Friday, December 30, 2011

The Year's Top Trends in Crime Analysis

This is the last post for 2011 here on the blog. I think it’s worth taking a little time to look back at a few of the things I think are the most important crime analysis / policing topics of the year.

Predictive Policing
Predictive policing uses computer statistical algorithms to predict areas where certain types of crimes are more likely to occur. This works best for property crimes such as burglaries and larcenies. Given that these types of crimes make up the bulk of crimes reported to police their reduction could lead to significant crime reductions.

This technology holds a lot of promise because it will help law enforcement agencies focus proactive efforts in areas where it will have the greatest effect. With the nation’s poor economy, most agencies are having to “do more with less”. Predictive policing could lead to a more efficient policing strategy. If officers are more effective and drive property crimes down, they will then have more discretionary time to devote to other proactive enforcement efforts which in turn could lead to further crime reductions.

Falling Crime Rates
There have been a number of news stories out this year, and even this week about the fall in crime rates as reported by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) program. Quite a number of the stories have speculated as to the “why” of this trend.

My opinion is that widespread adoption of data driven strategies by law enforcement has played a role in reducing crime. Nearly every law enforcement agency regardless of size has adopted one of these strategies whether it be called COMPSTAT, DDACTS, POP, or any of the other myriad of acronyms for them.

Regardless of what you call your program, the important thing is that they are data driven so that an agency can focus their limited resources where they will have the greatest effect. You are seeing more agencies include a crime analysis function in their operations to help analyze the data. This is a really good thing.

As researchers and criminologists spend more time looking at the “why” behind the falling crime rates we might see more of a consensus about what works. Then, whatever that turns out to be, we need to do more of it.

Social Media
We’ve seen a widespread adoption of social media by law enforcement agencies. While this trend didn’t start in 2011, it surely accelerated. In my county alone we’ve got agencies from a small four man department to the largest agency in the county with a Facebook and/or Twitter presence.

Given the huge numbers of folks on these social media sites, it’s important for law enforcement agencies to have a presence on them as well. If your agency is going to interact with the citizens you serve, you have to go where those citizens are.

What do you think the most important crime analysis or law enforcement topics were for the year?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Missing Persons Detectives Often Start From Scratch

Earlier this week the Austin American Statesman had this interesting story about Austin PD's Missing Persons Unit.
When missing-persons investigators take on a case, they have nothing but a blank slate. There is no crime scene, like in homicide or narcotics cases. No body to examine, or drug route to track. No informant. No evidence. 
Sometimes, it has been weeks since a loved one disappeared. Other times, it's months. Often the caller has only a vague notion of where the person was last seen or might be headed. In the most difficult of circumstances, relatives have needed help looking for a family member who "stopped calling a few years ago and might have once lived in South Austin — or wait, maybe it was North — they're not sure," Gann said. 
"We have to start from scratch: building who this person is, asking what are their habits, where would they often go," Gann said. That is when the little things matter most: Did she or he have a favorite place that friends can remember? What words were exchanged before the disappearance? Was the person right-handed or left?
The vast majority of missing persons cases involve juvenile runaways. The good thing is that in most cases, they will be located or come home on their own volition. The more difficult cases often involve missing adults.

Not every police agency has a dedicated missing persons unit. One important resource for any police agency in Texas that is working a difficult missing persons case is the Texas Department of Public Safety's Missing Person's Clearinghouse. They can provide invaluable assistance in working these cases.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Looking Back As Crime Continued To Decline in 2011

As the calendar counts down towards the end of 2011 we're seeing the inevitable bunch of retrospective news stories about the events of 2011. One subject that I think is important is the continued decrease in crime nationwide. The Washington Post had a piece looking back at this subject.
Between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in the United States fell 51 percent, from 9.8 per 100,000 residents to 4.8 per 100,000. Property crimes such as burglary also fell sharply during that period; auto theft, once the bane of urban life, dropped an astonishing 64 percent. And FBI data released Dec. 19 show that the trends continued in the first half of 2011. With luck, the United States could soon equal its lowest homicide rate of the modern era: 4.0 per 100,000, recorded in 1957.
I don't doubt that within a couple of days after the start of the New Year, my Chief will be marching to my office to get an idea of what our stats books will look like since we'll have closed the books on 2011. This is something that is likely to be repeated in police department's across the country.

In some agencies, their local trends will be good, in others theirs will be bad and in many they'll be mixed. The good thing is that as a whole, crime is down in the United States. The challenge for us in 2012 is to continue this progress. Sure, we face challenges with the economy. But if we continue to work smarter and let the data drive our operations we'll keep driving crime down. This is a crime trend worth keeping.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Popularity of Online Purchases Mean More Porch Pickings

Like lots of folks, I find myself purchasing more and more items online rather than from traditional "brick and mortar" stores. The boom in packages being delivered has also started a trend in "porch picking" thieves who are taking these unsecured deliveries from the porches of victims. There was a piece over at the Boston Globe that looked at these types of thefts.

The dismal state of the economy - and the uptick in online shopping and shipping - seems to be making conditions ripe for porch-picking.

“There seems to be more of a rash this year,’’ said Quincy Police Captain John Dougan, who considers the thefts crimes of opportunity.

An October consumer survey found that nearly 47 percent of consumers intended to do at least some of their shopping online, up from 44 percent last year, the National Retail Federation reported. That makes for plenty of deliveries: The United Parcel Service, alone expects to deliver some 120 million packages this week - with its peak day exceeding a normal day’s volume by 60 percent, said Ronna Branch, UPS spokeswoman.

Even in the sleepy little burg where I work, I've noticed a few more incidents of these types of thefts lately.

The solution to this crime problem is likely going to lie in encouraging potential victims to better protect themselves by taking some common sense precautions if they are expecting a package to be delivered such as have the items delivered to their workplace or requesting that the package be held at the delivery terminal. Insuring purchases or expensive items can save them from taking a hit should their item get stolen.

Has your agency seen an increase in "porch picking"? What strategies have you found to be most effective in combatting these types of thefts?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Anonymous Tips Solve Crimes Especially Through Social Media

There was a story last week over at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that detailed the way police in Maine are using anonymous tips to solve crimes in their communities. From the story:

"We've gotten tips on things like homicides all the way down to panhandlers bothering people," says Portland Police Commander Vern Malloch. His department allows people to text anonymous tips to police. Malloch says that thousands of tips have come through Text-A-Tip more than a year after the program started.

"It's helped us solve other crimes, like burglaries and things like that," he says. "Folks provide the information but don't want to get involved beyond that."

Other departments around Maine are trying to generate tips by harnessing social media such as Facebook. "A lot of what we use it for is if we're looking for a suspect and we have still photographs or something that we're trying to identify," says Andy Robitaille, a crime analyst for the Lewiston Police Department who helps oversee a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and a newly-launched Google+ page.

In the sleepy little burg where I work, we've had good success with using anonymous tipster programs like CrimeStoppers to solicit tips and solve crimes. One use that has been particularly successful is to use CrimeStoppers to locate and arrest wanted fugitives. In fact, in one recent case with had tipsters calling within minutes after posting information about a fugitive on our CrimeStoppers Facebook page.

We'll cross post information about crimes and fugitives on both our agency's Facebook page and the CrimeStoppers page to get the most exposure. These posts are also sent out via our department's Twitter feed.

We've found that using social media to publicize these crimes work well because it often times bypasses the editorial filter imposed by traditional media. This isn't to say that traditional media isn't important but you can't rely on them to place the same importance on your press release about a wanted check forger as you do. On a slow news day they may run a piece on it, but if something bigger happens elsewhere in the world, your press release will likely end up in the trash.

If you have worked to develop an engaging social media presence, your audience will still get the message that you are looking for information on that criminal even if a natural disaster half a world away diverts the attention of your local newsroom.

What are you doing to encourage citizens in your community to provide tips on local crimes and criminals? How do you integrate this into your agency's social media presence?

Friday, December 23, 2011

More Officers Dying In Ambushes, But Why?

USA Today had a good story on an awful topic: the increase in police officer deaths due to ambush style attacks. From the story:
Yet in 63 of the 65 shooting deaths that the Justice Department has analyzed this year, 73% were the result of ambush or surprise attacks, said Josh Ederheimer, deputy director of the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services Office. 
"It is an incredibly large number," Ederheimer said. 
Earlier this year, a USA TODAY review of officer deaths highlighted a rising number of ambush slayings. In that August review, nearly 40% of the shooting deaths at that time were attributed to ambush or surprise attacks. That number was up from 31% in all of 2009, according to the most recent FBI study.
Let's hope we can get to the bottom of this trend and reverse it. If ever there was a trend that needed to be reversed, this would be it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sleepy Cops Are Bad News

NPR recently had a piece about a unique study of how the lack of sleep affects police officers. Anyone who has worked in law enforcement will tell you, shift work, long hours and unpredictable schedules wreak havoc on your sleep patterns. The study listed these findings:
  • Those who screened positive for a sleep disorder had a 25 percent higher risk of expressing uncontrolled anger to a suspect or citizen, and a 35 percent higher chance of having a citizen complaint filed against them.
  • Sleep-deprived officers had 51 percent greater odds of falling asleep while driving on duty.
  • One in three officers has sleep apnea – waking up repeatedly because breathing has temporarily stopped. That's at least 8 times higher than the rate among the general population.
  • They had a 43 percent higher chance of making a serious administrative error.
This story comes on the heels of recent FAA rules that limit the amount of hours a pilot can work to reduce the chances that a sleep deprived pilot will make a fatal error. 

Of course, while there are rules about how long a pilot or a truck driver can work without rest, there are no rules about how long a police officer can work without sleep. Yet, the idea that a sleep deprived officer will suddenly be called to make a split second life or death decision is pretty scary indeed. 

Back when I was a sworn officer, the longest stretch I worked without a break was 36 hours straight. I can't imagine that by the time the 35th hour rolled around I was in too good a shape to make any serious life or death decision. In fact, I can't imagine I was in any shape to even make a decision about where to get a cup of coffee. 

While agencies may have their own rules about how long an officer can work without rest, there are likely many agencies that have no such rules. Maybe it's about time they do. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bill Bratton On Why Crime Continues To Go Down

Yesterday I posted about the FBI's release of the preliminary 2011 Uniform Crime Report numbers that showed crime was still on the decline for the first half of 2011. CBS had this story with a good quote from former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton on why crime numbers continue to drop in spite of the poor economy.
"In the 1990s, policing got it right," Bratton told "Early Show" anchor Chris Wragge. "We began to focus once again on preventing crime; '60s, '70s, '80s, we focused on responding to crime. It's a lot different to try to prevent it, and we've become very successful at preventing it."

Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox disputes the popular myth that crime should be going up in a bad economy.

"They're using technology; they're using data, crime patterns, maps to figure out where are the hot spots, what's the trend in terms of crime and trying to be proactive," Fox said of law enforcement agencies. "People are either criminals or not, independent of whether they have a job.
Crime analysis really shows it's worth in helping law enforcement agencies to more efficient in their policing mission by letting the data drive their operations.

What are you doing to help your agency be more proactive?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The First Half of 2011 Was Good, What Will The Second Half Hold?

As the year winds down, many law enforcement agencies are getting ready to put their end of the year crime statistics together. In a taste of what's to come for 2011 Uniform Crime Report (UCR) numbers, the FBI released the preliminary report for the first half of 2011. CNN had this in their story on the release:

Overall, violent crimes were down 6.4%, while property crimes fell 3.7% when compared with figures from the first six months of 2010.


"Although we can all be encouraged that violent crime rates continue to decline nationwide, it is clear that we must remain vigilant and more work remains to be done," said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement released with the semiannual statistics. "In recent months, we have seen an alarming spike in law enforcement fatalities and the number of line-of-duty law enforcement deaths. This is appalling and unacceptable."

For the most part, things are looking good at my agency. How's the 2011 numbers looking at your agency? In what ways are you letting the data drive your operations?

Monday, December 19, 2011

If You Think Your Old UCR Rape Numbers Were Bad, Just Wait

Last week the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) released a report detailing the results of a survey they did looking into intimate partner violence. One part of the survey dealt with the prevalence of rape. The numbers are alarming with nearly 1 in 5 women reporting that they had been the victims of rape at some point.

In what's probably going to lead to even more shocking statistics, the Director of the FBI just approved changing the archaic, 1930's era Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) definition of rape. The Baltimore Sun had a piece on this change that included this:

Since the 1920s, rape has been defined as forcible penile penetration of a female. The definition does not include oral and anal penetration, penetration when a victim was unconscious or male victims.

The new definition includes "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."

The changes in this definition are long overdue. In the sleepy little burg where I work we had a serial rapist who had attacked several female victims. Because of the way that some of the attacks were committed, not all of his attacks were counted as part of our annual UCR Rape numbers that year. This is a travesty.

While the changes are long overdue, I don't know if the public is really ready for the huge uptick in rape numbers in their community. Just like the CDC numbers were pretty shocking, I think the new UCR numbers will be as well. Hopefully, this will lead to providing adequate resources to combat the problem of sexual assault.

Is your agency ready to explain the difference in your rape statistics once the new UCR definition takes effect?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Las Vegas Cops Go To Great Lengths To Nab Boosting Rings

Yesterday, I posted about organized shoplifting rings in Oregon. Later, I found this story at the Las Vegas Sun about how Las Vegas area cops are combating this problem in their jurisdiction with an approach I haven't seen before. 
Enter the Retail Apprehension and Prevention team, or RAP for short. The new undercover initiative operates on a similar premise: Plainclothes officers work in teams, blending in as customers while scouring stores for the crime rings, Seifert said. 
It’s a hunting game as officers discreetly track the suspects from one store to another, watching as they steal hordes of goods, police said. Once officers determine the suspects have established a pattern, they drop their shopper fa├žades and make arrests.
This approach may only make sense in areas with a high concentration of organized shoplifting rings. However, if your jurisdiction is being ate up with boosters, then it might be worth exploring. I'm sure your retailers would appreciate the help.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Organized Shoplifting Requires An Organized Response

Shoplifting is a problem for retailers all year long but the problem becomes particularly acute during the busy holiday shopping season. has this story about the problems the Pacific Northwest region is having with organized shoplifting rings.
"The bad guys don't have jurisdictional boundaries," said Tacoma Police Officer Scott Stanley, who created the nation's first multi-state alliance against organized retail theft. The alliance has a list of more than 600 retail members -- car shops, mall stores and supermarkets -- in states ranging from Washington and Oregon to California and Alaska. 

"The Pacific Northwest is unique: Nowhere else that I've studied sees so much mobility of thieves," Stanley said. "These guys can start in Seattle in the morning, hit I-5 and wind up in California by the end of it, stopping at every store along the way."
Better communications between retailers likely to be victimized and law enforcement is critical to shutting down these organized criminals. Even if your jurisdiction doesn't have a significant problem with organized retail theft rings, a partnership between retailers and police can pay dividends in combatting retail theft.

The Center For Problem Oriented Policing has a POP Guide covering shoplifting with great information on various responses to retail thefts.

What is your agency doing to partner with retailers in response to retail thefts?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You Can Find Anything On Craigslist, Even Victims

The Las Vegas Sun had an article that pointed to a trend we are even seeing in the sleepy little burg where I work, that is robbers setting up victims by luring them with offers of cheap merchandise on Craigslist.

The setup goes something like this: A “seller” posts an ad for an item such as an iPad or an expensive watch — often at an incredibly low price. He lures in a prospective buyer then arranges a meeting, perhaps in a remote parking lot in the evening.

When the buyer shows up with the cash, instead of getting a great deal, he gets a gun pointed in his face and is robbed.

For some reason, it seems like the victim's normal sense of caution goes out the window when they are getting a "deal" on Craigslist. It's likely that one of the most effective way of dealing with these types of robberies is to educate potential victims on safe ways to pursue these types of transactions so they can avoid becoming a victim in the first place.

Have you seen many Craigslist related robberies reported to your agency? How is your agency working on educating the public about these types of crimes?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuba Thefts Plague High School Bands

I hadn't heard of this trend but it makes sense. Apparently, tubas are such a hot commodity in the southern California area that their popularity has created a rash of tuba thefts according to this piece over at the LA Times.
Those are just the latest in what police and music instructors are describing as a rash of unsolved tuba thefts at high schools in southeast Los Angeles County. The thefts, according to band leaders, were probably spurred by Southern California's banda music craze, as well as the high prices the brass instruments fetch on the black market. A high-quality tuba can cost well more than $5,000, but even an old, dented tuba can sell for as much as $2,000, music teachers say.
I posted before about the acronym CRAVED that is used to describe items that are hot commodities for thieves. The acronym stands for:
  • Concealable. Things that can be hidden in pockets or bags are more vulnerable to shoplifters and other sneak thieves. Things that are difficult to identify or can easily be concealed after being stolen are also more at risk. In some cases, thefts may even be concealed from the owners of goods, as when lumber or bricks left lying around on building sites are stolen.
  • Removable. The fact that cars and bikes are mobile helps explain why they are so often stolen. Nor is it surprising that laptop computers are often stolen since these are not only desirable but also easy to carry. What is easy to carry depends on the kind of theft. Both burglars and shoplifters steal cigarettes, liquor, medicines, and beauty aids from supermarkets, but burglars take them in much larger quantities.
  • Available. Desirable objects that are widely available and easy to find are at higher risk. This explains why householders try to hide jewelry and cash from burglars. It also helps explain why cars become more at risk of theft as they get older. They become increasingly likely to be owned by people living in poor neighborhoods with less off-street parking and more offenders living nearby. Finally, theft waves can result from the availability of an attractive new product, such as the cell phone, which quickly establishes its own illegal market (see box).
  • Valuable. Thieves will generally choose the more expensive goods, particularly when they are stealing to sell. But value is not simply defined in terms of resale value. Thus, when stealing for their own use, juvenile shoplifters may select goods that confer status among their peers. Similarly, joyriders are more interested in a car's performance than its financial value.
  • Enjoyable. Hot products tend to be enjoyable things to own or consume, such as liquor, tobacco, and DVDs. Thus, residential burglars are more likely to take DVD players and televisions than equally valuable electronic goods, such as microwave ovens. This may reflect the pleasure-loving lifestyle of many thieves (and their customers).
  • Disposable. Only recently has systematic research begun on the relationship between hot products and theft markets, but it is clear that thieves will tend to select things that are easy to sell. This helps explain why batteries and disposable razors are among the most frequently stolen items from American drug stores.
This comes from Chapter 31 of  the excellent book Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers. Knowing what items are CRAVED in your area can help you focus on strategies to combat these types of crimes. In this instance, since we know that school bands are most likely to have this CRAVED item, we could focus prevention efforts on hardening the target locations and instituting practices that might make these types of thefts harder to pull off. 

What items are CRAVED in your jurisdiction right now?

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Small Town In The Middle Of New York City

The New York Times had a piece this weekend on a side of New York City I never knew existed. Roosevelt Island is a small island between Manhattan and Queens. The part that struck me was that because of it's unique geography, Roosevelt Island was more like a small town than an area in one of the world's largest most cosmopolitan cities.
It is a law enforcement curiosity. Technically part of Manhattan, Roosevelt Island pays for its own Public Safety Department and 37 peace officers. They are trained by the state with special New York City patrolman status, meaning they can make arrests and issue summonses. Three are plainclothes detectives. All are unarmed. 
“This is New York City,” Chief Guerra said, “so crime does occur here.” A given week might bring a graffiti complaint or a small-bore drug arrest. But seven burglaries in and around the same apartment complex in June constituted a full-blown crime wave.
This is definitely not what I think of when I think of Main Street, USA.

Friday, December 9, 2011

As If Katrina Wasn't Enough, Killings Soar In The Big Easy

The New York Times had a great piece yesterday on New Orleans struggle with a off the charts homicide rate.

Of all the challenges facing the city of New Orleans, none is as urgent or as relentlessly grim as the city’s homicide rate. It was measured at 10 times the national average in 2010, long before shootings on Halloween night in the crowded French Quarter revealed to a larger public what was going on in poor neighborhoods around the city every week. There were 51 homicides per 100,000 residents here last year, compared with less than 7 per 100,000 in New York or 23 in similar-size Oakland, Calif.

“From September of last year to February of this year,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu in a recent speech, after reciting a litany of killings from one city high school, “a student attending John McDonogh was more likely to be killed than a soldier in Afghanistan.”

Unfortunately, for the citizens of New Orleans, they're in the middle of a perfect storm. A dysfunctional and sometimes corrupt police department, poverty and societal upheaval have fostered a lack of trust between citizens and the government entities that should be working to make their community safer. Until the police and the community can work together, it's not likely that they are going to get a handle on this anytime soon.

It makes me glad I work in a community that has a much better relationship with the citizens we serve.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Metal Theft Causes Lots Of Problems For Public Agencies

The San Francisco Chronicle had this story about the problem metal thefts are becoming for public agencies like the Bay Area Rapid Transit system or BART. A recent theft on a BART transportation project caused a $500,000 loss and a 10 month delay after thieves stole cables for their copper.

BART officials said they intend to spearhead a task force on metal theft in hopes of reducing a problem vexing numerous public agencies, utilities and businesses, costing millions of dollars a year.

One potential partner: Vallejo, where city officials said Tuesday that thieves have stripped copper wire from 77 streetlights and signal lights at five intersections since May. The cash-strapped city has been unable to replace much of the wiring, plunging some streets into darkness and forcing three of the intersections to be turned into four-way stops.

The thefts in the bankrupt city of Valejo has left traffic signals out after thieves stealing $25 worth of copper are causing tens of thousands in damages that the city can't afford to fix.

The piece goes on to quote Brandon Kooi who authored the Problem Oriented Policing Center POP Guide The Problem of Scrap Metal Theft. This POP Guide is a good place to start if you are trying to develop a problem oriented policing strategy for dealing with metal thefts in your area.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

When Times Are Tight You Gotta Cut Somewhere, Even Funeral Escorts

This isn't the first story from cash strapped Detroit, but there was a story over at the Detroit News where they indicated that to save money Detroit Police are no longer going to provide police escorts for funeral processions in most cases.

"Most police departments provide escorts based on the availability of officers, and our members are seeing that there just aren't as many officers available as there used to be," said Douma.

Budget-conscious, manpower-strapped police departments have ended funeral accompaniments. Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Los Angeles are among the cities that have stopped providing escorts in recent years, except for funerals of police officers, firefighters or soldiers killed in battle.

Earlier this year, Detroit Police announced that they were moving to a verified response policy for handling alarm calls in order to save money.

If there is a silver lining to the poor economy one thing has to be that police are rethinking if they services they currently provide really are part of their mission. In the case of funeral escorts, does making sure that everyone gets from the funeral home to the graveside in an orderly procession really contribute to the mission of crime suppression? If it doesn't, then why were we doing it in the first place?

If times were tight at your agency, what services could you cut without impacting your primary mission of crime suppression or public safety?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Most Shoplifted Product: Meat

Adweek had an interesting piece last week that looked at some of the stats behind shoplifting. Some of them, including the top ten most shoplifted items were interesting.
"Seventy percent of shoplifters tell us they didn't plan to shoplift," says Barbara Staib, spokesperson for the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention. 
We also know that three-quarters of shoplifters aren't troubled teens; they're adults--most with jobs. And 35 percent of losses will happen with the help of a corrupt employee.
 The article also states that retailers expect to lose $119 billion dollars this year due to shoplifters.

The Center For Problem Oriented Policing has a POP Guide for Shoplifting. Many of the responses recommended are not so much issues for the police as for the retailers themselves. That being said, it's important for local police to work with retailers to help reduce their victimization.

How does your agency reach out to local businesses to help them prevent retail theft?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Your Car May Save You From A Redlight Runner had a piece this weekend about researchers from MIT who have developed an algorithm to predict vehicles that are likely to run a red light. Previous attempts at predicting this behavior weren't accurate enough to make the technology viable. It appears that researchers have gotten it down to an algorithm with an 85% accuracy.

“Even though your light might be green, it may recommend you not go because there are people behaving badly that you may not be aware of,” said Jonathan How, an aeronautics and astronautics professor who co-created the algorithm.

One of my favorite mantras is that you "can't always arrest you way out of a crime problem". This also goes for traffic problems. It may be that the solution to the danger of red light runners isn't writing more tickets, but instead finding ways for people to avoid dangerous situations in the first place.

Better engineering has significantly improved highway safety whether it's better designed cars or better designed roadways. It also doesn't have the stigma that's associated with traffic enforcement, that is, that traffic enforcement is more about revenue generation and less about making roadways safer.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Big Data" Holds Promise For Police Too

This isn't directly related to crime but does have an indirect application to crime analysis. NPR had a story this week on how companies are searching for people with analytical or mathematical expertise to analyze the large data sets they collect.

"There's one common element across all these people that stands out above everything, and that's curiosity," Patil says. "It's an intense curiosity to understand what's behind the data."

He compares raw data to clay: shapeless until molded by a gifted mathematician. A good mathematician can write algorithms that can churn through billions or trillions of data points and show where patterns emerge.

Not only do businesses have troves of "big data" they can mine for information, but most law enforcement agencies do as well. For instance I put together a data set of over 1 million of our Call For Service records the last time I redrew our beat boundaries. This is why the field of predictive policing looks so promising. The big data we hold is the key for making our agencies better at solving crime problems in our community.

Of course most agencies aren't in a position to hire a mathematician to mine their data. However, as the technology matures it should trickle down to where we can get at it. This makes me hopeful that we can use these techniques to serve our communities.

How does you agency use your "big data" to drive your operations?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Getting The Edge On Drug Trafficker Whac-A-Mole In Mexico

Slate Magazine had this article on using computer models to predict where drug traffickers will move their shipment routes to in response to enforcement crackdowns in Mexico.

Dell uses Dijkstra’s algorithm first to model the routes that cost-minimizing traffickers would take on Mexico’s roadways and then to predict how these paths would change if disrupted by PAN victories along a route. It turns out that this model—combining simple assumptions about traffickers’ transport costs with an exercise in using Google Maps—is remarkably predictive of how trafficking routes are affected by PAN-led crackdowns that effectively sever paths on the road network: Drug confiscations in the communities where Dell predicts traffickers will relocate to following a crackdown increase by about 20 percent in the months following close PAN victories. It’s a reminder that crime fighting is a bit like Whac-A-Mole—smothering traffickers’ activities in one locale merely causes them to shift their operations elsewhere. Dell finds that drug-related homicides also go up in places that her model predicts will lie on traffickers’ new paths from Mexican drug labs to the U.S. border. (And she finds tentative evidence that towns on newly created routes see a decline in informal sector wages, presumably since drug traffickers also run protection rackets along their smuggling routes, which primarily victimize small shopkeepers and others in the informal economy.)

The whole piece is an interesting read on just how economics plays a role in criminal enterprises like drug trafficking. I think it also shows the promise that technology like GIS can have in understanding and ultimately interrupting these illicit economies.