Monday, December 31, 2012

Neighborhood Social Networks Are Crime Fighting Networks

Many police agencies are using social media to help connect with the communities they serve. Wired.com had a great piece recently that looked at how police departments have taken this approach a step further by using localized or neighborhood social networks to fight crime.

The piece explains how a neighborhood in Oakland, CA used the neighborhood social network Nextdoor to share information about a pair of suspicious door to door salesman who were actually using their sales calls to plan and burglarize homes. Neighbors sharing this information with police led to their ultimate arrest.

Tools like Nextdoor and Nixle, a text and e-mail alert system used by police, are not just altering the landscape of social networking. They’re also changing the ways cities across the U.S. ensure safety — helping residents look out for one another, helping cops make highly targeted disclosures and inquiries, and turning the tables on criminals who have long availed themselves of sophisticated communications systems and carefully plotted strategies. The change is being driven less by cutting-edge technology than by new demands for police transparency, by budget cuts, and by calls for greater efficiency and efficacy on the part of law enforcement.

Police agencies have long used programs like organizing Neighborhood Watch programs to get citizens involved in making their community safer. One part about this that especially intrigues me about localized social networks is the fact that using this can help citizens who can't or won't attend traditional Neighborhood Watch meetings to participate. I don't know about you, but after working all day, attending another meeting is usually low on my list of priorities.

What is your agency doing to help engage citizens in making their neighborhoods safer?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Bill Bratton To Help Embattled Oakland Police

This ought to be good for Oakland. There was a story worth reading in the Oakland Tribune that said that former NYPD and LAPD Chief Bill Bratton has agreed to consult with Oakland officials to help turn around their troubled police department. 
Bratton has gained a reputation for turning around troubled departments by aggressively pursuing quality of life crimes and meticulously tracking crime data. 
He pioneered the CompStat crime tracking system that Oakland recently adopted. Bratton also has defended allowing police officers to "stop and frisk" suspects they believe were involved in a crime -- a tactic that has not been embraced in Oakland.
The story indicates that Bratton's job will be to review the city's crime tracking and to offer recommendations on how to build community trust in the department. I'm surprised that so many police departments need someone to tell them that community trust is critical to having an effective department. Without the support of the citizens you serve, no department will be effective at making the community safer.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Grokking Your System

A couple of years ago, I was asked to submit a post to a new crime analysis related blog. That blog is now defunct but I think there is still some value to be gained from the post so I am reposting it here.
  grok - To understand. Connotes intimate and exhaustive knowledge. When you claim to ‘grok’ some knowledge or technique, you are asserting that you have not merely learned it in a detached instrumental way but that it has become part of you, part of your identity. - The Jargon File, version 4.1.0, retrieved 3/14/2010
I was having a phone conversation the other day with a crime analyst from another agency. During our conversation, we were discussing the topic of hiring crime analysts and qualifications for analysts. During this conversation I told him that I have become convinced that what makes a crime analyst most valuable to their agency is their knowledge of their agency's system. To put it another way, a crime analyst must "grok their system".

The word "grok" originally was coined by a science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in one of his books. It later became part of the vernacular of geeks in the early days of computer science. It's a good word to use here in this context because it's probably the only word that really describes the level of knowledge that crime analysts should aspire to.
 
Defining The System?

While we're at it, let's dissect this assertion. What constitutes an agency's system? Your first thoughts are likely your department's computerized records management system or RMS. In fact, some agencies hire analysts with a computer science background. Today's law enforcement is heavily computerized.

Dispatchers use Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems to record calls for service and Mobile Data Terminals (MDT) to dispatch officers to calls. When officers complete offense reports, they are entered into an RMS, when they book people into jail, information is recorded into another database. In fact, nearly everything we do is entered into one database or another. Being able to extract information from all this stored data is important. But these databases are just a small part of your agency's "system".

Your agency’s procedures are also a part of the system, this includes both written policies and procedures and the unwritten practices. In fact, for many agencies the unwritten practices may be just as important if not more important. Knowing where to find a certain type of information may heavily depend on identifying the places that data is likely to be captured.

On a similar vein, knowing the personalities within your agency and how they fit into the system is also important. In practical terms, knowing who to call to find a piece of information is just as good as having that piece of information. The same thing applies to other law enforcement agencies and other departments within your own governmental body.

Why This Is Important 

It’s not just your book knowledge that makes a crime analyst valuable to their agency. While job descriptions for crime analysts often list things like knowledge of SQL, skills with a particular brand of GIS or the ability to administer a certain RMS they don’t list skills with agency’s system holistically. The reason for this is that this skill is a lot harder to quantify.

But because how much you grok your system is hard to measure, doesn’t mean that it can be ignored. A crime analyst is probably one of the few people in your agency that gets to see the whole picture. The Patrol guys are focused on Patrol functions, the detectives are focused on their casebook, and the administration is focused on providing resources. Crime analysts are or should be measuring and analyzing nearly every part of your department’s workflow. This clear view of the big picture often makes them the “go to guy” or gal in their agency.

As a crime analyst you should make sure that you completely understand your agency’s workflow from the moment someone calls 911 till the criminal case is disposed of in the courts. Anything less is not truly grokking your system.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Crime Analyst's GTD

A couple of years ago, I was asked to submit a post for a fledgling crime analysis blog. That blog is now defunct but I still think there is some value in the post, so I am reposting it here.

As a crime analyst, we are often the 'Go To Guy' (or gal) at our agencies. If your analytical shop is anything like mine, I have more things to do than I have time to do them and can barely keep up with the flood. Because of the huge volume of tasks that come our way, from projects from the Chief, requests from officers and detectives, inquiries by other agencies, professional development, etc. it often seems impossible to manage it all. But, analysts are normally analytical by nature and we devise any number of systems to keep up with all this.

Over the years, people have devised a number of systems to deal with their tasks. When computers became commonplace in the office, a whole new category of productivity software wasn't far behind. Unfortunately, many of them aren't much more advanced than a handwritten 'To Do list' on a piece of notebook paper. But, the solution is not always a fancy piece of software. In fact, a systematic approach to the problem is probably required to keep up with the huge volume of stuff we are being bombarded with daily.

Enter GTD

A couple of years ago I began searching for a better way to approach task management. I was reading a tech blog that referred to David Allen and his book Getting Things Done or GTD. I went out and purchased a copy of the book and read it. I was so excited by it, I immediately read it again, this time with a pencil in hand and filled my copy with underlines and notes throughout the relevant parts.

It’s not possible in this post to adequately cover Allen’s approach to workflow, focus or planning. However, Wikipedia has a pretty good synopsis of GTD which I would encourage you to read. Hopefully, this will whet your appetite and cause you to read Allen's book yourself.

The premise behind GTD is that your ability to do the many tasks that come your way is compromised when you are struggling to remember all these tasks and trying ensure that nothing slips through the cracks. By using an efficient systematized approach to recording them, responding to them and ensuring they will get accomplished, you can then take your focus off remembering, and devote your focus to accomplishing them.

The All Important Inbox

Part of what makes GTD effective is the defining an appropriate inbox for all your incoming items. If you get a request asking you to do something, it needs to go into your inbox immediately. Your inbox can take almost any form, a physical inbox, a folder in your email client, etc. The only rule is that it be the one place where all this incoming stuff gets put. This is part of what makes it reliable. It’s also important that it be convenient to drop stuff in so there will be no hesitancy to putting things there. You can have an inbox for each context; let’s say one for email, one for papers and one to jot down those items that don’t come in via email or snail mail. You should however, keep them to the least number you need to capture it all.

Then once a day you go through your inbox, if something can be done in 2 minutes or less, then do it right then. If not, it needs to be properly categorized and recorded in your task list. The reason for Allen’s two minute rule is that if it can be done in less than two minutes, it would likely take that long to properly record it on your task list.

Adapting For My Needs

There are a number of ways to 'do GTD'. I have adapted and somewhat simplified my GTD system in order to have it work best for me. At first, I was a little hesitant to do this. GTD is spoken of with a zealous and near reverential awe in some circles. This caused me to wonder, if I changed it up would it still work? Would it cause a huge explosion? Well, probably not. In fact, what I ended up with has worked so well for me I have continued to use and refine it for a number of years.

First, I stick to the same GTD workflow steps as outlined by Allen. In collection, there are three usual ways for my tasks to come into the system, email, paper or in person. Correspondingly, I have identical categories set up in my email client, a set of desktop hanging files and a spreadsheet file on the computer. If an item comes into my inbox, it gets processed and categorized into one of these categories:

  • Actions 
  • Projects 
  • Upcoming 
  • Waiting 
  • Someday 

The main list is kept in as a spreadsheet on my computer. If an item comes in from any source, it gets jotted down in the spreadsheet. This works well for me because I spend most of my workday at the computer. If for instance it came in via email, after it gets put on the list, the corresponding email is moved to the relevant category folder on my email client. The same with relevant paper documents, they go to the appropriate file folder so they can be found when needed.

The important thing is to devise a “list” that is relevant to how you work best, computer, notepad, index cards, and that it is readily available at all times during your workday. You can only get things off your mind if you have a reliable place to put them. That way you can focus your energies on completing the items on your list rather than trying to keep up with what you need to do and when. And if your shop is anything like mine, you can use all the mental energy you can get to stay on top of all the things that need doing.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Democratization of Crime Analysis



Here at the police department in the sleepy little burg where I work, we've been using a number of crime analysis applications from Bair Analytics. We started with the ATAC Workstation and then later added ATACRAIDS and RAIDSONLINE. I've been very pleased with these tools.

ATACRAIDS is an online crime analysis and mapping application. Crime data from your agency is uploaded to Bair nightly and then it's accessible via the ATACRAIDS web application. Essentially, it's a cloud based crime analysis and mapping application. This means that it can be easily deployed across the entire agency without having to install software on each and every computer. Additionally, since it's web based, you can access it via a tablet or other portable computer.

Back when we purchased it, my Deputy Chief said that it was like "adding a bunch of other analysts" to the department. By that he meant that a quick map or some basic crime analysis could be done by officers or supervisors themselves without having to tie my small crime analysis unit up on these tasks or to wait for us to have the time to get to their analysis. This would also allow us to focus on bigger projects that required our expertise.

Recently, Bair rolled out some changes to ATACRAIDS that really excited me. We've heard a lot of press about predictive policing technology. Essentially, predictive policing uses some the same data mining techniques that large companies use to try and predict where crimes are likely to occur in the future.

The new Prediction Zone feature was rolled out last Monday. I immediately used it to create a BOLO for my agency on a particular crime problem that we had been experiencing and it gave me a forecast zone that I distributed forecasting another one of these crimes within the week. By Wednesday, we had another crime right in the middle of the forecast zone. I don't know about you but I was pretty excited about that. In our very first use of this new Prediction Zone feature we saw that it worked.

The reason I think this is important for my agency is that now instead of having to wait for the crime analysis unit to create a BOLO and distribute it, an enterprising patrol officer or supervisor can run his own analysis to make a prediction of a future crime hotspot. Hopefully, this will enable him to know where he or she should spend their discretionary patrol time to try and interrupt a crime series or pattern without waiting on someone else to conduct the analysis.

Making simple to use crime analysis tools available as widely as possible at your agency democratizes crime analysis. This is very important. If a patrol officer or detective thinks they have to let the crime analysis unit do all crime analysis, and they think their task is not important enough for the crime analysis unit to tackle, they may not seek out analytical help. This could lead them to "flying blind" and not being as effective as they could be.

As crime analysts we should try to get crime analysis tools and knowledge into as many hands as possible at our departments. What are you doing to get analysis and analytical tools into the hands of your officers?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Too Many Passwords to Keep Up With? Use a Password Manager


As a crime analyst, I am often having to log in to various databases or websites as I search for information. This has lead to me ending up with around a hundred or so different accounts or log in's.

What makes it even worse is that in order to comply with many agency's security policies, users are forced to regularly change their passwords. Having a bunch of different username and passwords to keep up with can often lead to some poor security practices.

For some people, the way they deal with having many log in's is to reuse username and passwords. This is a really bad idea. Let me say that again, password reuse is a really bad idea.

If one account gets compromised, then an enterprising hacker will try your credentials on other popular services. Quite often, a hacked username and password on an unimportant account will work on one that is a lot more important to you if you've reused your passwords.

The way around password reuse is to use a password manager to keep up with all your account information. This allows you to safely store all these credentials without compromising security. Good password managers will use some pretty serious encryption technology to keep your password and usernames safe as well as include a feature to generate really secure random passwords.

One of my favorite password managers is KeePass. In addition to some really good encryption technology and a password generator, it also offers auto-type and other features to make logging into accounts a whole lot easier.



Another great feature is that KeePass can be run from a USB drive if you don't want to install the application to your computer, or you need to use it on multiple computers. Best of all, KeePass is free, open source software. You can find out more about KeePass here: http://keepass.info

How are you keeping up with multiple passwords safely?