Friday, April 29, 2011

Bruce Schneier On The Security Mirage

Lately I have been reading the novel Zero Day by Mark Russinovich. Mark's a Technical Fellow at Microsoft Corporation. He also has a PhD in Computer Engineering. I say this to get across the point that he's got real geek cred. The premise of Zero Day is that a black hat computer hacker has unleashed a computer virus that is wreaking havoc on all the computer systems that we have become so dependent on. People are dying, planes are crashing, and basically we're all screwed unless the protagonists can save us. So far, it's a pretty good, suspenseful read. (BTW, I'll have a full review once I finish.)

When I was asked by the publicist if I wanted to review the book, I hesitated. Twenty years in law enforcement has left me with the knowledge that you can die in a bunch of ways. Often times, this knowledge can be a little unnerving. In fact, back in my detective days, I worked a death investigation where a woman had a brain aneurysm. Now this wasn't bad enough to kill her but what it did was to damage her brain enough that her choking reflex didn't work and she choked to death on a wad of chewing gum. That was just a weird way to die.

While I was thinking morbid thoughts about just how screwed we could be in a Zero Day scenario given our dependance on computers I came across this TED Talk from security expert Bruce Schneier. Bruce goes along way towards explaining why the feeling of security and actual security don't always match up.

Bruce's talk did a lot to lessen the feeling of dread that came with the scenario in Mark's book. I may end up having to watch it over again once I finish Zero Day.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Police Budget Woes Mean Changing Priorities In Camden

The implications of tight budgets for police agencies is no more readily apparent than in the case of the Camden, New Jersey Police Department which earlier this year laid off half it's police force as the result of a huge budget shortfall. There were a couple of news stories this week on this issue. The first looks at the increase in crime that has occurred in Camden since the layoffs. From the story at
"I think it just comes down to the people on the street. The bad guys know we’re not out there, and it has an effect on how they operate," said James Stewart Jr., vice president of Newark’s Fraternal Order of Police. "That’s why the shootings have increased dramatically, that’s why the homicides are up."
In the other story over at, reports on Camden's Police Chief Scott Thomson recieving an award from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) for his use of technology to try and make up the gap caused by the layoffs. From that story:
Thomson's use of technology and increased street patrols in one of the nation's most dangerous cities will be recognized Friday by the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank in Washington. Its current president is Philadelphia Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.

Thomson will receive the Gary Hayes Award for innovative policing at the forum's annual conference, said Chuck Wexler, its executive director.

"No community has had to face what he's had to face," Wexler said. "He's had to change the way he polices."
While Camden seems to be the poster child for police budget woes, they aren't the only agency struggling in this poor economy. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recently announced a new initiative to help agencies deal with problems caused by budget woes.  It's probably not going to get better anytime soon. Even here in "tough on crime" Texas we are seeing the effects of empty city coffers as agencies are seriously considering public safety layoffs to balance their budgets. The question for us as crime analysts is what to do about it.

As crime analyst's it's important that we help our agencies to be as focused as possible on our policing mission. This may mean we help our agencies to determine what services are essential to our mission and which services need to be cut. It may also mean that we employ problem oriented policing or an intelligence led policing model to make our agency more effective. It could mean that we find new and innovative ways to use existing technologies, or to find sources of new technologies on the cheap. Doing more with less is now the new paradigm in law enforcement.

What are you doing to make your agency more efficient at it's mission?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Houston PD's Hot Spot Policing Strategy More Effective On Property Crimes

The Houston Chronicle has a good article on a study of the effectiveness of Houston PD's Crime Reduction Unit. The surprising thing in the study was that while their hot spot policing strategy was effective in reducing property crime, the study did not note a significant impact on violent crime. From the story:
But a little-publicized study commissioned by the Houston Police Department found that dispatching members of its 70-officer Crime Reduction Unit to neighborhoods didn't always have the results they were looking for. 
In four different deployments, the CRU teams did not reduce violent crime but did tamp down property crime, according to the study by the Police Research Center at Sam Houston State University. 
"There was no statistical evidence to show that the CRU presence had a significant impact on violent crime,“ according to the 2009 study recently obtained by the Houston Chronicle. "The trend of violent crime seemed to have its own pattern, which was not affected by the CRU intervention.“
It's been my experience that it is often times easier to affect property crimes than it is violent crimes. This may be due to the fact that violent crimes often occur behind closed doors where a heavy, visible police presence is not always possible.

I am sure that many police chief's would be happy with any crime reduction they could get be it property crime or violent crime. What is your agency doing to affect crime hot spots in your community?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Technology As A Force Multiplier

There is an interesting piece over at USA Today where they look at police agencies increasing reliance on technology to make up for staffing shortfalls. From the story:
This month, a survey of 70 large police agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington law enforcement think-tank, found that 90% planned to increase their use of various technologies, primarily aimed at deterring crime by adopting more efficient surveillance, patrol and response strategies. 
“Departments are looking to technology as a force multiplier,” said Chuck Wexler, the forum’s executive director. “They are using this technology to better manage fewer resources, because just saying, ‘We don’t have enough officers’ isn’t cutting it with the public.”
As more and more departments suffer budget cuts, and often times personnel cuts it will become more important that departments are as efficient as possible. I've been in law enforcement for 20 years in Texas and this is the first time I have seen Texas agencies lay off cops. I don't think it's going to get better anytime soon either.

There is a lot a police department can do to use technology to fill in the gaps. In addition to the technology mentioned in the article, basic crime analysis principles can help your agency sharpen their focus. Instead of a reactive policing approach, using a problem oriented policing model can help you to become more efficient.

It's also a good time to ask yourself what services should your agency provide and what services aren't really part of your mission. Many agencies have started evaluating their policies regarding responding to minor traffic accidents and how to respond to problematic false alarms. Cutting out or lowering the priority placed on these types of services can allow your agency to refocus resources on the services that matter.

What is your agency doing to make itself more efficient?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Columbine Anniversary Bombing Suspect Identified

Colorado authorities have identified the man they believe was responsible for an attempted bombing of a Colorado shopping mall on the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. The mall was just miles from the school. From the CNN story:
The FBI Denver Joint Terrorism Task Force identified the subject of a nationwide manhunt as Earl Albert Moore, 65. 
Authorities, who released more photos of the suspect, said he has an extensive criminal background and multiple recognizable tattoos. They also said he should be considered armed and dangerous. 
According to the source, Moore was released from an unknown federal prison on April 13.
This one is an odd one. He was released from prison just a week before the bombing and struck on the anniversary of the Columbine shootings. The Denver FBI website has photos of Moore and his tattoos on it's website. You can view them here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bank Robbers Downfall Was Facebook

I know all the TV crime shows portray criminals as sophisticated and smart reality doesn't always match up. Actually, reality rarely matches up. To prove it, there is this story over at the Houston Chronicle on a group of bank robbers who's Facebook posts proved to be their undoing.

Two days before a west Houston bank heist, a 19-year-old bank teller named Estefany Martinez posted a cryptic status update on her Facebook page: "Get $$$."'

It would take a little over a week and a Crime Stoppers tip before investigators unraveled the plot twist behind the March 23 robbery of the International Bank of Commerce on Eldridge Parkway.

What looked on surveillance video to be a classic bank robbery — with armed, masked suspects and terrorized bank tellers — turned out to be an amateurish inside job, allegedly orchestrated by two 19-year-old tellers with the help of a boyfriend and an older brother.

Using an incriminating trail of Facebook posts left by Martinez and her 18-year-old boyfriend, Ricky "Ricko Gee" Gonzalez, detectives arrested four suspects this week on bank theft charges, alleging they made off with $62,000.

Their Facebook pages held not-so-subtle clues: Two days after the robbery, Martinez posted: "IM RICH …" followed by a rhyming expletive.

"WIPE MY TEETH WITH HUNDEREDS …" her boyfriend allegedly posted the day after the heist. He also boasted of wiping another part of his anatomy with $50 bills.

I always like it when they make our job easier. Crimes like these show the importance of reviewing all these digital clues like Facebook, computers and smartphones when conducting these types of investigations.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Texas Agency Outlaws Synthetic Pot On 420 Day

Yesterday was 420 day. I don't know whether the Texas Department of State Health Services realized that when they outlawed synthetic marihuana like substances known as "K2" or "Spice" here in Texas. From the story over at Austin American Statesman:
The Department of State Health Services just announced that it is outlawing marijuana-like substances that are commonly found in K2, Spice, “herbal incense”and other synthetic marijuana products. The ban takes effect Friday.
It will be illegal to make, distribute, possess and sell those substances. Penalties are Class A or B misdemeanors, according to a news release posted on the health department’s website.
The action follows the lead of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which prohibited the substances March 2, health department spokeswoman Christine Mann said. State law requires the health department to consider banning any substances the DEA has forbidden, she said.
Regardless of where you stand on the marijuana policy debate, this is a good move. Who knows what the manufacturers of these substances are putting in it. And since they claim that the substances are "incense" and not for human consumption they aren't abiding by any FDA regulations either.

In the sleepy little burg where I work, our city government had already outlawed these substances by ordinance. We were issuing citations for these offenses rather than making custodial arrests. This is probably an easier way to deal with these types of issues as you don't end up with a drug offender taking up jail space that could be better used for a real criminal.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

UK SCAS Crime Analysts Solve Difficult Crimes

There’s a good story over at the BBC on the UK’s National Policing Improvement Agency Serious Crime Analysis Section. This analysis unit has crime analysts who assist in working serial sex crimes and serial killings in the UK. From the story:
"Eighty per cent of the analysts' work is to actually understand what's gone on in the offence," Mr Sutton explains.
In a corner of the office is what Mr Sutton calls the "brain" - a computer holding the details of 16,000 sexual assaults and murders in a system called Viclas (Violent Crime Linkage Analysis).
When a new case comes in, it is analysed in minute detail. Each aspect of the offender's behaviour during the crime is then coded and the information is loaded onto the database to see whether there are similarities with other offences.
The more crimes that can be linked, the more clues there will be and the more chance detectives will have of identifying the perpetrator.
This unit is similar to the FBI’s ViCAP program here in the US. I have no idea what ViCAP’s office building looks like but I’d bet the Serious Crime Analysis Section folks have them beat. How many other crime analysis units have a building referred to as the “sunken pizza hut”. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Data Driven Helps Reduce Crime

Columbia, Missouri Police credit a data driven approach to policing to helping drive property crime down even while their community has grown. From the story over at the Columbia Daily Tribune:
“We’re getting a lot better at identifying problems,” said Columbia police patrol Capt. Brad Nelson. “Burglary detail while students are on break has helped. That was an excellent advancement. Our cops are becoming more aware and responding to problems in their beats.” 
The department’s problem-oriented policing philosophy and geographic strategy is contributing to the success, Nelson said. The addition of crime analyst Jerry East to the staff has allowed the department’s strategy to become data-driven. 
Data allow officers to see where crimes are taking place over time. Beat officers can be shifted for trending crimes, such as burglaries, and consistent analysis of incoming data allows Nelson to react to problems sooner rather than later. 
Although Columbia’s population has grown by 28 percent over the past decade, Nelson said Columbia police have kept up with the growing crime element.
Crime analysis helps a department to become "data driven" and focus their crime suppression efforts on what's most likely to lead to reducing the crime problem in their community.

I had a conversation with a business leader last week and spoke with him about how law enforcement agencies were using data mining tools commonly used by business in order to focus their crime supression efforts. The same tools and techniques he uses to determine what products he's selling and when can be used to determine similar information about crime. Just as these tools help a business sharpen their focus, they can also help a police department sharpen theirs.

What are you doing at your agency to become more data driven?

Monday, April 18, 2011

40 Year Old Murder Mystery Solved

I love hearing news stories about solving cold cases. This one over at CNN is no different. Prosecutors in Massachusetts announced that three arrests have been made in a 40 year old murder mystery.
Edward A. Brown, 59, Walter Shelley, 60, and Michael Ferreira, 57, face charges surrounding the asphyxiation murder of John McCabe on September 27, 1969, Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone said in a written statement. 
"These charges are the result of an incredible turn of events in what has been an unsolved case for over 40 years," he said. 
Police found McCabe's body in an abandoned car in Lowell. He was bound with rope and his eyes and mouth were taped shut, Leone said.
It's stories like this that give me hope that more of these cold cases will one day be solved.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What Do Crime Analysts Really Do?

Every now and then I get an email from people who are interested in crime analysis and wonder just what it is that crime analysts do. Sometimes, they confuse crime analysts with crime scene specialists who process crime scenes for forensic evidence.

In a pretty good example of one thing that crime analysts do, the Austin American Statesman had this story:
After 11 years on the run, authorities arrested one of the state’s Most Wanted Sex Offenders living under an assumed name in Kansas.
Jose Juan Sandoval, last seen in El Paso, was apprehended after a DPS crime analyst tracked him to Topeka, Kansas. A DPS Criminal Investigations agent contacted authorities in Kansas and Sandoval was arrested yesterday. The El Paso Sheriff’s Office will seek extradition back to Texas for his probation violation.

Sandoval, 41, had assumed the identity of his wife’s first husband, and was collecting benefits from the state of Kansas. Authorities also discovered another counterfeit driver license in his possession.
This is just one of the types of things that crime analysts do. When they ask I like to tell people that crime analysts "crush crime and evil and make the world safe for women and babies".

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Serial Killer's Victims Had Alliterative Names

Serial killers are weird enough but Yahoo News has this story that includes this really bizarre bit:
Four California women who investigators believe were murdered by the same man all had alliterative names: Carmen Colon, Roxene Roggasch, Pamela Parsons and Tracy Tafoya.
The suspect, a 77-year-old petty thief and freelance photographer, was arrested this week, and now detectives are looking deeper into the deaths and whether the man had anything to do with New York's "Double Initial Murders" — the killings in the early 1970s of three girls, each with matching initials.
Sounds like something out of a TV movie.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Countering Apathy

This excellent TED Talk raises a couple of issues I think are worth thinking about. Like most people in law enforcement I firmly believe that citizen involvement is crucial to solving most of the crime problems that occur in the communities we serve. I also know that the general feeling in law enforcement sometimes is that the public is apathetic or uncaring about crime problems in the community.

Canadian community activist Dave Meslin argues that it might not be that the community is apathetic, it might be that we don't advertise our opportunities well. In the video above, Dave's example of the public notice for a zoning hearing is spot on. If businesses advertised their products like we do in government they would probably go out of business. I find this sad.

How does your agency communicate opportunities for citizen involvement? Are you making these communications attractive and professional?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Crime Mapping A Boon To Citizen Involvement

On my way home from work yesterday, I happened to notice two patrol cars from the local police department parked in my neighborhood. It was clear that they had been in my neighborhood responding to a call. Even though I work in law enforcement in a nearby jurisdiction, if I hadn't seen the officers I would have never known that there was an incident just a couple of blocks from my home. In fact, other than the folks that had the police at their home or maybe their immediate neighbors, I would be willing to bet that almost no one in my neighborhood knows there was some sort of problem.

Some problems police respond to probably aren't important to the neighborhood as a whole such as a domestic disturbance. But what if the problem was something like a burglary? Would it be beneficial if more of my neighbors knew that someone who lives close to them was victimized? Would they then be able to be more vigilant to protect their property and that of their neighbors?

One solution to letting the neighborhood know about crime problems in their midst is online crime mapping. We have such a system in the sleepy little burg where I work. There's a story over at that details the efforts of the Saint John Police Force to inform their citizens of crime problems in their neighborhoods with an online crime map. From the story:
In its first phase, the site will only map five crimes: break-and-enters, robberies, thefts from vehicles, vehicle thefts and mischief. 
The idea is if people know what crimes are happening in their community, they can prevent further crimes from taking place by reporting suspicious activity to police. 
The website - accessible by anyone - allows people to sign up for alerts whenever a crime happens within a certain radius of their home. They can also send police anonymous tips.
"It could be the pivotal piece of information that helps us make an arrest," Connell said.
Sometimes it's tough to convince a police chief that putting this kind of data out to the public is a good thing. There's always a fear that publishing this sort of data will make the agency or the community look bad. But the reality is, this kind of transparency is crucial to an agency becoming a partner with the citizens they serve to solve crime problems in the community.

What is your agency doing to inform your citizens of crime problems in their neighborhoods?

Monday, April 11, 2011

The 80/20 Rule Really Does Apply Sometimes

There's a story over at the Victoria Times Colonist that Nanaimo, British Columbia Police have seen a big increase in burglaries that they believe are being committed by just a small number of prolific offenders. From the story:
A handful of thieves recently released from jail are thought to be responsible for more than doubling the rate of break-ins in Nanaimo, police said. 
There have been 34 break-ins in the past three weeks, RCMP spokesman Const. Gary O'Brien said. Items worth thousands of dollars in total were stolen.
I've posted on this idea before that sometimes, a small number of offenders are responsible for a significant amount of crimes. This phenomena is known as the 80/20 rule.

The rule says that 80% of your crimes may be the work of 20% of your offenders. Now, in reality the numbers may not be exactly 80/20 but the idea is often sound. A few prolific offenders can wreak havoc on your crime stats, like the Constables in Nanaimo are finding out.

We can use this to our advantage though, if we can target these prolific offenders, we may have a larger effect on crime in our communities that if we pour our efforts into less prolific offenders. Given the limited resources we have available in our departments, this is a much more efficient way to work anyway.

At my agency, we've started identifying likely prolific offenders and getting this information out to our officers. If they happen across one of these prolific offenders they can give them the extra scrutiny they so richly deserve and maybe even make some good cases on them.

What are you doing at your agency to target prolific offenders?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Austin PD Goes Online Reporting

There's a short piece over at KUT about Austin Police implementing an online reporting solution to allow citizens to file their own police reports for minor offenses. From the story:

The Austin Police Department launched a new online reporting system today called CopLogic. It allows you to file the kind of non-emergency, low priority cases complaints you might normally report to 3-1-1.

In fact, APD says it processed more than 58,000 reports last year through 3-1-1. That's an average of 158 calls a day. The new system, APD hopes, will improve the quality of reporting and case tracking.

We've been working on implementing a similar solution at the sleepy little burg where I work. The idea is that if a citizen can file their own report, this will free up an officer to allow them to focus on the things that only they can do. With agencies around the nation feeling the effects of tighter budgets, solutions such as this make sense.

In what areas is your agency trying to do more with less?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Maine Legalizes Switchblade Knives For Amputees

I didn't realize this was a big problem: A bill in the Maine legislature legalizes automatic knives for people with only one arm. From the story over at Reuters:
Backers of the measure say legalizing switchblades would eliminate a need for one-armed people to be forced to open folding knives with their teeth in emergencies.
I guess there is no problem out there that a governing body won't try to fix with legislation.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stanley McChrystal on Leadership

I love the TED Talks. This one from retired General Stanley McChrystal is good.
"If you are a leader, the people you have counted on will help you out. If you are a leader, the people who count on you need you on your feet."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Inaccurate Crime Statistics Hurts All Of Us

This month's Community Policing Dispatch has a thought provoking post from Rana Sampson. In her post, she argues that when law enforcement fudges their crime stats this practice "undermines the nobility" of the policing profession. In this piece, Rana expands on thoughts she shared as a speaker at the 2010 International Association of Crime Analyst's / Problem Oriented Policing Conference. I covered those remarks in this post here at The Crime Analyst's Blog.

In Rana's most recent comments, she says:
Even though there are many different ways to measure a city’s crime reduction success, the up or down trends of Uniform Crime Report (UCR) Part 1 crime numbers and rates has the firmest grip on how cities are viewed, even though these numbers/rates are widely considered to be insufficient and potentially inaccurate gauges of police competency. That said, I do believe we can reduce crime—and have done so in many places—but the important point here, is that there is no need to exaggerate gains since it masks patterns that allow us to reduce crime further. Currently, most police agencies selectively report crime in their jurisdiction, typically reporting on only a handful of crimes, predominantly murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and vehicle theft, whether or not these are indicative of all the other crimes or crime trends occurring in the jurisdiction. Also, police rarely report crime clearance rates to the public and do not discuss how these rates relate to reductions or changes in crime.
For those of you that don't know, the Uniform Crime Report criteria was originally put together in the 1930's. Should we really be counting crime in 2011 like we did when Bonnie & Clyde were "public enemies"? Can't we do better than this?

Accurate crime stats are hugely important to a police department and to the community they serve. While it might be easy to reduce your crime rate with the stroke of a pen, you then loose the ability to use those stats to sharpen your crime fighting efforts. Rana's post is a good read. I encourage you to hit the link and read the entire piece.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Community Support Crucial To Fix The Burglary Problem

There was an interesting bit over at Scott Henson's blog Grits For Breakfast where he linked to a report from the Austin Public Safety Commission that indicated that residential burglary was listed as the "most critical" crime problem in Austin. I have previously posted about recent stories regarding Austin's burglary problem. Unfortunately, Austin is dealing with a very low clearance rate for this type of offense. The clearance rate for burglary nationally, is one of the lowest for all types of UCR Part 1 Crimes.

Also surveyed in the report was citizens' perceptions about what APD could do to make Austin's neighborhood's safer. Number one on the list was "More Patrols To Prevent Crime". Number two was "Solve More Property Crime". The problem with these two responses is that both of these traditional approaches to solving crime problem imply that the problem is APD's alone to solve. Often times the best approach to solving crime problems is a more holistic approach, one that does not rely on an old fashioned reactive policing model.

The Killeen Daily Herald had a piece this weekend on the Killeen Police Department's efforts to enlist community involvement in crime problems through their Neighborhood Watch program. From the story:
Also during the meeting, residents learn about crime prevention and the importance of being aware of their surroundings. They are trained to recognize and report suspicious activities.

"Residents know who belongs there better than an officer who drives through (the neighborhood)," she said.
Programs like Neighborhood Watch and other crime prevention efforts are critical to solving a crime problem like Austin's burglary problem. What is your agency doing to enlist community involvement in the crime problems in your jurisdiction?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Link Analysis Tool: NodeXL

It's been kind of a slow news day here at The Crime Analyst's Blog. Earlier this week a question was posed on a crime analyst's email list looking for low cost link analysis software tools. A couple of people suggested NodeXL. NodeXL is a plug-in/template for Microsoft Excel. It will allow you to input connections between entities and then plot them as a social network graph.

I downloaded a copy this morning and began playing with it. It seems to work really well and is easy enough to use. Hopefully, I can get through this pile of stuff on my desk and get a chance to try it out on some real police work where a link analysis chart would be useful.