Monday, February 28, 2011

With Federal Money, Come Attached Strings

It looks like the state of Colorado may lose out on $500k of federal money as they debate the merits of bringing their state's sex offender registry into compliance with federal law. An article over at the Denver Post has this:
But opponents argue that it will cost far more than that federal grant amount to comply with the rules. 
A national chorus of state government groups and research institutions has raised concerns about the way the federal law treats juvenile offenders, potential constitutional conflicts and data showing sex-offender registration doesn't prevent repeat offenders. Among the skeptics is Laurie Kepros, who oversees sexual offenses for the state public defender office.
"It's just not going to be cost-effective, and does it do us any good in terms of public safety?" Kepros said.
While I understand how troubling sex offenses are, my fear is that we've so diluted what constitutes a registerable offense that we're now including many offenders that don't pose a danger to the public and should not be on a registry. All we end up doing then is stigmatizing more offenders and make it even harder for them to be reintegrated into society. If they can't find a job, who do you think pays?

I think's it's also interesting that the cash strapped states are starting to realize that the strings attached to federal money often cost more than the money included in the grant. I am sure that we are liable to see more of this as states look at the true impact of accepting some of these grants.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Is Government Really That Bad?

One thing that I have been wrestling with lately is the recent trend to label nearly everything government as "bad". I guess this is really timely given the fact that I just celebrated my twenty year anniversary with the police department in the sleepy little burg where I work. We've also seen the public debate come to a head with the fight in Wisconsin over the governor's quest to limit public employee unions collective bargaining rights.

This week over at NPR there was a story where they looked at the whether government employees are "too well paid". There was this interesting bit in the story:

In a study last year for the National Institute for Retirement Security and the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, Bender and co-author John Heywood, also a UWM economics professor, assert that wages for typical state workers are 11 percent less than those in the private sector with comparable education and in comparable jobs. Local workers earn 12 percent less, they say.

When the cost of benefits is factored in, Bender and Heywood say that their calculations show that the so-called total compensation for state workers is 6.8 percent less than for those in the private sector; local workers' total compensation is 7.4 percent less.

"We know that jobs in the public sector are much more secure than in the private sector in normal conditions," Bender says. "People value all sorts of things in jobs, and if they value job security, that negative 6.8 percent may be the value of security."

My personal experience is that I could make more money in the private sector. In fact, I had one guy working for a private company try to lure me away with an offer of nearly three times my current salary. A friend who works in the private sector and I were comparing Christmas bonuses this last year. His was five figures, mine was a $20 grocery store gift card. But for me, it was never about money. I got into law enforcement, because I wanted to make a difference not because I wanted to be rich.

When politicians with an agenda try to demonize government employees you should remember that those same government employees he's talking about are your neighbors. You know, the firefighter down the street that's playing catch with his son in the front yard, the municipal secretary who teaches a Bible study at your church, the public school teacher who's still up at the school at 9PM grading papers, the sheriff's deputy working an extra job at the County Fair to pay for his daughter's braces, the county road employees who organized a charity garage sale to provide money for a safe graduation party for high school seniors and the crime analyst who's taking a group of Scouts on a weekend camping trip.

Extravagant pay and benefits are not the norm in public sector jobs. To try and narrow the gap we sometimes get a few more holidays than the average private sector employee. Our pension funds are usually a little more secure because our pension funds are more heavily regulated as their existence is codified by law. The CEO can't raid it to pay for his new corporate jet, or kill it entirely to please stock holders and ensure he gets a multi-million dollar performance bonus.

The funny thing is that the same people who are trying to demonize government as bad don't seem to have a problem driving their cars on the government roads, or calling the government fire department when their house catches on fire, or asking the government police department for help when they are in a traffic accident.

Government is not inherently evil. There are things we do quite well, often times things that no profit driven private company will do at all. As public servants, we should be good stewards of the taxpayer's dollar. In every case that I am aware of, we government employees are taxpayers too. And yes, there are times that we could do things better.

As crime analysts we should be constantly striving to make our police departments more efficient in catching bad guys, to help our agencies do more with less, and to truly be "public servants".

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Photo Lineup Bill A Good Thing For Texas Law Enforcement

One of the good things to come out the stack of proposed bills filed at the Texas Legislature this session is this one that would require Texas law enforcement agencies to adhere to a model procedure for using photo lineups in criminal investigations.

The need for the legislation was made apparent by the fact that in the majority of Texas exonerations, faulty lineups were a critical piece of evidence used to convict these innocent defendants of crimes. The only saving grace for most of these folks is that the technology improved over time to allow DNA testing which proved their innocence. From the story over at the Dallas Morning News:

Policies for gathering eyewitness identification would have to be based on scientific research on memory, along with relevant policies and guidelines developed by the federal government and other states. Policies would have to address the selection of photographs, lineup filler photographs or participants and instruction given to witnesses. The Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University would create a model policy to be distributed to local law enforcement agencies.

No one in law enforcement wants to get the wrong guy. One of the things I am proudest of in my twenty year law enforcement career was working hard to prove that a juvenile who had been charged and incarcerated for an aggravated assault could not possibly have committed the crime he was accused of and then getting the Juvenile Court to release him and dismiss the charges against him.

You can follow SB 121 through the Texas Legislature at the Texas Legislature Online web portal.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Chemical Weapons Being Used In A Love Triangle?

From the "Hell Hath No Fury" department: There is an interesting case at the Supreme Court this week. The case involves a rather bizarre crime where a Pennsylvania woman was charged with violating a chemical weapons treaty statute for trying to poison her best friend after the best friend got pregnant by the woman's husband. The SCOTUS Blog has the details behind the Supreme Court arguments.
Bond, a microbiologist who worked as a chemical engineer for the manufacturing company, Rohm & Haas, allegedly obtained toxic chemicals from the company’s storage and by a purchase over the Internet. She chose a mixture, 10-chloro10H-phenoxaraine with potassium dichromate, that could cause harm to humans, even through minimal contact. She began applying the chemical to the doorknob at Haynes’ home in Norristown, to the handles of her car doors, and to her mailbox. Prosecutors said she made the attempt 24 times over several months in 2006 and 2007. Haynes noticed the chemicals, and usually managed to avoid them. Once, however, she sustained a burn on her thumb. 
After getting no satisfaction from local police, Haynes complained to the U.S. Postal Service. Postal officers then began an investigation, and set up surveillance cameras around the Haynes home. At one point, the prosecution said, the cameras photographed Bond opening Haynes’ mailbox, taking a business envelope from it, and putting some substance on it. The officers tested chemicals that had been placed on Haynes’ car muffler, and traced the materials to Rohm & Haas. Bond was arrested, and her home and car were searched, turning up evidence of the crime. She was then charged by a grand jury with two counts of possessing and using a chemical weapon, and with two counts of mail theft.
It kind of makes me disappointed that I've never seen such an exotic case like this in the sleepy little burg where I work. Just this morning I was trying to explain to my daughter all the stupid reasons people will murder each other by telling her about a decades old case in my jurisdiction where one paint huffer killed another paint huffer with a 2x4 when the victim huffer sniffed all the first huffer's paint. I guess that is about as close to a chemical weapons treaty violation that I'll get to see.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The New Bills Are Here, The New Bills Are Here

Scott Henson over at the blog Grits For Breakfast has a great rundown of some of the new criminal law bills being proposed over at the Texas Legislature. They include new penalties for DWI, Burglary of a Vehicle, and even one that would raise Evading Detention to a First Degree Felony if you ran from the police and then hid in a residence. For those of you not from around here, in Texas a First Degree Felony is the same level of offense of most murders. Ouch!

As usual, Scott does a good job of reporting the possible effects of some of these changes. Hit the link to read his post.

On a lighter note, the blog D.A. Confidential has a great post on why he's an underpaid prosecutor instead of a highly paid corporate attorney.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Collecting Data On Provoking The Police To Shoot You

There is an interesting article over at Miller-McCune about how to reduce the numbers of officer involved shooting incidents that are often labled "suicide by cop". The label of "suicide by cop" is often applied to police shootings where the person shot goes out of their way to provoke the police to shoot them.

Police agencies are very often the first stop for delivering mental health services to the mentally ill. With the state's budget crisis, this problem is liable to get worse as more and more states look to cut funding for mental health services. Regardless of the numbers of these types of incidents, they do take a toll on the officers involved.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a consensus on just how prevalent the problem is or even in what the definition of "suicide by cop" is.
But as Pyers discovered in her research, understanding of suicide by cop is far from complete. Partly, this is because only a handful of researchers have attempted to quantify how many of the 350 to 400 people cops kill each year actually wanted to die. Depending on whose definition of suicide by cop you accept, somewhere between 35 and 120 people use the police as instruments of their own destruction every year in the U.S. But partly because of this lack of consensus, hundreds of shootings are called “suicide by cop” in the media and occasionally by law enforcement agencies looking to justify a questionable civilian death.
It will be interesting to see if these folks manage to get reporting on data regarding police shootings mandated. While I see the need to collect the data, that's just one more thing my crime analysis unit will have to count. And until all the experts settle on a definition of "suicide by cop" just what are we supposed to count? This is probably the reason the IACP seems to be ambivalent about recommending the data collection as reported in the article.

As it stands right now, we're mandated to count and report crime data (UCR), detailed sexual assault data, detailed family violence data, law enforcement officers killed or assaulted (LEOKA) data, hate crime data and racial profiling data among other things. I have yet to see any money coming our way to pay for this every time they mandate the collection of some new data.

I don't doubt that collecting the data could be useful, but if you are going to mandate the collection of it, there should be some compensation for the additional workload it is going to put on an agency's crime analysis unit. Right now my analysts spend way too much time filling in Scantron forms to report data that some researcher managed to convince a legislative body was good to count but has little usefulness to my agency.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Infamous Austin Tire Slasher Busted

This is a weird one: Residents of the Hyde Park area of Austin are likely breathing a sigh of relief after Austin Police announce the arrest of a homeless man they believe to be responsible for hundreds of cases of vandalism to car tires in the area in a series of crimes going back to 1994. From the story over at the Austin American Statesman:
In the weeks that followed, police built a case connecting him to more than 400 criminal mischief cases in the past four years alone, and potentially more than a thousand cases in the past 16 years. Investigators discovered that there had been a spike in criminal mischief in the area after Kelley, who has been in and out of jail dozens of times on various charges, had been released, Detective Eric Hoduski said.  
"Kelley is a suspect in criminal mischief cases dating back to 1994," said Hoduski, the lead detective in the case. "There's tons of circumstantial evidence over the years that he was the only viable suspect."  
Kelley was charged Thursday with four counts of unlawful use of a criminal instrument, a third-degree felony, and faces a $50,000 bail in connection with the charges, police said. Kelley, who is homeless, created several metal tools used to puncture tires, police say. They said it was not clear what his motive may have been.
It will be interesting to follow this one through the courts. Austin Police had a tough situation as in most cases, no one saw this guy commit the crimes. Serial vandalism probably wasn't what Austin was thinking when they adopted the slogan "Keep Austin Weird".

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Budget Problems Likely To Lead To Criminal Justice Reforms

Funny how things turn out sometimes. There's a story over at the Austin American Statesman about the conservative political group Right On Crime launching a campaign to encourage states to adopt more drug treatment programs and other cheaper alternatives to incarceration.
“Conservatives are known for being ‘tough on crime,’ but that does not warrant the current system’s big-government spending. We have already enacted significant reforms, but there is still more work to be done. This session, I will work to be sure our tough-on-crime policies are smart about spending, too.”
Maybe my memory is going but I seem to remember that politicians used to say drug treatment programs were "coddling" criminals. Nevertheless, I am glad to hear the call for more of these programs. Many criminals regardless of the crime they have committed have substance abuse problems. Reducing the number of people with substance abuse problems will reduce their motivations to make bad decisions or to commit crimes to feed their addictions.

This might be the silver lining in the poor economy's dark clouds.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

NJ Police Chief: Hack Your Kid's Facebook Account

There is a story over at the computer industry website ZDNet where they quote a New Jersey Police Chief recommending that parents use any means possible to gain access to their children's Facebook account including installing key logging software to gain access to their passwords. From the piece:
Batelli is not the only one on the force that offers his extreme Internet-monitoring advice to parents. The Mahwah Police department has free seminars where detectives show parents how to install keystroke-recording software on home computers.
I'm a parent too and my daughter is an avid Facebook user. At times it seems like it's a big scary world out there. However, advocating dubious and possibly illegal means to spy on your own family doesn't exactly seem to me to be good parenting advice and really has me scratching my head when it's coming from a police agency.

 A more reasonable approach to Internet safety can be found here and here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cybercrime Creating A Boomtown In Romania

Wired magazine has a great piece on a town in Romania that is becoming a cybercrime boomtown. The article is long but is worth the read.
Among law enforcement officials around the world, the city of 120,000 has a nickname: Hackerville. It’s something of a misnomer; the town is indeed full of online crooks, but only a small percentage of them are actual hackers. Most specialize in ecommerce scams and malware attacks on businesses. According to authorities, these schemes have brought tens of millions of dollars into the area over the past decade, fueling the development of new apartment buildings, nightclubs, and shopping centers. Râmnicu Vâlcea is a town whose business is cybercrime, and business is booming.
Even in the sleepy little burg where I work we are touched by international cybercrime. We probably get several reports a year from some local victim who has sent money to gosh knows where because of something they got involved in on the Internet. Since it's not likely that your local cops are going to get to put the cuffs on some cybercrook in Romania or Nigeria, it's probably a better strategy to educate potential victims on how to prevent these types of crimes taking place.

The US Department of Justice has a Cybercrime and Intellectual Property section website with links to resources about cybercrime. The FBI also has the Internet Crime Complaint Center website for reporting cybercrime.

Monday, February 14, 2011

New Policing Techniques With No Extra Funding

This looks interesting: there is this article over at the Sacramento Bee where they look at a Sacramento Police initiative to drive their crime numbers down with "hot spot" policing.
Embracing a national trend known as evidence-based policing, the agency is borrowing from several research studies that have found the simple presence of a police officer in a "hot spot" – for as little as 20 minutes every day – can dramatically drive down crimes like prostitution, drug-dealing, fights and car break-ins. 
Here's the key: It's all done in the course of an officer's regular patrol duties. Put another way: No extra expenses. 
When the less-violent crimes are stifled, the theory goes, police can then focus on bigger issues. 
"You're going to reduce those calls for service that get generated and waste an officer's time," said Sgt. Renee Mitchell, who is overseeing the 90-day pilot project. "You're basically making (police) more efficient." 
The project is an example of the department trying to attack crime creatively – and practically, given tough economic times, said Chief Rick Braziel. 
"The reality is there's no money," he said. "So we've got to start getting smarter."
The part I really think is interesting is that their approach is not going to increase their budget any. They are applying this technique as part of their officers' normal duties. As the nation's fiscal crisis has permeated it's way down to local police agencies, we are likely going to see more departments trying to increase their efficiency like this.

What are you doing to help your agency "do more with less"?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Skills Are Perishable

Yesterday I had a conversation with an analyst I have known for years. We first met at a criminal intelligence analysis school about 11 years ago where we were being taught link analysis as well as other criminal intelligence analytical techniques. In referring to the conditions under which we first met, she made a comment about how glad she was not have to have to draw link analysis diagrams anymore. What was ironic was that while she never used that analytical technique in her position, I was actually working on a link analysis diagram using those very same techniques I learned while we chatted back and forth.

This got me to thinking about how perishable our analytical skills can be. Like many of us, I have been fortunate to have my agency send me to some very useful and often times, expensive schools. But also like many of us, I don’t always get to use some of the skills I learn at these whiz-bang schools. That creates a problem because anytime we learn a skill then don’t use it or only use it infrequently, our proficiency with that skill will deteriorate. Skills are perishable.

Sometimes the skills we learned years ago deteriorate because a new and better way to solve the same problem has supplanted the old way of doing things. For those of you old enough to remember when most cops carried revolvers, the reloading techniques taught at the range were different than they are for today’s semi-auto pistols. The skill we were first taught atrophied because we were later taught better skills for better equipment. But it is more problematic when a skill deteriorates not because the skill is outdated but because we just don’t use it often enough.

To avoid this we have to weigh if the effort to keep the skill will be offset by the skill’s future usefulness. If we deem the skill to be potentially useful and not obsolete, we have to make a conscious effort to revisit those skills occasionally to keep them sharp. We can do this by dusting off the old course textbooks, by retaking the course or just by fooling around with the technique.

What are you doing to keep the tools in your toolbox sharp? What’s one infrequently used skill you wish you were better at?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Home Grown Terrorists And The Role Of Analysts

I don't normally focus on terrorism issues here at The Crime Analyst's Blog. Not because it's not important but like most analysts, normal old 'run of the mill' type crimes are a bigger threat in the sleepy little burg where I work. However, there have been a couple of news stories out of late that I think are worth looking at where terrorism is concerned.

First, there is this story over at the Navy Times that quotes Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as saying the terror threat to the US may be at it's highest state since the 9/11 attacks. She further had this interesting bit:
“One of the most striking elements of today’s threat picture is that plots to attack America increasingly involve American residents and citizens,” she said. “We are now operating under the assumption - based on the latest intelligence and recent arrests - that individuals prepared to carry out terrorist attacks and acts of violence might be in the United States, and they could carry out acts of violence with little or no warning.”
This dovetails with the recent release of an NYPD report that looks at the homegrown terror threat and the radicalization process that turns ordinary citizens into terror threats. The report had this to say in it's conclusions:
The challenge to intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the West in general, and the United States in particular, is how to identify, pre-empt and thus prevent homegrown terrorist attacks given the non-criminal element of its indicators, the high growth rate of the process that underpins it and the increasing numbers of its citizens that are exposed to it.
We also recently saw a Senate report that was critical of the FBI in not recognizing the threat posed by Fort Hood shooting rampage suspect Nidal Hassan. An NPR story on the Senate report had this bit worthy of note:
It said the FBI's top leaders must exercise more control over local field offices and put to better use the intelligence analysts who should have been able to connect the dots.
Crime analysts and criminal intelligence analysts are often times related disciplines. In fact, at the agency where I work, I wear both of those hats. But in either case, whether your title is crime analyst or criminal intelligence analyst, you are often times in a good position to identify threats to your community whether they come from home grown terrorists, criminal street gangs or just plain old crooks.

What are you doing to identify the biggest threats to your community?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Even Crime Analysts Need Work-Life Balance

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about productivity. I've been reading Leo Babauta's book Focus during my all too brief lunch breaks. An important component of productivity at work is finding a proper balance between work and the rest of your life.

Today I came across this TED Talks video from Nigel Marsh where he talks about achieving that all too elusive work-life balance.

 

What are you doing to not only improve your productivity, but also to achieve that all too elusive balance in your life?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Texas Prisoners May Get Served Brunch on Saturdays

A Saturday "brunch" is not what comes to mind when I think of prison food. However, a proposed cost cutting budget at Texas prisons includes cutting weekend day meals from three down to two. The changes in the menu are relatively benign compared to some of the other proposed cuts such as laying off about 1,000 prison system employees and cuts to drug treatment programs.

The good thing is that it doesn't appear that state legislators agree with some of the proposed cuts and think that the prison could cut other areas that wouldn't compromise the mission of the agency. From the story over at the Austin American Statesman:
The reaction from legislative leaders with authority over prison operations was swift. 
"Tell them that plan is DOA," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, whose committee oversees prison operations. "Their plan could dismantle many of the treatment programs that are making our criminal justice system work right now." 
Rep. Jerry Madden, a Richardson Republican and author of many of the recent prison initiatives that would be cut, agreed. 
"It's a big agency, and there are a lot of other areas that they need to look at," Madden said, "like how many (prison system) employees have cell phones and how many actually need them the cheap housing we provide employees, the free haircuts, free food, free laundry — the entitlements that they're not touching."
A significant number of offenders enter prison with substance abuse problems. In fact, if you ask them, often times they will point to their substance abuse problems as the one of the main reasons they ended up in prison. Reducing these programs is likely to have significant societal costs as untreated offenders end up back out in society after their release.

Let's hope this gets sorted out before the budget is adopted.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Lock 'Em Up Policy Has It's Consequences

I thought this was interesting, it seems that the state of Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration of any of the states. In fact, according to this story over at Time Magazine, Oklahoma has a rate of incarceration for women more than double the national average. From the story:
The state currently incarcerates 132 women for every 100,000 females in the state — almost double the national average. In fact, Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration in the country, with about 67% of the more than 2,700 women incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. But at an annual cost of $26,000 per inmate, imprisonment doesn't come cheap, especially for a corrections system that is so overextended it was recently forced to eliminate visitations due to employee furloughs.
Of course this poses some unique societal challenges as women are usually the primary caregiver for children. Children in these homes where their primary caregiver is in prison are at serious risk for becoming the next generation of inmates. Recently Scott Henson over at the criminal justice policy blog Grits For Breakfast had this post about moves at the Texas legislature to reduce the number of incarcerations for prostitution. It seems that the state's fiscal crisis has spawned a lot of soul searching over the cost of the "lock 'em up" approach to crime problems.

 It is probably cheaper to treat drug addicted criminals than to lock them up without treatment. I just hope that as politicians wrangle over the state's budget crisis they don't lose sight of this fact.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Berkley Professor Confirms NYPD Crime Numbers Drop

Recently we've seen a number of stories that said that NYPD's CompStat process was contributing to the motivation of police to fudge or underreport the crime numbers in NYC. There's a story over at the NY Times that looks at a study into the accuracy of their crime data. The study was conducted by UC Berkley Professor Franklin Zimring.

It turns out that NYPD's crime numbers are pretty accurate in the three areas studied, homicides, robberies and auto thefts. What's really interesting is that this study is part of an upcoming book by the professor that has a working title of "The City That Became Safe: What New York Can Teach America About Crime Control". The story has this very intriguing bit:
The professor also concluded from his research that large numbers of criminals have stopped committing serious crimes. And he looked deeply at how the police in New York have successfully fought the war on drugs — essentially, by going into the “harm-reduction business,” where a principal aim was to make the streets safer and increase people’s confidence in using agencies.

So successful has the effort been, Professor Zimring said, that the narcotics squads in the city that were beefed up through the 1990s now have smaller staffs than in 1990.

As his paper says, one surprise from the city’s experience is that “the city made giant strides toward solving its crime problem without either winning its war on illicit drug use or massive increases in incarceration.”

“So,” it continues, “the great success in this city is a challenge to the two dominant assumptions of crime control policy in modern America.”
The draft of the study is a good read and has some hints about what was effective in reducing NYPD's crime numbers. It is making me look forward to the entire book. It also makes me wonder about the possibility of applying this model of crime control in other communities.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Should Real Estate Prices Trump Public Safety?

This is an odd one but something we might see more of; there's a story over at the UK's Guardian about fears that online crime maps could depress real estate prices.
Nigel Lewis, property analyst at Findaproperty.com, said: "On the face of it, online crime maps are a brilliant idea akin to the neighbourhood watch schemes launched during the 1980s, but they are also dangerous for the housing market.

"In the same way school catchment areas have skewed property markets around the UK and created 20% uplifts around good schools, so these maps could drive down prices in crime-stricken streets and postcodes."
I've known cities on this side of the pond that did not use of publish crime information because it would "make the city look bad". However, I don't think that obfuscation for the sake of the real estate market is sound public policy.

An informed public is critical to solving crime problems. The police can't be everywhere and we've already seen that traditional reactive policing is a terribly ineffective way to solve crime problems. By keeping the public in the dark about crime problems in their community, you may achieve a short term gain in lining the pocket books of real estate brokers, but you will lose in the long run as minor crime problems fester into big ones and no amount of real estate window dressing will disguise it.

If you are going to engage the public to assist law enforcement in the fight against crime problems, they have to know there is a problem.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Report Lends Credence To The Efficacy Of Red Light Cameras

This is probably not going to be the final blow to this debate, but it may be heading in that direction. The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety recently released a report on the efficacy of red light cameras in reducing fatal traffic accidents. The story over at Yahoo News has this bit:
The study provides strong evidence that the cameras can save lives when used appropriately with the goal of making roads safer, said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Averella. "However, without proper ... oversight these automated enforcement measures can sometimes be abused and become revenue generators instead of lifesavers at the expense of motorists," she said.
Up until now, most of the studies showing benefits of these types of systems have been done by an entity with "a dog in that fight", either the company that manufactures and sells the systems or the governing body that stands to benefit from the fines collected by them. With the release of this report, it's a lot harder to argue that the IIHS has a direct financial benefit from the installation of these systems. This is one reason I think this study is unique and consequently an important point in this debate.

I have also seen some municipalities that were seemingly more motivated by revenue generation than by safety when the decision was made to implement these systems. This is the wrong reason to engage in any enforcement activity.

The IIHS report has this important point:
Red light running is a frequent traffic violation, and the safety consequences have been established. Enforcing red light laws is important, but many communities do not have the resources for police to patrol intersections as often as would be needed to ticket most motorists who run red lights. Traditional police enforcement also poses special difficulties for police, who in most cases must follow a violating vehicle through a red light to stop it. This can endanger motorists and pedestrians as well as officers.
Red light running is a dangerous violation with often tragic consequences. However, governments need to prove to the motoring public that this isn't just a tool for revenue generation. One way to demonstrate this to a skeptical populace may be to ensure that governing bodies don't directly benefit financially from the fines collected.

Years ago the Texas legislature put the brakes on a few cities who were using regular traffic enforcement to generate revenue by making the cities turn over the collected fines to the state in order to remove the incentive to make traffic enforcement a form of "road tax". This might be one way to remove this motivation where red light camera enforcement goes. It will be interesting to see if this issue comes up in the Texas legislature this session.

You can read the full IIHS report here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

CSI This Ain't

This is interesting and not in a good way: NPR has a story this morning about a Frontline/NPR/ProPublica documentary looking at the state of forensic pathology exams or autopsies in the United States. The results of this look is not good. From the NPR story:
More than 1 in 5 physicians working in the country's busiest morgues—including the chief medical examiner of Washington, D.C.—are not board certified in forensic pathology, the branch of medicine focused on the mechanics of death, our investigation found. Experts say such certification ensures that doctors have at least a basic understanding of the science, and it should be required for practitioners employed by coroner and medical examiner offices.

Yet, because of an extreme shortage of forensic pathologists—the country has fewer than half the specialists it needs, a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded—even physicians who flunk their board exams find jobs in the field. Uncertified doctors who have failed the exam are employed by county offices in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and California, officials in those states acknowledged. Two of the six doctors in Arkansas' state medical examiner's office have failed the test, according to the agency's top doctor.

In many places, the person tasked with making the official ruling on how people die isn't a doctor at all. In nearly 1,600 counties across the country, elected or appointed coroners who may have no qualifications beyond a high-school degree have the final say on whether fatalities are homicides, suicides, accidents or the result of natural or undetermined causes.
I remember the first autopsy I went to as a young police detective, way too many years ago. The autopsy suite was in the basement of a hospital in a small, cramped room and was almost devoid of any high-tech equipment one would have expected, even nearly 20 years ago. The pathologist and his assistant didn't take photos, if you needed them for your case you had to take them yourself. The state of the room was so bad that as I leaned over the body to take a photo of a suspicious injury a drop of water from the leaky air conditioning system fell from the ceiling vent and went down the back of my neck.

There was never a more creepy feeling then staring into a corpse while a cold drop of water runs down the back of your neck.

The story over at NPR is long (in six parts)but is worth the read. With all the recent scrutiny over problems with crime labs, this is one area that needs to be examined with the detail you might see on CSI.