two different statistics and will then declare that an increase in one thing caused a decrease in something else. At my shop, I had an officer declare that an increase in the number of citations written caused a decrease in the number of accidents. At first glance that might seem logical, but unfortunately, it's not that easy.

The way to test that assumption is to use a statistical technique to calculate the coefficient of correlation between two statistical variables. 
There are many ways to calculate association. Often a correlation coefficient is used. Correlation coefficients range from -1 to 1. A negative correlation means an increase in one characteristic is associated with a decline in the other (and a decline is one associated with an increase in the other). A positive correlation means that an increase in one characteristic is associated with an increase in the other (and a decline in one is associated with a decline in the other). Big coefficients mean strong associations (positive or negative). If a correlation coefficient is near zero, there is an absence of association - a change in one characteristic is unrelated to a change in the other. Any spreadsheet or statistical analysis program can perform the calculations.
In the example I mentioned regarding traffic citations and accidents, after calculating the coefficient of correlation, his assertion was proven to be false.

But often, we're trying to determine the association of something that doesn't lend itself to the statistical technique of coefficient of correlation. In fact, the Case Control Studies we learned about in Step 32 do not lend themselves to using coefficient of correlation. The authors suggest using odds ratio to measure these associations.
Odds ratios can be any number greater than zero. When an odds ratio is equal to one, there is no association between the characteristic and the outcome. That is, the risk of the outcome is the same whether or not the characteristic is present. If the odds ratio is between 0 and 1, risk is higher when the characteristic is absent than when it is present (a negative association). An odds ratio of .1 indicates the risk of the outcome when the characteristic is present is a tenth of that when the characteristic is absent. If an odds ratio is greater than 1, the risk is higher when the characteristic is present than when it is absent (a positive association). An odds ratio of 3 means that the risk of the outcome is three times as large when the characteristic is present than when it is absent.
I would encourage you to read the entire chapter Step 33 - Measure Association to learn how to calculate odds ratio. This is a great technique for determining cause and effect and not relying on anecdotal evidence.

Next time we'll look at Step 34 - Look For Crime Facilitators

Thursday, May 20, 2010

How Open Should A Department Be?

How Open Should A Department Be?
The New Orleans Police Department has had it's share of woes of late. The New Orleans news site has a piece on NOPD's efforts to rebuild their community's confidence in the department by opening their COMSTAT meetings to the public.
The NOPD's brand new police chief, Ronal Serpas, announced last week that he would open to the public all district and department-level COMSTAT meetings, weekly stat-heavy sessions in which top brass discuss the latest in neighborhood crime.

The open-door policy is a huge departure for the Police Department, which, despite distrust among citizens, has long held data and information on crimes close to its vest.

Norton, backlit by a wall-mounted monitor that displayed a map dotted with icons depicting reported crimes, said he hopes citizens come in for a peek behind the curtain.

"As you can see, there is a lot of work that goes into this," he said.
This is unusual. While I know that Departments have on occasion allowed outsiders to view their CompStat meetings, it has usually been a VIP, City Council member or person of similar status. This is first time I can recall a department allowing the general public to view such meetings.

As I see it there are some advantages and disadvantages to this kind of openness. It is important that a department is reminded who they really work for. Being a public servant means that you serve the public. However, there are times that enforcement strategies need to under wraps to prevent compromise of these efforts.

In NOPD's case, the importance of rebuilding their community's confidence in their police department likely outweighs any disadvantage that could come  from this kind of openness. If nothing else, I have to commend Chief Serpas for his efforts.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Budget Woes Causing Gun Belt Tightening

Budget Woes Causing Gun Belt Tightening
The Dallas Morning News has a large article on how budget problems are forcing Dallas Police to make some substantive changes.
On the table are proposals to cut police overtime pay by 25 percent and to stop adding to the overall size of the force. There's also talk of furloughs or pay cuts for officers.

Most of the city's major police associations say that if the budget outlook is so dire that the city must impose furloughs or cut salaries, then the city should quit hiring officers at all – not even replacing those who retire or resign from the 3,660-officer force – before reducing pay.

"We need to take care of the people that we have now, and we can hire when the economy picks back up again," said Senior Cpl. Michael Walton, head of the Dallas Fraternal Order of Police. "I've talked to officers out there, and they say stop hiring even for attrition and let's put our finger in the dam and hold on to what we have right now."
For years law enforcement spending has been untouchable. In spite of the political unpalatability of cuts to law enforcement budgets, for many departments it's becoming a reality. There is talk that the state budget woes Texas is facing could cause the state to cut their budget by forcing some costs to be borne by counties and cities. This may cause more cities to have to tighten their belts on public safety spending.

We've been very fortunate here in central Texas that we've largely avoided some of the economic problems that many areas of the country have experienced. However, I don't think we are going to avoid this forever. Departments need to be ready to work smarter and not harder in order to become more efficient. If they don't it could get real ugly here soon.

Crime analysts can help their agencies become more efficient in their mission by focusing enforcement efforts on what works.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What's In My Toolbox: Notepad++

What's In My Toolbox: Notepad++
For some time, one of my favorite tools has been the text editor Notepad++. Many crime analysts are really closet computer geeks and spend quite a bit of time editing computer code such as HTML/XML, SQL or Python in order to automate their workflow.

While a word processor such as Microsoft Word does a really good job of creating pretty documents, it does tend to leave a bit to be desired when you are wanting to edit code. In fact, even when you cut and paste text from a Word document to another application, you often get some invisible text attributes such as font information, formatting, etc. included in your text.

While this is OK when cutting and pasting from one Word document to the other, it’s not so good when pasting to something that just wants the text and not the cruft. This is the reason to ditch a word processor and use a text editor. You could use the text editor Notepad that comes with Windows, but the feature set is really lacking.

One of my favorite features of Notepad++ is the ability to save and load sessions. A session is a group of files that can be opened at once. My workflow requires me to edit several SQL files, batch files and to use several reference files all as part of the same process. Rather than open these same files for editing one at a time, I can open a session file and launch all of these files simultaneously.

Additionally, Notepad++ has a great macro function, syntax highlighting, powerful search and replace and extensible through plugins and lots of other great features.

Notepad++ is free and you can get it here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What's In Your Toolbox?

What's In Your Toolbox?
I've been thinking a lot about the tools that crime analyst's use most often in their jobs. Over the next few days I'm going to go over a few of the tools I use most often in my workflow. Right now the tentative list of things I want to cover includes:
  • Notepad ++
  • Microsoft Excel
  • ArcGIS
  • CrimeStat III
I don't doubt that this list may change over the next few days so don't hold me to it.  Today, I want to look at using Google Alerts to monitor the Internet for relevant articles. I first posted this article over at the blog The Crime Map.

Computer use in law enforcement has made many things possible that were once either impossible or laboriously time consuming. The Internet has exploded these possibilities even further. While there are quite a few software products out there specifically designed for crime analysis, often times these products are expensive and out of the reach of many crime analysts. However, some of my most useful tools are free.

A number of Google's tools have found there way into my daily work product. One of the neatest in my Google bag of tricks is the use of Google Alerts.

Google Alerts allows you to monitor the web continuously for certain search terms. When Google crawls the web and finds new entries that meet those search terms you'll get an email notification. I use Google Alerts to continuously monitor Internet news stories for news articles about the town in which I work. Like most crime analysts, I also wear the Department's criminal intelligence analyst hat too. There is quite a bit of good information out there floating around on the Internet in news stories, blogs and websites.

The email notification can either be sent immediately or in digest form. Digest, means that all the relevant articles are aggregated into one email and sent together in one email. For me this digest format works the best. The email will have the article title, a snippet of the story, the source of the story and a link to the original article. If you use an RSS Feed Reader like Google Reader, you can have them sent as an RSS feed too.

While this is a good way to keep up on the local news coverage about police stories in my city, the real value comes when someone from our city goes and does something newsworthy somewhere else. A recent example proved it's worth when I opened my email to find a news story from a small town newspaper website in Indiana. The story recounted that police there had arrested a citizen of our city after the officer there made a highway interdiction traffic stop and discovered that our citizen had been smuggling a large quantity of narcotics through their city. When I checked our records, I discovered that we had also arrested him for narcotics charges and even had a pending case on him.

I then rang up the Indiana agency and asked them about our errant drug smuggler and even was able to provide copies of our cases to the agency for use in an upcoming court hearing. While speaking to their officer I learned that they had not called our agency and they were quite surprised to find out that we already knew about their two day old arrest. In addition to helping their agency understand more about the criminal they were dealing with, it allowed us to have a more complete picture of his activities as well.

In order to use Google Alerts, you need to have a free Google account. Once you have created a Google account and signed in, navigate your browser to the Google Alerts website.

The search terms I find works best is "police anytown anystate" substituting your city and state for "anytown" and "anystate". Select your preferences for frequency, delivery method, etc. You may also wish to create similar alerts for neighboring towns if your town is like mine and has adjacent communities.

Google has quite a comprehensive help file all the features of Google Alerts. It's worth a read if you want to get serious about using Google Alerts to stay on top of things.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Learn The Tools You Have

The Microsoft Office productivity suite is pretty ubiquitous in most police agencies. I would bet that most agencies don't even begin to scratch the surface on what Office is capable of. Here's a piece over at that covers how the Colorado Bureau of Invesitgation (CBI) uses the tools in Office 2010 to streamline their mission.

One of the new Office tools that has proven most useful at CBI is InfoPath 2010. This application creates timesaving and paper-saving electronic forms, which automatically populate certain boxes when, for example, a lab worker has to log in multiple samples from the same crime scene. This not only saves time, but also reduces the likelihood of typographical errors that could impact the outcome of a case.

InfoPath also helps CBI manage the stringent chain-of-custody, accreditation and evidence-discovery reporting requirements associated with criminal investigations.
The article highlights how CBI uses a vendor solution that integrates with Office 2010 to make their workflow much more efficient. But there is nothing to say that you can't maximize the capabilities in Office to streamline your own workflow even without integration with other software. I'm planning for upgrading some tools to collect information at my shop. As it stands right now, InfoPath and Access are likely to be a part of our workflow.

It would pay for crime analysts to really learn the tools they have available. Since Office is installed throughout my agency, I know I'm going to learn to grok Office over at my shop. What are you doing to become proficient with the tools you have at your shop?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Out Of The Ice Box Thinking

Out Of The Ice Box Thinking
Chief Tom Casady is the Chief of Police in Lincoln, Nebraska and he is also a very prolific blogger. Over at his blog today he talks about an innovative solution to a burglary problem his department was dealing with.

After studying their problem they determined that a significant number of burglaries were occurring when thieves would enter open garages in residential neighborhoods. Their solution was innovative. They are having their officers in hardest hit areas contact homeowners and let them know about the open doors. Even if that means ringing the doorbell at 3AM. Their reasoning is:
The more people keep that garage door buttoned up, the less exposed they are to these crimes. We've been pretty successful in driving down the overall numbers. When I checked this morning, I see that we have had 25 burglaries through open garage doors so far this year. Just five years ago, in 2005, that number stood at 87 on May 12. That's quite a drop, and I attribute it to good police work by our late shift officers, who so far this year have rang 225 doorbells to let homeowners know they forgot to button up.
Chief Casady and his officers have been using this technique for some time. This is from a 2007 post where they talk about the effectiveness of this prevention technique.
A common crime trend we examine is residential burglary. We've discovered that a large percentage of these burglaries occur through garages--many are through garage doors left open at night. Golf clubs, bicycles, and tools are common targets, as is beer in spare refrigerator, and the contents of cars parked inside. Last night, as we examined residential burglaries in the past two weeks, I noted that 8 were through open garage doors. That seemed low. Residential burglary is down about 7% so far this year, but the open garage door burglaries still seemed low. So I checked. Open garage burglaries are especially down this year: from 80 at this point in 2006, to 54 so far in 2007. That's a one-third reduction.

Here's why: The Southeast Team is most heavily hit. They are home to affluent neighborhoods with two and three car garages, expensive stuff, and spare fridges. The late shift Southeast Team officers have been working on a problem-oriented policing project in which they are using their uncommitted time to search subdivisions, find garage doors standing open, and wake up the owners to let them know. It's a great project. When you hear our PIO talking about this on the 6:00 news, you've forgotten about it by the end of the newscast. If you read about it in the paper, the half-life of that knowledge is about 30 minutes. But when Officer Paul Aksamit is talking to you on the front stoop at 3:00 AM, it will cause you to double check the garage door before bedtime for the remainder of your life, and you will pass the habit on to the next six generations.
One of the thing I like most about their approach is they are keeping detailed stats to gauge the effectiveness of their efforts. I would imagine that the first time your ask your midnight shift officers to get out of their cars and ring doorbells at 3AM that you would be met with more than a little bit of eye rolling. However, when you can follow up later with numbers showing just how effective this program is, your officers will be a whole lot more likely to buy into the program.

Cops hate doing things that don't have a measurable impact. But the opposite is also true, deep down, they really like making an impact in their community. As a crime analyst, your job is not only to find problem areas, but also to let your folks know just how effective all their hard work really is.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Media Relations Is A Love/Hate Relationship

Media Relations Is A Love/Hate Relationship
There were a couple of recent items that demonstrate the love/hate relationship between police and the media. First is this one from CNN where NYPD officials are quoting that specific media reports about the investigation into the Times Square bombing attempt caused the suspect in this incident to try to flee the US.
Kelly told reporters that "before the individual was taken into custody, there was a lot of specific information about who we were looking for," and "there's some indication this information made the individual leave."

Asked whether those leaks came from the Police Department, Kelly insisted they did not. "It makes no sense to me to give specific information that can warn someone that we're looking for them," he said.

Shahzad had boarded a plane that was minutes away from takeoff when authorities arrived to arrest him.

Kelly said the leaks were part of what he believes is an "inordinate amount of information given out by somebody" in the case, despite the fact that the investigation is ongoing.
This is the reason for an agency to have a comprehensive media policy. However, a knee jerk reaction of banning all media interactions is not the answer either. Nature abhors a vacuum and if the media is not getting anything from official sources, they will develop "unofficial" sources within your agency. Sometimes, these unofficial sources are the sources of leaks that are detrimental to your agency's mission.

The other story about police/media relations is this bit from the New York Times where the slogan "If you see something, say something." has been trademarked by Metropolitan Transit Authority.
The transportation authority received a trademark on the slogan from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, though unauthorized uses appear to outnumber authorized ones.
I don't know about you, but a government agency trademarking a public safety slogan is just weird. It gets even weirder when you take this into account:
“The intent of the slogan is to focus on terrorism activity, not crime, and we felt that use in other spheres would water down its effectiveness,” said Christopher Boylan, an M.T.A. spokesman.
Security expert Bruce Schneier points out you are only supposed to use this slogan to report terrorism but not other types of crimes. So if someone reports a murder because of this slogan, is the MTA going to claim a trademark violation?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Improving Your Skills and More PowerPoint Advice

Improving Your Skills and More PowerPoint Advice
I found a couple of things worth noting this morning. One is a great list for crime analysts from Christopher W. Bruce called Techniques You Can Take Home. Christopher is a crime analyst in Danvers, MA and is the current president of the International Association of Crime Analysts. His list of techniques are ways to improve your crime analysis tradecraft. Thanks to Deborah Osborne for the heads up.

Another thing worth noting is a blog post about using PowerPoint effectively from Nadyne Richmond who works for Microsoft. Her post looks like a response to the recent NY Times story about the military's over dependence on PowerPoint. In her post she asserts that PowerPoint is not the right tool for every job.
He's right: not everything can be expressed in bullet points. PowerPoint can help you reduce complexity to help you present difficult ideas, but some things are simply too complex to fit onto a slide. PowerPoint is not the right tool for every job. When you find yourself with a bowl of rainbow spaghetti, you need to use something else to convey your ideas. There's the old saying that if you've only got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But you don't just have a hammer. You've got other tools in your belt. Word and Excel are both there to help you convey your information.

Use the right tool for the job. It might be a five-page Word document that accurately captures the depth and complexity of your situation. It might be a spreadsheet shown to people who will understand those numbers. When you've got something important to be communicated, determine the right communication vehicle. Then you need to polish it: get the writing perfect, practice so that you can talk about it and answer deep questions, and be prepared to make changes if you didn't quite communicate something in the right way.
Crime analysts need to be constantly learning and improving their skills, be it analytical skills or presentation skills. What have you done to improve your skills lately?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Changing The Cops & Donuts Mentality

Changing The Cops & Donuts Mentality
USA Today has an interesting story on the lack of physical fitness exhibited by many police and fire recruits. This comes on the heels of a story out in April at CNN where the US's top military commanders bemoaned a lack of fitness among recruits for the various branches of service. From the USA Today story:
The city's police academy's initial fitness exam includes push-ups, a 1½ mile run, an obstacle course and a flexibility test, Deputy Police Chief Gerald Jones said.

Mississippi has the highest rate of obesity in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Jones said it is not just that recruits are fat.

"What we are finding is a decline in overall physical strength," he said. "They can't complete the mile-and-a-half run."

Overweight and out of shape recruits for police, fire and emergency medical services are presenting increasing problems for agencies around the nation.
The hard part is changing the culture. Most Americans don't exercise, have terrible diets and little motivation to change. The CNN story has this bit:
"We cannot wait until our young adults reach enlistment age to do something about it," said retired Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett Jr. "By that time, they may have already developed a chronic and lifelong weight problem."

Mission: Readiness urged Congress to pass a new childhood nutrition law to remove school junk food, improve nutritional standards and quality of school meals, and to open access to anti-obesity programs for children.

"If we do something about it, school can become a terrific environment for proper meals," Barnett said.
Lot's of things have changed in the just the 19 years that I have been in law enforcement. When I started nearly everyone coming into law enforcement had a familiarity with firearms. Now, it's not that unusual to get police recruits who have never shot a gun. Over the years we've had to adapt our training programs to teach the basics both for firearms and for fitness. 

Even so, within law enforcement we need to ensure that we provide positive motivation for our current employees to adopt a healthy lifestyle. What is your agency doing to promote and maintain physical fitness?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Excel 2010 Brings Sparklines To The Masses

Excel 2010 Brings Sparklines To The Masses
A new version of Microsoft Excel is just around the corner with Excel 2010. Most crime analysts, spend an extraordinary amount of time using Excel. In fact, while there is a lot of really good crime analysis software out there, my 'go to' tool in most cases is going to be Excel.

One of the features I am really looking forward to in Excel 2010 is native support to create Sparklines. Sparklines are very small graphs that will fit into a spreadsheet cell and can give you a really quick way to demonstrate a visualize data in a very busy table of data.

I was first introduced to Sparklines by Edward Tufte in his book Beautiful Evidence. I have come to really admire Sparklines but creating them hasn't been as easy as it could be. Fabrice Rimlinger has been developing Excel macros and templates to create Sparklines over at his site Sparklines for Excel. Fabrice's tools have been the way I have been creating them so far.

The How To Geek has a post that shows how to create Sparklines in Excel 2010. Until Excel 2010 comes out and our IT department gets around to installing this I'll continue to use Fabrice's most excellent Sparkline tool.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Back To The Basics

Back To The Basics
This month's issue of DOJ's COPS program Community Policing Dispatch newsletter has a good article on the Flint, Michigan Police Department re-instituting a community oriented policing strategy with the help of a $1 million dollar grant.

Flint has had it's share of problems. The economy, the decline of the US auto industry and other issues has given rise to a significant crime problem in Flint. They hope that their "21st Century Community Policing" program will help them to do more with less. One part of the initiative is to revive neighborhood foot patrols with an emphasis on community policing.
The new CCP effort will deploy 18 foot patrol officers across all nine city wards. The city also plans to utilize CityStat, a data tracking and management computer software program, to help officers identify areas of criminal activity and prioritize neighborhoods for patrol. Now being used in dozens of cities, CityStat enables law enforcement officials to track and map data on all types of crime, spot trends, and allocate limited resources more strategically, according to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research and education institute in Washington, D.C.
This is an interesting contrast, traditional police foot patrols with high tech crime analysis. Given the depth of the economic problems in Michigan, it's going to take some outside of the box thinking to be successful in reducing crime and disorder in cities like Flint.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

This Ain't The Movies

This Ain't The Movies
Security expert and writer Bruce Schneier has a great post on his blog on why we don't see more terrorist attacks in the US. The recent Times Square car bombing event in New York City has raised terrorism concerns again, especially since it appears that this was committed by a US citizen who originally came to the US from Pakistan.

Schneier points out that some parts of a terror attack are relatively easy. But there is more to a successful attack than the tactics of the event itself.
But if it's so easy, why aren't there more terrorist attacks like the failed car bomb in New York's Times Square? Or the terrorist shootings in Mumbai? Or the Moscow subway bombings? After the enormous horror and tragedy of 9/11, why have the past eight years been so safe in the U.S.?

There are actually several answers to this question. One, terrorist attacks are harder to pull off than popular imagination -- and the movies -- lead everyone to believe. Two, there are far fewer terrorists than the political rhetoric of the past eight years leads everyone to believe. And three, random minor terrorist attacks don't serve Islamic terrorists' interests right now.
Schneier's question is very appropriate. Since 9/11 we've seen lot's of changes in law enforcement ostensibly based on the premise that we need to protect "the homeland" from terrorists who just can't wait to kill us. Some of these changes have been good, but many of them are questionable. Schneier explains why he believes we have not seen many al-Qaida affiliated terror attacks in the US.
Lastly, and perhaps most subtly, there's not a lot of value in unspectacular terrorism anymore.

If you think about it, terrorism is essentially a PR stunt. The death of innocents and the destruction of property isn't the goal of terrorism; it's just the tactic used. And acts of terrorism are intended for two audiences: for the victims, who are supposed to be terrorized as a result, and for the allies and potential allies of the terrorists, who are supposed to give them more funding and generally support their efforts.

An act of terrorism that doesn't instill terror in the target population is a failure, even if people die. And an act of terrorism that doesn't impress the terrorists' allies is not very effective, either.
Shortly after the Times Square incident came to light I posted a link to a news story about it on Twitter. A friend who was headed to NYC commented about her trepidation about going in light of this incident. But realistically, the likelihood of being a victim of a terror attack is very small.

According to the CDC, murder is not even in the top 10 leading causes of death in the US. In fact, 16,272 persons were murdered in the US in 2008 according to the FBI's UCR program which works out to a rate of 5.4 murders per 100,000 population. Nearly all of those murders have nothing to do with terrorism.

Bruce's article, like almost all of his posts are a great read. I encourage you to read it and to bookmark his site. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How We Won The War With PowerPoint

How We Won The War With PowerPoint
A New York Times story on the military's troubled love affair with PowerPoint is still reverberating. I blogged about the story here. I had also made a previous blog post about Edward Tufte's take on PowerPoint replacing the effective communication of information with "chartjunk".

Now Jon Stewart weighs in with a funny bit about it. 

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Afghanistan Stability Chart
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Thanks to the folks at Chart Porn for the heads up.

Monday, May 3, 2010

And Now For the News

And Now For the News
There was a lot of good stuff on the web this weekend and this morning. It was too hard to pick one to post about so I'll let you have them all.

Serial Killer Profiling
The blog D.A. Confidential has an interesting post on profiling serial killers.

Crime Analyst Profiled In Textbook
A crime analyst at the Frederick Maryland Police Department was profiled in  the textbook "Criminal Justice in America". The Washington Examiner covered the story here.

Dallas PD's New Chief Concerned About Property Crimes
The Dallas Morning News has an interview with the newly selected Dallas Police Chief. When asked about his greatest crime concerns for Dallas he said this:
Property crime is the key issue in Dallas. Burglaries, [including] residential, business and car burglaries.

And the issue is not just with what DPD might do to address it. It's the criminal justice system's position about property crimes as far as what happens from the time we arrest them to the time they get booked in jail to the time they get adjudicated through the magistrates and judges, sentencing, bail, bond, that kind of thing and the entire process.
NYC Bombing Attempt
There are a bunch of stories out on the web about the attempted car bombing of New York City's Times Square. Here's one from CNN about the investigation and another on from Time that looks at potential foreign terror links.