Monday, November 26, 2012

Using Google Alerts for Crime Analysis

Google Alerts Dialog
Last week, I did a post on RSS for Crime Analysts. In the article I touched on using Google Reader to view RSS feeds and mentioned how effective it was when used in conjunction with Google Alerts. This week, I want to expand on using Google Alerts to monitor the Internet, and news stories in particular for keywords. A couple of years ago, I posted this about Google Alerts which dovetails quite nicely with last week’s piece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't forget, while I am posting only once a week now here on the blog, I am also posting short pieces on my Google+ page and sending links to everything out on my Twitter feed. Circle me, follow me or just visit those pages to see those posts.

Monday, November 19, 2012

RSS For Crime Analysts

As a crime analyst I do quite a bit of reading. Much of it, is on various law enforcement, crime analysis or news websites. In order to keep up with all the new articles being posted I’ve become heavily dependant on using Really Simple Syndication or RSS to keep up with this deluge.

RSS is a web syndication format that allows a website to publish a feed of articles as they are published to the website. Software such as web browsers, email programs or dedicated RSS feed readers will periodically poll the RSS feed to determine if new posts have been published and will notify the user that an article has been published.

The RSS feed contains information about the post and even a summary or text from the post. By using an RSS feed reader, a user can use one application to check hundreds of website for new articles and then open or read only those stories that interest you without having to hop from website to website.

Using an RSS feed reader makes it possible for me to keep up with the items posted many websites without tying up a significant amount of time. I can also flag posts or articles that I want to read so I can go back to them later when it’s more convenient.

For instance, I think it’s important to keep up with news articles dealing with crime that are posted on all the local and regional media outlets. Crime stories that are posted about crimes in neighboring jurisdictions may become relevant to dealing with crime in my jurisdiction.

If criminals are committing a new type of crime in another part of Texas, it may not be long before the criminals in my city try their hand at it too. By monitoring crime stories posted around the state, I get a better handle on what is going on in my part of the state.

There are a number of RSS Feed readers out there. If you use Windows, Microsoft Outlook, it will handle RSS feeds as well as Internet Explorer. On the Mac side, up until OSX 10.7, both Safari and Mail had RSS capabilities. The latest versions of Mail and Safari no longer support RSS. However, there are a number of great RSS reader applications on OSX. I use NewsRack on my MacBook Pro because it syncs with my Google Reader account.

Which brings up my favorite RSS feed reader application, the web based Google Reader. Since it’s web based, I can keep up with my RSS feeds no matter what platform I am on. I can review them on my Windows desktop at work, on my MacBook Pro at home or on my iOS devices. I can also share articles to Twitter, Google+ or other social media outlets without leaving Google Reader.

The real power in using Google Reader comes when you pair it with Google Alerts to monitor the internet for stories based on keyword searches. I’ll cover Google Alerts in another post.

Here’s a couple of law enforcement related RSS feeds worth subscribing to get you started:

In addition to these, you’ll want to subscribe to RSS feeds from as many of your local news media websites as you can, along with all the major news outlets in your home state along with the big national news outlets such as CNN or the New York Times.

Do you use RSS to keep up with news as part of your workflow?

Don't forget, while I am posting less frequently here on the blog, I am also posting short pieces on my Google+ page and sending links to everything out on my Twitter feed. Circle me, follow me or just visit those pages to see those posts.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Changes to The Crime Analyst's Blog

Today is my 1300th blog post here at The Crime Analyst’s Blog. I started the blog in April of 2009 and have been posting five days a week and sometimes more often for that entire time. I’ve decided to make a few changes on the blog, and hopefully they will be for the better.

The most noticeable change is going to be that I am going to reduce the number of posts here on the blog from five days a week to once a week. I am doing this as it will allow me more time to write quality posts that will hopefully be more informative and interesting. I will schedule these posts to go live on Monday mornings.

In addition to the weekly longish form post here, I will also be sharing short posts, links, and other info relevant to crime analysis in the form of Google+ posts on my Google+ profile. As usual, links to all of them will be sent out via my Twitter feed as they are posted all throughout the week.

You don’t have to be on Google+ or Twitter in order to view the Google+ posts or tweets but if you are on those services, circle or follow me and join in on the conversation. You can also view my Twitter feed on the widget in the sidebar of the blog. Links to my profile pages on both those services are here:

I feel very honored to have you all as readers. I hope that these changes are for the better and that you will continue to grace me with your visits to the blog, emails, comments and criticisms. The past three and a half years have been a blast.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What Should The Feds Do About Pot?

This week saw not only politicians elected but several states added new laws to the books. One of the more interesting developments was that Colorado became the first state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. In addition to Colorado, the state of Washington also legalized the recreational use of pot and Massachusetts became the 18th state to legalize medical marijuana.

Of course it remains to be seen how the Federal government will respond as marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The Denver Post quoted Colorado Governor John Hickenloper with this:
"My sense is that it is unlikely the federal government is going to allow states one by one to unilaterally decriminalize marijuana," the governor said, adding, though, "You can't argue with the will of the voters."
It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out. It's pretty obvious that many folks don't think marijuana is as bad as it was once portrayed. I'm also not sure the feds are going to roll over and play dead on this issue anytime soon.

While I am not advocating the recreational use of marijuana, the enforcement of marijuana laws do eat up quite a lot of law enforcement resources. In my mind, I'd rather use those resources for violent crimes or those that victimize others. When you have law enforcement agencies laying off cops, I'd rather see the remaining ones dealing with more important issues than some aging hippie smoking a joint in his own home.

How long do you think it will take before more states follow Colorado and Washington's lead?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Austin Police Work To Mitigate Panhandling Downtown

I live and work just north of Austin, Texas so I get down there pretty often. It's a really unique place with a vibe that's best characterized by the unofficial slogan "Keep Austin Weird". The downtown 6th Street entertainment district is a world class tourist draw. Unfortunately, Austin is also having to deal with problems of aggressive panhandling and other public nuisance crimes. There were a couple of news stories this week that looked at what Austin Police are doing to try and solve these problems.

The first was a piece at the Austin Chronicle that had this bit about APD's Public Order Initiative:
The POI was not created to clean the streets in the run up to the Formula One race next weekend, Carter reiterated, but rather as a broken windows-style initiative, where police show zero tolerance for the kind of street-level crimes that can, unchecked, lead to a larger breakdown of public order and safety. Since the POI launch Sept. 20, police have made 48 felony arrests and have cited more than 1,900 for misdemeanor infractions.
Another story over at radio station KUT's website expands on the scope of the problem.
"The transient issue is not just downtown," McGovern says. "This is a city-wide issue, you can see them at every major on ramp and off ramp of every highway, major intersections. It is acute downtown because of all the social services that are concentrated in downtown. And those social services are overwhelmed which causes a lot of the transients to overflow onto the streets."
The Problem Oriented Policing Center has one of their great POP Guides that looks at Panhandling from a problem oriented policing perspective.  Nearly every city at some point will have to confront complaints about the homeless and aggressive panhandling. Even in the sleepy little burg where I work we regularly get complaints about this type of behavior in our downtown area.

Has your agency had to deal with an aggressive panhandling problem? What worked for your agency?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What's A Crime Really Worth?

There was an interesting opinion piece over at Wired Magazine that looked at the economics of crime and punishment. The piece discusses a court ruling giving California two years to solve their overcrowding and asks the question; Are the massive costs of incarceration worth it?
Assigning a price to an assault or a burglary might sound preposterous. We like to pretend that justice exists on a philosophical and moral plane separate from dollars and cents. Yet money is integral to the criminal justice system. Think of the way fines are imposed and damage awards assessed for injuries and wrongful death. New research suggests that we can, and should, measure the dollar value of capital-V values—things like freedom and the fear of crime—and trade them against one another in a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.
The new economic realities are changing a number of our assumptions about crime and criminal justice. Cash strapped police departments are now having to fine tune their operations to get the greatest effect with the least amount of resources. Inefficient ways of tackling crime problems are being phased out as departments are forced to do more with less.

What do you think a crime is really worth?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Budget Motel Owner Fighting Forfeiture Over Criminal Activity

There was a story this weekend over at the San Francisco Chronicle that looked at efforts by the owner of a Boston area budget motel to fight a forfeiture action on his motel by law enforcement in that community.
The U.S. government has moved to take the Motel Caswell, a $57-per-night budget motel, under a law that allows for the forfeiture of properties connected to crimes. The government says the motel should be shut down because of drug dealing by some of its guests.
In many communities, poorly managed budget motels are hotbeds of criminal activity. Even in the sleepy little burg where I work we have motels that are notorious for the amount of crime being committed in and around them. These types of crime generators can really be a blight on a community.

Forfeiture actions are usually the end of very long efforts to moderate the negative effects these businesses have on a community. The Problem Oriented Policing Center has a great POP Guide that covers Problem Oriented Policing strategies to mitigate these problem businesses. You can read it online or download a copy  here.

Does your community struggle with crime in and around a budget motel? What has your agency found successful in combating these problems? 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Is The Future Of Predictive Policing Behavioral Data?

There was a recent article over at the website Government Technology that looked at the future for predictive policing. In the piece, several prominent International Association of Crime Analysts members were quoted on their opinions on where predictive policing was headed.

Analysts currently identify crime trends using statistical data on arrests and 911 calls. Based on that information, police commanders deploy officers to areas they believe will be hot spots for illegal activities. But while predictive in nature, the effort is largely reactionary based on past events.

In the future, behavioral data and clues from virtual interactions may help cops stop bad guys before they’ve even drawn up a plan. Think Minority Report — the 2002 film where a police unit was able to arrest murderers before they committed a crime — on a more realistic scale.

It's a long piece but if your interested in where predictive policing technology might be going, you might want to give it a look.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Crime May Be Down, But Not In These Cash Strapped Cities

Earlier this week, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports program released their annual Crime In The United States report that showed that both violent and non-violent crime decreased in 2011. This is a good thing. However, in some cash strapped US cities the news isn't quite so good. CNN had a piece this week that looked at how some of these cities are struggling with violent crimes as their limited budgets have caused cutbacks in their police departments. 
"We're now having that frank public conversation about what do we want from government and how much do we want to pay for it," said Brookings Institution fellow Tracy Gordon. 
Law enforcement typically makes up large portions of most municipal budgets and is often considered a prime target for cutbacks. 
"Every department is facing the same kind of issues of downsizing," said Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio. "Everybody has significantly less amount of police officers and you know there has to be a point where that comes to an end."
It's probably a given that slashing police budgets in these urban cities is having a negative effect on crime reduction in these communities. I hope that we can see things turn around before things get so bad that the gains we've made nationally are wiped out by pockets of off the charts crime.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy Publishes Research One Page Summaries

One thing I think is really important for crime analysts is to keep up with your professional reading on crime and crime analysis. I'm always looking for new sources of good information relating to our profession. I recently was pointed to George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. On the CEBCP website they have a section for one page summaries of research conducted by the center.

There are lots of great summaries of CEBCP on the site dealing with research on Crime and Place, Policing and Law Enforcement and other topics. You can view the Research One Page Summaries here.

A tip of the hat to Julie Wartel at the IACA Email Discussion list for the heads up on this site.