Monday, December 26, 2016

What is Community Policing?

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

Recent news stories about unrest in several American communities after police Use of Force incidents have highlighted the need for police/community partnerships. These partnerships often are referred to or emphasized in the concept of Community Policing. But just what is Community Policing and where did it come from? To answer this, we need to go back to just before the Victorian era in England.

Sir Robert Peel was a British Statesman and politician. More importantly he is considered the father of the modern police force after setting up the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1813 and the London Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. As part of this later force, he promulgated instructions which later became know as the Peelian Principles. In spite of their age, these principles are timeless in what they say about the role of a police force in modern society.

They are:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.


So just what is community policing? The US Department of Justice defines community policing this way:
“Community policing is, in essence, a collaboration between the police and the community that identifies and solves community problems.”  
Source: Understanding Community Policing: A Framework for Action

One thing you’ll see expressed over and over in the Peelian Principles is the idea that the police and the public they serve must have a relationship based on consent and cooperation. This partnership is the foundation for Community Policing.

The second critical component of Community Policing is Problem Solving. By identifying crime and disorder problems in the community, and seeking the best ways to remedy these problems, this police/community partnership can cooperatively solve these problems.

A couple of observations about these two components: One, the trust necessary for community/police partnerships is built over time. It may take years of efforts to forge a successful partnership.

Just like the events that precipitated the protests recently in the news, incidents that stress these relationships are bound to occur. You can’t wait until they do to begin to forge a relationship. Hopefully, you’ve been working on these relationships for some time prior to something like this. Trust takes a long time to earn but can be lost in an instant. Don’t wait for a controversial event to attempt to forge these relationships.

The other point I want to make is to stress that the problem solving approach of community policing is something that needs to permeate all levels of your agency. Line officers and command staff should all be encouraged to approach crime and disorder problems with a problem solving mindset. Additionally, crime analysts are often uniquely placed to help identify, research and suggest solutions to crime and disorder problems.

Here’s a couple of places where you can learn more about Community Policing and Problem Solving:

The US Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

Additionally, the COPS office has produced a monograph that has much of what you need to know about community policing called Understanding Community Policing: A Framework for Action. It’s worth the read.

The second resource I want to list is this one:

The Center for Problem Oriented Policing

The POP Center is one of my all time favorites and is loaded with free materials that can help you with nearly any crime or disorder problem your community might face.

Does your agency practice community policing? If not, why not?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Exploring Census Data

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

One of the questions I am most often asked by the public is also one that the public least understands: "What is the crime rate?" Crime rate is a ratio of the number of crimes reported for a given population.

I previously touched on how to calculate crime rates. One important element in calculating crime rate is population estimates. So in this post were going to look at data available from the US Census Bureau's excellent website

When most people think of Census data, they think of the decennial population census that comes around every 10 years. But the Census Bureau does more than just count citizens every 10 years. They also provide annual population estimates and also break out demographic data such as age, occupation, housing, education, language and other data.

Let's look at one of my favorite Census tools, American Fact Finder.

Probably the easiest way to start using Fact Finder is to type the name of the area you are looking at in the Community Facts search box. This can be a state, county, city or even zip code. This will then display an interactive dialog that will allow you to choose various types of demographic data about the area you queried. You can pick the selections from the menu on the left to explore the different categories for the area you are looking at.

Once you select a category, you'll notice that there are listings of various tables where you can dig even further into the data. For example, if you select Age from the menu on the left, your given choices of various tables that contain more detailed data about that demographic. Once you navigate to those tables, you have options to modify, print or download those tables.

Want to know just how many teenagers are in your community? Select the "Age and Sex" entry under the 2012 American Community Survey and you'll get a table with estimates of the ages and genders of persons in your community.

So just what is this kind of demographic data good for? Well, for starters, it can help you to understand the make up of your community, especially as it compares to other communities. I work in Killeen, TX. The average age of people in Killeen is 27.2 years old. The next largest city in the county where I work has an average age of 37.1 years old. A 10 year difference in average age could probably explain a difference in the prevalence of certain types of crimes in communities that are only about 25 miles apart.

When I first started working at my agency over 20 years ago, we had only two Spanish speaking officers. What was really odd was that we had many more German speaking officers (about 10) than we did Spanish speaking officers. We're right next to Fort Hood and at the time, plenty of our officers were either former soldiers or dependents who had spent plenty of time stationed in Germany. A few were even trained as German linguists for the Army.

Looking at the Census data, we can see that now, just over 14% of the citizens in Killeen speak Spanish. With that number of Spanish speaking citizens, only two Spanish speaking officers wouldn't cut it. Fortunately, a lot has changed since then and we have quite a number of Spanish speaking officers at my agency now.

Data found in Fact Finder can help your agency understand the citizens you serve and understand what some of their needs might be. Large teen population? Maybe some of your efforts should focus on teen outreach. Large veteran population? Maybe a veteran diversion program for minor offenses is worth looking into.

Understanding the makeup of your community can help you to serve the community better by understanding the needs of the community. It can also help you to understand why some crimes may be more prevalent than communities of similar size.

What questions would you try to answer with this data?

Monday, December 12, 2016

What GIS can do for crime analysts

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

One thing I wanted to accomplish this year in these blog posts was to provide some useful information for those crime analysts who might be starting out, especially those who have little or no formal training. While at many medium to larger agencies, they are fortunate to be able to hire trained, experienced crime analysts, this is not always the case at small agencies. I’ve met quite a few analysts who got their start when their boss walked into their office where they were working as a clerk or secretary and gave them the duties of a crime analyst.

Obviously, this is not the ideal way to get your start as a crime analyst. But the reality is that even small, cash strapped agencies realize the value a crime analyst brings to their efforts to make their community safer.

In this post we’re going to look at an important tool for a crime analyst, a Geographic Information System or as it’s most commonly known, GIS. In simplest terms, GIS is a software application that lets you create maps. However, unlike an application like Google Earth, a GIS lets you conduct sophisticated analysis of large datasets and geographic elements. In his book GIS for Public Safety, Dr. Joel Caplan describes GIS this way:
A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer software application for managing, editing, analyzing and displaying data which is spatially referenced to the Earth. GIS is a tool with which data can be layered with base maps that represent the landscape of the area where the data is associated. Base maps could represent the street network, buildings, census tracts, or local landuse patterns. These data can be represented as individual layers, displayed as separate entities, or be combined with other layers to be displayed together.

Where GIS really shines is the ability to pull different layers into a map and use these layers together. Here’s an example.

A few years ago at my agency we wanted to redesign our Beat Areas. We had some significant growth since the last time our Beat Areas were drawn up and there was some concerns that the current Beats were no longer even. One challenge with Beat Areas is trying to balance size and workload for the officers that work them. The situation you don’t want is to end up with one officer taking a disproportionate amount of Calls or another ending up with a Beat Area so large he couldn’t realistically cover it during his shift. In this project we decided that we would try to strike a balance with three different variables.

  1. Calls for Service
  2. Street Network Length
  3. Geographic Size

I added several years of geocoded Calls for Service data to a map that also contained layers for the Street Network and current Beat Area boundaries. I could then analyze the current Beat Area boundaries to determine the number of Calls for Service, the length of the Street Network and geographic size of these areas. I then used the current Beat Areas as a starting point and adjusted the boundaries of each Beat to try and get areas where all of these variables were as close to equitable as possible.

This geographic analysis used several hundred thousand Calls for Service, several hundred miles of Street Network and over one hundred square miles of land area. This type of analysis would be near impossible to do without GIS. Just pushing a couple hundred thousand pins on a map would take way more time than most of us have (not to mention pushpins!). GIS makes this type of analysis pretty easy.

If you want to learn more about what GIS can do for crime analysts, here’s a couple of helpful resources:

The National Institute of Justice’s Mapping and Analysis for Public Safety program. They also have an excellent, and free book Mapping Crime: Principle and Practice that you can read or download. It might be worth reading the book to see what GIS can do for a crime analyst and to learn some of the basic terms.

ESRI is the leading provider of GIS software. They have dedicated resources for GIS in Public Safety. You can find that here. They have excellent software and support. However, excellence is not free.

There’s even an Open Source GIS project called GRASS if you’re really budget constrained. The GRASS software is free. You can learn more here.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Introduction to Link Analysis: Part 3 Link Analysis Diagraming

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

Two weeks ago I started a series of posts on Link Analysis. Link Analysis diagrams are used to explain the relationships between entities in a criminal investigation. There are three main types of diagrams that are part of Link Analysis. They are:

  • Time Event Chart
  • Association / Activity Matrix
  • Link Analysis Diagram

In this final post in the series, we're going to look at the last type of diagram, the Link Analysis Diagram. All the other diagrams build toward a Link Analysis Diagram.

Seven Steps of Link Analysis
Anacapa Sciences Inc. is one of the most well known groups teaching Criminal Intelligence Analysis to law enforcement in the United States. In their instruction they list Seven Steps of Link Analysis.

They are:

  1. Assemble all raw data
  2. Determine the focus of the chart
  3. Code an association matrix
  4. Code the associations in the matrix
  5. Determine the number of links for each entity
  6. Draw the preliminary chart
  7. Clarify and re-plot the chart

Time Event Charts, Association and Activity Matrixes are important to construct prior to constructing a Link Analysis Diagram. The analysis of the Time Event Chart, and matrixes will assist you in ensuring that your Link Analysis Diagram is accurate and complete.

Link Analysis Diagramming
While an Association Matrix indicates that a relationship exists between two or more persons, Link Analysis diagramming shows you what that relationship is.

Since your Link Analysis diagram may be seen by many persons it is important that your diagram conforms to certain established conventions. The US Army Intelligence Center describes it this way: “Standardization is critical to ensuring that everyone constructing, using and reading a link diagram understands exactly what the diagram depicts.” Your charts and diagrams are supposed to make things easier to understand, not harder!

Persons are depicted by an open circle with their name or alias inside.

Persons with an alias are depicted by overlapping circles with their name in one and the alias in the other.

Entities or events are depicted by a square or rectangle with the entity name inside.

A known link between two persons is represented by a solid line connecting the two.

A suspected link between two persons is represented by a dashed line connecting the two.

Conveyances are represented by a triangle.

Displaying a person’s membership in an entity is done by placing the person symbol in the entity symbol. (Since the person is inside the entity, the relationship is assumed and there is no need for a line linking the two.)

A person can be a member of more than one entity.

A person can be associated with an entity but not a member of that entity.

If Jones was associated directly with Smith and not just the Mongols, you could extend the line to Smith.

If Jones was known to be associated with the Mongols, and was believed to be associated with Smith you could display that like this:

As your chart grows you should avoid crossed association lines wherever possible.

Instead rearrange your chart elements. If there is no other way, display the lines like this:

You can depict past membership in an organization. If Smith is the current president of the Mongols, and Davis is the former president you could depict it like this. This would also work if Davis’ membership was suspected and not known.

Here’s what a completed Link Analysis chart looks like.

This chart was from an actual bank robbery conspiracy that I worked on. Any idea who the main actor was?

Methods To Create Charts
There are a number of methods you can use to create the various Link Analysis charts. Each of these methods has its strengths and weaknesses. They are:

  • Pencil and paper
  • Generalized computer drawing applications 
  • Specialized Link Analysis software

The first method, pencil and paper, has the advantage of having nearly no learning curve to operate. It’s also supremely portable and there is a very strong possibility that your organization already possesses them so the impact to your budget is minimal. The downside is that rearranging the elements on your chart is messy and time consuming. A drafting circle template or flowchart template can make your drawings much neater.

The second method is my favorite. Drawing programs can be found on most computers and range from limited functionality programs such as Paintbrush to full blown professional grade CAD or drawing programs. One that nearly every police agency possesses is Microsoft Office. MS Office’s tools have drawing tools and probably the easiest way to utilize them is by using PowerPoint. The line tool will also snap to points on the shapes and stay connected. This helps when rearranging objects on the page as the lines will stay connected to the shape while you rearrange your chart. Those same drawing tools are also available in Word though the commands to access them are a bit buried in Word’s UI.

The last method is using specialized link analysis software such as i2 or RFFlow. These applications are great in that they are specifically designed for link analysis however; they can be costly and have somewhat steep learning curve to get good results.

As was stated in the Introduction, “Don’t let the tools drive the problem”. The method you use is not as important as the chart you create. A messy but accurate pencil chart beats a neat, computer generated but inaccurate chart hands down.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Introduction to Link Analysis: Part 2 Association / Activity Matrix

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

Last week I started a series of posts on Link Analysis. Link Analysis diagrams are used to explain the relationships between entities in a criminal investigation. There are three main types of diagrams that are part of Link Analysis. They are:

  • Time Event Chart
  • Association / Activity Matrix
  • Link Analysis Diagram

Last week’s post focused on Time Event Charts. This post is going to cover the Association / Activity Matrix. One of the main uses of the Association / Activity Matrix is as a preparatory step in the creation of the Link Analysis Diagram. That’s not to say that it’s entirely useless by itself but you’ll rarely see it front and center in a Link Analysis presentation.

Association / Activity Matrix
Matrix analysis allows you to represent the relationship between persons, entities and/or events. Both the Association and Activity matrixes are similar in appearance.

An Association Matrix represents the relationships between persons and/or entities. There are two variations on the construction of an Association Matrix. The first has the names of the persons/entities along both the vertical and horizontal axis.

This type is the easiest to construct using a computer spreadsheet. The only caveat is that the names need to be in the same order along both axes in order to allow all possible combinations to be represented. This can make it more difficult to add persons to the matrix at a later time.

The other type is simpler to label as the labels only need to be entered once along the diagonal at the top of the diagram.

The easiest way to generate this second type is probably to photocopy or otherwise reproduce an existing blank chart form unless you are good with a drawing program.

Both types of diagram work the same way.

In this chart the relationship between Jones and Joe’s Bar is represented. Follow the column for Jones down to the row for Joe’s Bar.

There are a number of symbologies taught by various groups teaching link analysis. I am a firm believer that simpler is better. Rather than filling the matrix with a variety of symbols I believe the best method is to use this simple symbology:

As an investigator, it is your judgment that determines what a known association is and what is a suspected association. Representing suspected associations may assist you in determining potential areas for intelligence gathering activities or further investigation.

Activity Matrixes represent the relationship between persons and/or entities and events. Activity Matrixes work in nearly the same way. The main difference is that Activity Matrixes are constructed using a square or rectangular grid as opposed to a triangle grid.

You should normally label persons along the vertical axis and events, entities, locations, etc. along the horizontal axis. You do not need to have the same number of items on one axis as you do on the other.

An Activity Matrix is helpful in identifying key actors in a case. The more events a person is associated with, the more active that person is in your case. Some variations of both matrixes include a space to count the number of associations depicted for each person. Include a row along the bottom of your matrix and then count the number of associations in the column above that cell.

Next week, we’ll look at Link Analysis Diagrams.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Introduction to Link Analysis: Part 1 Time Event Charts

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

Most of the posts that I have done for are related to the field of Crime Analysis. The next couple of posts are going to deal with a topic that more rightly falls into the field of Criminal Intelligence Analysis. Where crime analysis more often deals with the numbers of reported crimes, criminal intelligence more often deals with information from human sources. In spite of this difference, by practice most crime analysts end up doing some of both fields. The criminal intelligence analysis task probably most often asked of crime analyst is performing Link Analysis.

We’ve all heard the old saw “A picture is worth a thousand words.” While it might be an old saying, there is a lot of truth in it. Often times a picture or diagram can explain something far easier that words. The football coach who uses a diagram to explain a complicated play during practice does so because it’s much more effective than trying to explain it with words alone.

Link Analysis diagrams are used to explain the relationships between entities in a criminal investigation.

The analytical tools and techniques used in Link Analysis can help you to understand the complex group of facts that is the case you are working. Many times, the cases we are assigned to investigate are pretty simple and don’t require us to use Link Analysis tools to understand them. However, there are times we’re assigned one of those huge complicated cases that end up filling up file boxes with documents. Even if you’re the case agent the sheer volume of information can be hard to keep up with, much less explain to your supervisor or a prosecuting attorney. It’s these types of cases where Link Analysis tools really shine.

Link Analysis Tools

There are a number of tools that are used for link analysis. Some analysts include flow charts as a link analysis tool but others do not. The same goes for Time Event Charts. I am not going to include flow charts in this series of posts. The tools I will discuss are:

  • Time Event Chart
  • Association / Activity Matrix
  • Link Analysis Diagram

There is nothing really magical about these tools. Often times, investigators view them as some sort of mysterious mojo that an analyst cooks up over a steaming cauldron while muttering incantations. These analytical tools can only help you arrive at a solution. They will not determine the solution for you. The most important tool is you, a seasoned analyst with your judgment and wisdom. As the authors of an US Army manual said about link analysis tools “The techniques themselves are not the solution. Don't let the tools drive the problem.”

Let’s look at the first Link Analysis tool.

Time Event Chart

A Time Event Chart records events temporal relationships. In other words, it’s a diagram that represents events in a chronological fashion. Time Event charts can display events spanning long periods of time in a reasonably compact fashion. Often times, criminal conspiracies include relevant events spanning several years. Events that are relevant to proving a conspiracy may include preparatory events as well as the actual crime itself. Knowing how these events interrelate is important to gaining a complete understanding of the conspiracy itself.

The first, and sometimes last, event in a Time Event Chart is displayed with a triangle. You may wish to avoid using a triangle for the last event on a chart unless it’s a concluding event such as an arrest. If you prepare a Time Event Chart for an ongoing case, don’t worry about the last symbol being a triangle, you may have more events to plot as your case grows.

Successive events in a Time Event Chart are represented by a rectangle. You should note information such as the event date, case number or a brief description of the event the symbol represents. A particularly significant event can be highlighted by drawing an X through the event node. The flow of time in a Time Event Chart is symbolized by arrows.

A simple Time Event Chart is depicted below.

A variation on the Time Event Chart includes the days between events on the arrows between event nodes. This may assist you in determining a temporal pattern to your series of events.

We’ll look at ways to draw these diagrams in a subsequent post. However, the drawing tools built into Microsoft Office work really well for these charts, especially the Time Event Chart.

Next week we’ll look at Association / Activity Matrixes.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Five Things a Crime Analyst Can Do To Keep Your Officers Happy

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

At the end of 2013 I decided to spend this year writing a series of posts that I hoped would help new crime analysts or analysts from small agencies who may not have had a lot of formal training in crime analysis. I hoped that I could pass on some useful tips that would help them to become an asset to their agency.

Back before I started this series, I sent an email out to the membership of the International Association of Crime Analysts and solicited topics that they felt were important for a beginning analyst. One of the suggestions I received was "how to communicate and relate to police officers".  

I was pretty fortunate in that I was a police officer for 14 years before I gave up the badge and gun and became a crime analyst. Working both sides gave me some insights into how the other side views things. While there are all types of people with a lot of different personalities that get into police work there are a few generalities that you can apply and come up with some tips on how to communicate and get along with your officers.

One, Be economical with the things you ask your officers to do. Your records management system software or offense report forms have lots of fields to fill out or boxes to check off. While it's pretty easy to create a new form for the officers to complete, you should first ask yourself: Do I really need this information? There is a difference between 'nice to have' and 'need to have'. You'd be surprised at the staggering number of forms, affidavits, etc. that your officers have to complete in the course of a shift. If at all possible, don't add to that unless it's absolutely necessary.

Two, Don't wait for your officers to ask for your assistance. Often times there are things you can do much more easily than your officers or detectives. Searching for related cases or cases with similar M.O.'s is one example. Cops are taught to be self sufficient. They often won't ask for your help or just assume that you're too busy. If you can easily help them out, just do it. Speaking of that, remember the old adage: If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. If they are willing and you will take time to show your officers how to accomplish a relatively simple task such as searching your records management system, they will love you for it.

Three, Don't presume to boss them around. Cops are used to being in control. Their command presence is often the thing that keeps a run of the mill disturbance call from spiraling out of control and turning into a real donnybrook. If they perceive you as telling them what to do, they could resent it and will not be very likely to do it. Better to make suggestions. A favorite line I use in my crime bulletins is "Officers coming into contact with this subject should do X" or "Officers may wish to investigate further".

Four, Be concise in your communications. If you create a crime bulletin, try to keep it to one page. Remember, they will likely  print these out and stick them in the their clipboard or under the visor of their squad car. A multi-page tome just to say there's a roof top burglar operating in a certain part of town is a waste and will likely end up in the round file. I try to include a summary paragraph, usually in bold font, with the most important details. Tell them what they need to know and nothing more.

Five, Know your place. Yes, a crime analyst is a valuable part of a modern police agency but in the end they would do away with you before they would do away with police officers. You are there to assist your officers if making the community they serve safer. Enable them to be more efficient, to be more responsive, and more effective at their jobs and you have done your job. Be satisfied with that supporting role. It's really not a bad place to be.

What other things would you include?

Monday, November 7, 2016

Crime Analysis with Google Earth

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

I am very fortunate to work for an agency that can provide a lot of very nice tools with which to do my job. We have a full blown enterprise Geographic Information System or GIS along with quite a number of features and enhancements for it.

What's funny is that while I have and use this very powerful GIS, I often find that most of the mapping tasks I need to perform don't require that kind of sophistication. Firing up the GIS application just to locate a street is kind of like swatting flies with a shotgun. The tool I turn to most often for simple mapping tasks is Google Earth.

There are a lot of advantages to using Google Earth for many tasks. Here's a few:

Cost: The basic version of Google Earth is free. Not only the application itself but the data it uses, streets, satellite imagery, etc. If you've ever purchased GIS data you know that it is not cheap. The same goes for GIS applications, extensions, etc.

Ubiquity: Since Google Earth is free and it's offered on a number of computer platforms, it's very easy to share data with another user. You can create a map and save it as a .KML file and then you can email the file to them. No worries about file format, data compatibility, projection, etc.

Ease of Use: Unlike a GIS application with a steep learning curve, a Google Earth user can map meaningful data very easily. Google Earth is often used in grade schools and secondary schools to help kids learn geography. If a school kid can learn it, we should be able to figure it out.

So what kind of maps can we create with Google Earth?

The most basic map is just one that shows geographic features such as streets, lakes, etc. Maybe you just need a simple map of a neighborhood showing the streets in it.

You can also create a point map. Maybe you have a series of armed robberies that you want to look at to see their geographic relationship. You can use the "Add Placemark" command to place  marker at a location, give it a location and an icon. Do this for all the robberies and you have your map. The downside is that the free Google Earth does not come with the ability to batch geocode. If you have hundreds of points to plot you'll have to turn to an outside tool or upgrade to Google Earth Pro.

You can create boundary maps by drawing polygons on the map with the appropriately named "Add Polygon" tool. This works great for drawing beat boundaries, enforcement zones, etc. You can label these polygons and set the colors and symbology to create your maps.

It's also possible to draw maps with routes using the "Add Path" tool. This works well for creating maps of parade routes, maps showing the route a criminal took between crimes, etc.

Another feature I use quite often is the "Show Ruler" tool. This tool allows you to measure distances on your maps. There are a number of criminal law penalty enhancements in Texas that increase penalties for offenses if they occur within a specified distance of a school. This tool allows you to easily determine just how close the offender was to that certain geographic feature.

Google Earth also makes it very easy to export your map as an image file that you can then drop into a report or presentation. I use this feature quite often when I create briefings on crime series or other types of bulletins. The old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is true. By including maps in your presentations or briefings you can easily communicate geographic relationships. They also make your reports visually appealing.

Since I have access to GIS, I also use it to help create content layers for use in Google Earth. I use ESRI's ArcGIS which comes with tools that will convert GIS layers to Google Earth compatible formats. For instance, I'll export our city limit boundary file from GIS to Google Earth so I can easily add it to Google Earth maps. I have also done this with our Beat Boundaries, Policing Districts, etc. These two tools work very well together.

Do you use Google Earth as part of your crime analysis toolbox?

Monday, October 31, 2016

Using Google Alerts for Crime Analysis

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

I might be showing my age but I can remember a time before smartphones, before the Internet, and before home computers. I can remember searching card catalogs at libraries that were actually drawers full of cards.

I can also remember reference publications that indexed magazine articles in big dusty volumes.  If you were searching for an article about a particular topic you could search through these books and find a list of magazine articles that contained them. It always seemed to be my luck that the library I was at never had any of these magazines on their shelves. However, they could get me a copy though an inter-library loan in a few weeks. So much for timely research.

Search engines like Google or Bing have turned this on it's head. Now, anyone with a web browser and an Internet connection can query a search engine and find relevant articles with just a click.

Previously, I covered Improving Your Searches With Boolean Operators In that post I looked at ways you could improve the likelihood that your search will find the information your looking for.

As powerful as Google is, wouldn't it be nice if it could keep a watch on the Internet and let you know anytime it finds the search terms you specify? After all, isn't automation what computers are good for? Actually, it can with a feature called Google Alerts.

Google Alerts lets you specify search terms that it will monitor Internet sites for and when it finds them it will either send you an email or it will put them into an RSS feed that you can monitor using an RSS feed reading application.

Let's look at an example of how I use Google Alerts in my workflow. I like to monitor the Internet for news stories that mention the community where I work, Killeen, Texas. It's nice to have a heads up when these stories come out. While I already monitor most of the local news outlets via RSS and Twitter, there are also mentions of the community in other news outlets I wouldn't normally monitor.

For instance, I got a Google Alert email that indicated my search terms of "Killeen, TX" was used in a small town news website in Indiana. When I followed the link to the story in the site the quoted news article was about a recent highway drug interdiction arrest where a resident of our fair city got nabbed with a load of drugs on his way to points north.

The agency that made the arrest had not thought to contact us so I looked them up and gave them a call about this person. I was able to give them information regarding cases we'd previously worked on this person so they could make this information a part of their investigation. I was also able to add the information from their case to the intelligence information we held on this subject.

Here are some ideas for Alerts to set to get you started:

  • Your agency name - to catch news stories about your department
  • Crime M.O.'s such as "metal theft" or "bank robbery"
  • A crime analysis tool such as "GIS"
  • If your agency is working a high profile case, the name of the victim or suspect
  • And of course "crime analysis"

You'll need a Google account if you don't already have one. Once you establish that, head over to the Google Alerts page to get started. Once there you'll be given a set of options. You can enter your search terms, pick the type of sites you want to monitor such as news, blogs, discussions, etc. Then you pick language, region, periodicity, and how you want to get the alerts.

A neat feature is that once you enter your search terms, you'll see a sample of the types of entries you'll get with that search term. This works really well for modifying your terms in real time to see what type of results you will likely get. Once you enter an alert you can also use the Manage Your Alerts option to modify or delete alerts.

What types of alerts would you likely find useful?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Using Mind Mapping to Brainstorm Ideas

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

Becoming a crime analyst was quite a change from being a police officer. As a police officer my tasks were being directed largely by someone else. A Call For Service gets you dispatched somewhere to start an investigation, assist a citizen, etc. As a detective, your work is often directed by others. Your supervisor assigns you an investigation and you then follow your agency's investigative protocol.

My experience as a crime analyst is much different. While you still get tasked by others who may request information or a report on crime trends, other projects require more self directed work. One of these types of projects that requires more analytical thinking is developing solutions to local crime problems.

As an analyst I may begin to see a local crime trend develop and then it falls to me to analyze it and brainstorm a solution to that problem. To do this well often requires a way to formalize your thinking about the problem and it's possible solutions.

One thing that I found to be a great help for this kind of brainstorming was something called Mind Mapping. The term was coined by British author and psychologist Tony Buzan but in essence, mind mapping is a way to visually diagram information.

When we were in school, we were often taught to create an outline when we were researching a term paper. Depending on the requirements of your instructor, an outline tends to follow a hierarchical format. While I love outlines, the structure they have is linear. It starts from the top and works it's way down.

However, when you are brainstorming an idea your thoughts don't always come to you in a linear fashion. While a hierarchical outline works well when you start at the beginning and work towards the end of something, the format doesn't as easily lend itself to starting in the middle of a problem and working outwards, or starting at the end and working backwards.

Mind mapping is a diagram that works like a non-linear outline. You define the topic in the middle and then work outwards. Because of it's non-linear format I find that I am less constrained to start at the beginning. I can start wherever my thoughts take me and work in whatever direction I need.
For instance, let's say I discover a trend of increasing vehicle burglaries. I'd start off by putting the words "Vehicle Burglary" in the middle of the page. Then as I think about this, I know that there are proactive and reactive ways of dealing with a crime problem. I'll add branches to the main topic for Proactive and Reactive. Then I'll continue to branch off them until I cover all the bases.

Because a mind map is non-linear, I am not constrained to work in any particular direction. If an idea pops up, I can add it and move on capturing all my thoughts on this topic.

You can see a sample mind map I created for a solution to Vehicle Burglary here.

There are a number of ways to create mind maps. The first and likely one of the easiest is with a pen and paper. There are a number of advantages, its cheap for one. The other is that you can work with a lot less distractions.

Computer applications whether an application installed on your machine or one that is web based is the other way. You can generate some really complex diagrams that are neat and legible. Another advantage a computer generated mind map has is that it's easy to rearrange your diagram or to move whole sections around. You can also link to other computer based resources such as using Internet hyperlinks. The downside is cost (although there are some very good free and open source applications) and distractions.

Brainstorming while mind mapping should be more about getting all the information down quickly so you can understand it. Mind mapping like outlining is just a tool. If you find yourself spending more time playing with the tool than using the tool to create you might be missing the point. The website Vox recently had an interesting article titled Why you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop that gives credence to the idea that people learn and retain more when they take notes by hand rather than using a computer.

In addition to brainstorming, there are other things that people use mind maps for. The most common are note taking such as in a lecture or a meeting and task management.

The website WikiHow has a great tutorial on How To Make a Mind Map that will walk you though the basics.

So how do you brainstorm ideas? What do you find works best for you?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Modus Operandi Can Help You Identify Serial Offenders

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

We've often heard of the 80/20 Rule. In law enforcement, the rule says that 80% of your crime is committed by 20% of your offenders. While the exact percentages are probably not 80/20, it is safe to say that a significant amount of the crime in your jurisdiction is committed by a minority of offenders.

It would also be nice of these prolific offenders if they would identify the crimes they are responsible for. It would make linking them together a whole lot easier. We can't expect offenders to leave their business card on the door or to sign their work. But in one way, they do. Often times, their "Modus Operandi" can link them to the offenses they're responsible for.    

So just what is Modus Operandi? The phrase is Latin for "method of operation". Often times we hear it when referring to serial killers or some other exotic crime. But it doesn't just apply to exotic crimes, every crime and every criminal has a modus operandi or M.O. A criminal's M.O. can help you determine what crimes he or she is responsible for.

A prolific offender often develops an M.O. over time. Criminals will learn as they begin committing crimes. As they become more successful and more comfortable in committing offenses, they will usually stick with what works for them.

Economic principles also apply to offenders. If they have to spend more time and effort to commit a crime than the payoff, they will eventually abandon that method and seek out one where the economics are more stacked in their favor. They will learn from others in their social circles or even through trial and error. Eventually, they will gravitate to something that works.

If your agency faithfully records M.O.'s in your offense reports, you can use this data to identify offenses that can at times be attributed to specific offenders or groups of offenders. An offender identified in one case, can be linked through M.O. to another case where he or she was not known.

I worked on a serial armed robber whose M.O. allowed us to tie him to quite a number of armed robberies. He wore similar clothing during each robbery, he targeted similar businesses and made specific comments to the victims in each crime. At the beginning of the series started targeting these businesses in the late evening hours. However, he shifted to hitting businesses during the early morning hours and was more successful. By reviewing armed robberies in our jurisdiction and in neighboring jurisdictions we were able to pick out crimes he was responsible for because his M.O. had been unique and had been recorded.

It's important to try and identify as many crimes in a crime series as possible because the more information you have, the more likely you are to develop enough information to be able to solve a crime series. In fact, if you identify enough crimes in a series you can then start to predict future incidents based on statistical techniques such Mean Days Between Hits or other more sophisticated analysis.

Here are some general M.O. areas you need to try and cover in your analysis.

  • Journey to crime scene
  • Method of entry and entry point
  • Actions inside
  • Weapons used 
  • Words to victim
  • Actions towards victim
  • Items taken
  • Method of exit and exit point
  • Flight from crime scene

It's important to encourage your officers to gather M.O. information carefully during the initial investigation. You can further this end by taking opportunities to develop training materials that provide information on gathering M.O. information and sharing success stories where analysis of M.O. was important.

It's also important to identify known offenders associated with particular M.O.'s. If their M.O. is unique enough, and you begin to have a number of crimes with that or a very similar M.O. this  will give you a place to start on the suspects list. For instance if you know a particular offender is associated with rooftop business burglaries, then you can start looking at him a bit harder when you start having a rash of rooftop business burglaries.

Another often times fruitful endeavor is to debrief offenders about their M.O. or their knowledge of other criminal's M.O.'s. If your detectives can develop a rapport with an offender you can learn a lot from a good thorough debriefing. Questioning them about their M.O. can give you insights into their target selection allowing you to develop information that can guide further investigations or crime prevention efforts.

How does your agency collect and analyze modus operandi information?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Improving Your Searches With Boolean Operators

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

Much of the foundations of computer science where laid in a different era, one long before smartphones, laptops and desktop computers were even a dream. A major part of this foundation was laid in the 1850's by an English mathematician named George Boole. His work on what became known as Boolean Algebra was crucial to developing the digital electronics necessary to modern computers.

Much of this Boolean logic is buried deep inside the electronic recesses of your computer in the electronic circuits that make up the CPU of your machine.

However, there is an area where George Boole's work is much more accessible and just as useful. This is in the search algorithms that you can use in search engines like Google or Bing, to the search functions of your computer operating system, your department's police records management system software, GIS or crime analysis software.

Nearly everyone who has used a computer knows that you can enter a word of phrase into a Google search box to search for web pages with those words. However, most search functions also allow you to use Boolean Operators to fine tune your search. Let's look at the basics of Boolean operators.

AND Operator
The AND operator allows you to search for something that meets both criteria. For example of you search for:

ice AND cream

you will only get results that match "ice cream". You would not get results for "ice milk" or "coffee with cream".

With many search functions the AND operator is the default or implied search. For example, if you went to the search engine Bing, and searched for:

ice cream

It's the same as typing "ice AND cream". You've probably been conducting AND searches and didn't even know it.

OR Operator
Another type of Boolean operator is the OR operator. This operator allows you to search for either one, or the other. For instance if you type:

coffee OR cup

You'll get results that have either of those words in the result such as "coffee cake" and "measuring cup". OR searches tend to be much broader because the search conditions are easier to meet.

OR searches are not the default for search engines like Google or Bing so consequently you have to type the OR operator in your search terms to conduct an OR search. In the case of Bing, the OR between terms has to be capitalized. It's always a good idea to get in that habit and capitalize all Boolean operators.

NOT Operator
The NOT operator excludes a word from your search results. For example if you type:

chocolate NOT cake

then your results could return "chocolate milk" or "chocolate icing" but nothing that includes "cake".

More Google & Bing Tips
Here are a few more tips for getting the most out of Google or Bing searches. Some of these tips also have analogues for other searches within some of your applications. Check the applications' documentation for what they implement and how.

If you're looking for an exact phrase then enclose your search phrase in quotes, such as:

"the quick brown fox"

will only return results that begin with those words in that exact order. For Google searches you can even use a wildcard character, the asterisk ( * ), inside the quotes for a placeholder for unknown words. If you search for:

"the quick brown *"

It will return with results for any phrase that begins with the first three words.

You can also use two periods ( .. ) to search for a range. For example if you search for:

population 15000..25000

you'll get results that range between 15000 and 25000.

If you want to constrain your Google or Bing search to one particular website or URL preface your search criteria with "site:". In this example if you type:


it would only return results containing the word "burglary" that appeared in the Problem Oriented Policing Center's website ( pop ). This is an especially handy way to narrow the results to a site that you know might be more likely to contain the information you are looking for.

Both Google and Bing have specific conventions for using Boolean  operators as well as other neat tricks. More information about search operators for Google and Bing can be found here:

Taking the time to learn how to use these operators when searching can help you find what you are looking for without returning a lot of irrelevant results.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Database Basics for Crime Analysts

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

One thing that is often daunting for a beginning crime analyst is understanding how databases work. Often times, just the thought of working directly with a database will cause a new analyst's eyes to glaze over. In reality though it's not that hard if you just grasp a few concepts.

So just what is a database?

A database is where data is stored for later retrieval. A recipe box full of index cards is a database. In this case, the data is instructions on how to prepare a dish such as a casserole or Granny's pecan pie.

See, nothing intimidating about this so far. Let's take this recipe box analogy a little farther.

Each recipe card is a "record". A record contains all the data needed to complete the recipe. If I write the title of the recipe on the top of each card this title is a "field". If I also have a place on the card for the number of servings, this also is a field. In this analogy we'd also have fields for ingredients, fields for the preparation instructions and field for oven temperature, etc.

Now in this example, our database is called a "flat file" database. What this means is that all the data needed for the recipe is stored in one record. Flat file databases have their use especially where the data store in each record is limited or simple. An address book application on your computer is one example.

However, if your database is going to be complex, like a police records management system (RMS) for example, it's useful to segregate data into separate tables. A table is just a group of records within a database. A relational database relates records in different tables to each other by a common field that is shared by records in different tables.

The reasons for a relational database is it is more flexible and efficient. For instance a police RMS could store information about vehicles in a vehicles table. That information could then be used by both a traffic accident module and an incident module. The data would only have to be stored once but could be used by more than one module.

Let's apply this to our recipe box analogy. If we created a separate table in our database for cooking technique, for example; grilling, frying, or poaching, then we would not need to rewrite these detailed instructions on each recipe that called for these techniques. Our recipe cards could just refer to the record in the techniques table that had those instructions.

In our recipe box analogy, a record in the recipe table could contain a field for technique and store the value of "grilling".  A record in the technique table would also have the value "grilling". These related fields are the "key". When you retrieved the record from the recipe table for grilled salmon, it would use the key field to also pull the appropriate record with the matching key from the technique table. The whole database only has to store the instructions for grilling once in the database even if a hundred different recipes called for that technique.

All this is well and good but why is it important to know how a database works?

Most crime analysts will access the information stored in their RMS though the RMS application. But there are real advantages to being able to access the data directly. For example, in the RMS I use at my department, there are several screens where various bits of data are captured and stored. However, the canned reports that come with the RMS don't display those bits when you run the report. The data is stored in the database but the report isn't configured to display it. If you can directly access the database, you can use other tools to get at this data.

When you start working with a complex database with data stored across multiple tables you need a way to know where this data is stored. Most RMS systems or other applications have a document called a "schema" that is a roadmap to your data. This schema is important if you are going to use outside tools to create reports or extract data.

At my department I have direct read only access to the database using a technology called OBDC. This allows me to access the data in our RMS using reporting tools such as Crystal Reports or to import the data into a tool like Microsoft Excel or ArcGIS for further analysis. These tools greatly expand what I can do with the information contained in my RMS database.

Now the mechanics of using OBDC to access a database directly is beyond the scope of this post. However, I can tell you it's not as difficult as you might think it is. Your database administrator can likely help teach you how to do this and walk you through some of these techniques. Once you learn how, it can really improve your ability to analyze the information contained in your RMS. It's well worth the time and effort to learn.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Free Software and Tools for Crime Analysts

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity.

When I started this How To series in January, one of the things I wanted to do with it was to cover basic topics and skills for crime analysts. My reasoning is that there are plenty of smaller agencies that would benefit from analyzing crime, yet often these agencies don't have the resources to hire an experienced crime analyst or provide them with expensive software tools.

In this week's post I'm going to look at some tools that your agency can get free. Even though I am fortunate that my agency provides some really great tools for me to use, I find myself using a number of these free tools because they are handy and fill a need.

Google Earth
When people think of crime analysis and mapping, they often think about Geographic Information Systems or GIS. I have and use GIS. It's a very powerful tool. However, for quite a lot of crime analysis mapping needs it's often a bit of overkill. Many times, you may want to take a quick look at the relationship between a couple of crime locations or measure a distance. To use GIS to perform one of these simple tasks is akin to swatting flies with an elephant gun.

However, these simple tasks are easily accomplished with Google Earth. In fact, there is quite a lot Google Earth can do, such as displaying placemarks to identify a crime location, to drawing and displaying polygons for things like patrol areas to measuring distances for determining if drug or weapon law enhancements around schools apply.

One feature I use quite often is to export a Google Earth map as a JPEG image so I can then pull it into a PowerPoint slide for crime briefings. Zoom you map to where you want it. Placemark the locations with a relevant label or two, then go to the File Menu and Select "Save Image" and you have a quick map image for a bulletin, presentation, etc.

Another free tool I use daily is the text editor Notepad++. Text editors aren't word processing applications like Microsoft Word. They don't have features such as different fonts, tables or the things that make a document pretty. Text editors are designed to do one thing well, that is, edit text. For this reason they are used extensively by people who write computer code for programming applications.
Have you ever tried to cut and paste text from Word into a data entry screen on an application? Do you notice that sometimes the pasted text includes strange characters or it ends up with line breaks in weird places? This is because word processors like Word using invisible formatting characters to delineate changes in fonts, line or paragraph breaks, etc.

Text editors won't do that to your text. Pure, unadulterated text with no funny characters. Since text editors are designed to make programmer's lives easier they include features such as extensive macro support, programming language syntax highlighting etc.

One feature I really love is a very powerful search and replace feature that can make changing/replacing words or characters in a large body of text very easy. Another nearly as useful is a tool to change the case of text. Is your text all caps and you need it all lower case? Notepad++ can fix it. It can even covert case into proper sentence case, etc.

I use Notepad++ for things like cutting and pasting "boilerplate" text (standard replies or responses) into other applications such as emails, social media posts or database queries. Since all that is getting pasted is text without any formatting characters you won't have to worry about stray formatting characters ending up where they don't need to be.

I have previously written about the need to develop a strategy to deal with the large number of passwords a crime analyst will use. In that piece I spoke about one of my favorite tools for managing passwords KeePass.

KeePass is a password manager that will securely generate, store and manage passwords such as are used for various computer systems, websites and services. I have several hundred different logins and passwords to keep up with for systems I use daily to systems I only use every now and then. KeePass allows me to keep these in an securely encrypted file. All I have to remember is the one password to unlock the application and not the hundreds of individual passwords contained inside.

Microsoft Office is a great product. I use it quite often. However, it can be quite expensive to deploy across an organization. One alternative is the free office suite LibreOffice. This project started as a project by several computer software companies to provide an alternative office suite with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software, database and drawing application to bundle with their operating system software. These companies provide professional developers and support to the project and released the software for free for anyone who wishes to download and use it.

LibreOffice maintains compatibility with most Microsoft Office documents and can read and write to those formats. It is also a very polished and professional application. For an agency that may be looking for a cheaper alternative to Office, it's a good choice. It also works on multiple operating systems such as Windows, Mac OSX and Linux.

There are other free applications that can be used for crime analysis. What are your favorites?

Monday, September 19, 2016

How to Avoid Annoying Your Colleagues with Huge Emails

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

The one tool I use a lot as a crime analyst is email. There are a lot of benefits to communicating via email. Unlike a phone call where you both have to be in available at the same time, Email is asynchronous, which is a fancy way of saying that both the sender and receiver can do their part at different times. I work during the day time on weekdays. However, some of my officers work nights and weekends. I send the email when it's convenient to me and they read it when it's convenient to them.

One of the biggest reasons for a crime analyst is to send email involves the distribution of bulletins and reports. This is also one area that a crime analysis needs to tread lightly to avoid annoying your colleagues. Probably one of the biggest annoyances for those on the receiving end involves the size of those BOLO's and reports in your emails.

I'm pretty fortunate that my IT staff gave me an unlimited size email mailbox. I send and receive hundreds of emails a week, many containing multiple attachments. However, not everyone is so fortunate. Some agencies impose strict size restrictions on user mailboxes. Plus, many users are now getting work emails on smartphones, tablets or other devices with storage size or bandwidth limitations.

Google suggests a 10 megabyte limit for email attachments. While many mail programs and services will handle bigger sizes, this limit will cover most services/applications. However, just because you can send a 10 MB file doesn't mean you should. It's also worth remembering some email systems add adds up to 33% to the size of an email with attachments so an email ends up being considerably bigger than the size of the attachments. Smaller is better.

I want to look at a few simple tips to help you reduce the file size for the bulletins and reports you send. First, we need to talk about how a computer handles text and graphics.

Text is the most efficient part of a computer file. You can send thousands of pages of text in a relatively small file size. For instance, the Project Gutenberg version of Tolstoy's epic novel War and Peace weighs in with a whopping 570,022 words or well over 3.2 million characters. However, as a text file it's only 3.3 megabytes (MB). If you compress the file, you can get it down to 1.2 MB.

However, computer graphic images such as pictures or image files are not that efficient. For instance, I took a photo with my cell phone camera and at it's natural size that single photo is 1.8 MB. That's as a JPEG file which is a compressed file format.  This one photo is larger than all of War & Peace.

If I create a blank Microsoft Word document and save the file, this file weighs in at 25 kilobytes (KB). A megabyte is 1,000 kilobytes. If I add five paragraphs of text or about 215 words, the file grows to 86 KB. If I also add my 1.8 MB photo, my Word document now grows to 1.9 MB.

The problem is that your computer doesn't often use all the information contained in a photo to display what you see on the screen. In fact, in most instances the computer down samples or throws out a great deal of the information in the image file when it produces what you see on the screen. Because of this, you can often reduce the file size of an image file by lowering the resolution of your image.

If you create your document in Microsoft Word, it's pretty easy.  If you select the image you added to your document it adds a Format Picture menu to the ribbon. Select that, then go to Compress. You'll get a dialog for Reduce File Size along with Options to pick Best for Printing, Viewing on Screen, or Email. You can also go straight to that dialog by selecting the File menu and the "Reduce File Size" option.

Each of these options decreases the size of the image embedded in the document. If your document contains multiple images you can have it reduce the sizes of all images in the document at once. In my test document they reduce the size of the document from 1.9 MB to 610 KB, 307 KB or 193 KB respectively. These size reductions also carry through if you save the Word document as a PDF (I prefer sending bulletins as PDF as it's compatible with many more devices than Word).

This reduction in size makes quite a difference. For an officer in the field getting his email on a smartphone, he can download your bulletin in a fraction of the time it would take if you were using images at full size. Plus, by reducing file size you don't have to worry about running up against mailbox size limitations with multipage documents that contain a lot of images.

It's worth taking the extra step of reducing file size prior to hitting send on that email. Your recipients will thank you for it.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Tear Down Information Silos at Your Agency

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

For the past few weeks I have been working with several other agencies and a company that produces police records management system software. We're getting ready to replace our existing system with a brand new system.

As part of this process, the company providing the software interviewed persons from every functional unit within all the agencies on this shared system. We discussed workflows within these units, how data is captured, how it is stored and how it is accessed. Even though we are all part of the same shared records management system, there are differences in each unit and in each agency. Some were pretty sophisticated. Some were less so.

As I sat through these meetings over two weeks I recognized several instances where units within agencies had either intentionally, or unintentionally built Information Silos within their agency.

An Information Silo is a term that was coined to describe how oftentimes an organization structure inhibits the flow of information between separate parts of the organization. Information gathered by one unit often times does not get communicated to other units within the organization. Just like grain stored in a silo, information ends up being gathered and stored without spreading to other parts of the organization.

In law enforcement agencies, these Information Silos might be that the Patrol Division is not sharing information with the Detectives or the Narcotics Unit is not sharing information with the Training Division.

Information Silos develop for a number of reasons. Sometimes, organizational structure and proximity prevent the ease of information to flow within an agency. If your Detectives are in a separate building from your Patrol guys, don't be surprised if  they don't see or communicate with each other very often.

Another reason Information Silos develop is that people in the organization don't recognize the need for this information to be communicated with other units. Patrol officers who begin to see an uptick in calls centered around a certain location may not recognize the relevance this might have for the Detectives. Narcotics detectives who see a new street drug might not see the need to get this information to the Training unit so they can develop new training materials around these drugs.

Information Silos also develop when there is no easy way to share information across these units. Most detectives at my agency work normal business hours on weekdays. They are not likely to run into a midnight shift Patrol officer in the hallway. If there are no designated channels to communicate information between units, then it's lot likely to happen spontaneously.

Another more problematic reason Information Silos develop is due to "turf wars". One unit may not share information within the agency in order to "protect their fiefdom" or avoid interference , either real or imagined, from other units.

Whatever the reason, Information Silos reduce the efficiency your agency has in it's mission. As a crime analyst, your position is often uniquely suited within your agency to ensure that these Information Silos are  not an impediment to your organization.

Here are some suggestions on how to reduce the impact these silos have on your organization.

  • Make it a point to visit with key players in the various units within your agency. Drop by the different units and spend time with the officers and their supervisors. Query them on the cases they're working and offer your assistance where you can. When you recognize related cases, or new trends make it a point to get this information to them. Let them know you have an open door policy and encourage them to come by if they need assistance or just to talk shop. If necessary act as a liaison between differing units.   
  • Develop ways to share information between units. These don't always have to be technologically sophisticated or expensive. An email bulletin, a centrally located whiteboard or bulletin board, or regular meeting can help get information flowing in your agency.  
  • Ensure your agency understands the importance of information sharing between units. Develop training and policy documents that stress the importance of communication within the agency.  
  • Recognize and reward those persons and instances where information sharing made a difference. If a Patrol officer's Field Interrogation Report (FIR) was key to identifying a crime suspect, make sure that you ensure they and their supervisor knows about it. An "attaboy" memo for their personnel file can go a long way to motivate an officer.  

You may not be able to completely rid your agency of Information Silos as some of them come with the structure of an organization. However, you can reduce these damage these silos due to communication within your agency.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Twitter for Crime Analysts

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

I really enjoy social media. Not only is it great on a personal level but it is very beneficial for law enforcement agencies to use to connect with the citizens they serve. But there are other reasons to be on social media. Social media is a great way to connect with others in your profession. It’s also a great way to stay up with things that are going on in your community and in the world.

There are a number of social media networks. Each of them have strengths and weaknesses. Facebook is great for connecting with relatives and classmates, LinkedIn caters to professional networking and job seekers. Pinterest is great for hobbyists. My favorite is Twitter which really excels with breaking news and links to newly published stories and articles. Because of it’s strengths I think that Twitter has a lot of value for a crime analyst.

So just what is Twitter.

Twitter is a “microblog” where users can send short, 140 character or less “tweets” or posts. You can post comments, links and even photos to your Twitter feed. Any of these can be seen by someone who goes to your Twitter page. Additionally, a Twitter user can “follow” another Twitter account and see that user’s posts in their “feed” without having to go to their page. It’s also possible to organize those feeds you follow into “lists”. You can even send private “Direct Messages” to those Twitter users who follow you. These direct messages are only visible to the person you sent them to.

Because of it’s brief nature, it is especially suited to sending a comment or headline and an Internet link or URL. For example, a news website might send a headline and link to a news story. The nature of these messages is one reason that Twitter is very popular with news organizations and journalists. This popularity is also the reason that Twitter is so useful for crime analysts.

Let me explain how I use Twitter.

First, I subscribe to the Twitter feeds of all the local news organizations and local journalists in my area. These accounts will often post news stories that relate to crime stories in neighboring communities as well as posts from local journalists where they may comment about stories they are working on.

I also subscribe to the major nation and international news outlets. Twitter has become so ubiquitous in journalism that mainly times, they are quite far ahead when it comes to breaking news. Major news stories will be posted to Twitter near real time and well before it will hit TV, print or even a news website.

I also follow entities like the Department of Justice, area law enforcement agencies, crime analyst organizations and crime analysts. This allows me to see press releases, posts about new programs or publications.

I then organize these Twitter accounts into lists such as local news, national news, law enforcement related accounts, etc. I also use a Twitter client called Tweetdeck that allows me to display these lists side by side. Nearly anytime I am at the computer, either at work or at home I keep Tweetdeck up so I can monitor my Twitter feeds.

Also, several times during the day I will post comments and links to crime analysis and law enforcement related stories. For instance, if I run across a news story that talks about how a crime analyst solved a crime problem I’ll post it to Twitter so others who follow me can see it. I’ll also post links to other crime stories that catch my eye such as a new crime trend, a public policy piece or new technology. This way, anyone who follows me on Twitter can also see these stories and comment on them. I also will comment on tweets from others or “re-tweet” their post to my followers.

Even though tweets are only 140 characters, Twitter is a lot deeper than I can cover here. However, the tech website Mashable has a great Beginners Guide To Twitter that should get you going. Once you’re on Twitter you can follow me. My account name or handle is @scott_dickson

Here’s a couple of other good Twitter accounts for crime analysts:

International Association of Crime Analysts - @crimeanalysts

National Institute of Justice - @OJPNIJ

Monday, August 29, 2016

Develop and Implement a Backup Strategy

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

I’ve been working with computers both professionally and personally since the late 1980’s. Quite a lot of the technology has changed. My first computer with a hard drive had a whopping 20 megabyte drive. The laptop computer I am typing this on right now has a 320 gigabyte hard drive. That’s 16,000 times more storage space. All that over the course of about 25 years.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the need to back up your data. While computers and their storage medium are much more reliable than they were back when I started, they still are far from infallible. In my day I’ve seen drives fail, data files become corrupted, network drives overwritten, drives accidentally formatted, files mistakenly deleted and a virus encrypt and lock out user’s data.

Let me ask you a question. Just how far back would you be set back  if the files on your workstation disappeared? How would you do your job? How much would this affect your agency? If you’re like me, a loss of these files would create quite a problem. This is why it’s important to develop a sound backup strategy.

In this post I am going to look at a personal backup strategy. That is, a strategy to backup files on your workstation. I’m not going to cover server backups, shared database backups, etc. I know for some of you, you have a competent IT department that handles backups on the network. However, you might find that while they back up your shared network folders they often don’t backup anything from a user’s machine. Even if they did, don’t be surprised if getting them to recover  from a backup tape that one Word document you accidentally deleted is not very easy or timely.

This is why I firmly believe that you should be in charge of your own backups. Let’s cover a bit of terminology first. There are different types of backups. They are:

Full or System Image Backup - This backup backs up your entire drive; your operating system, applications, settings and user files. You could take a brand new empty hard drive restore your entire machine to just like it is now.

User Files or Selective Backup - This backup only backs up the user’s files and not programs, system settings or operating system. It would backup the files in your My Documents folder, Desktop files, etc.

Complete Backup - Backs up all the files selected (either Full or User Files) every time the backup is run.

Differential Backup - Only backs up the files that have changed since the last backup. The first backup would have all the selected files and subsequent backups would have only the files that have changed. This saves time when running the backup compared to the Complete Backup.

There are a number of ways to backup. You can backup to CD or DVD media, to a tape backup device, to a network, to another hard drive or to USB storage. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of backup media. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia article that outlines the advantages of each of them here.

However, there are a number of things I do want to cover when it comes to developing your own backup strategy. One, you need to develop a method of backups that is easy to do and to do it regularly. Two, this strategy needs to include multiple, redundant backups. You need to create several backups using different medium and to store those backups in different places. Lastly, you need to execute your backups like clockwork.

Here’s a peek at my workstation backup strategy.

I currently only do a Selective Backup of my user files. Until I can get them to buy me my own personal Network Attached Storage device or RAID array I don’t have the space to do a complete backup. While this isn’t ideal, it has the advantage that a drive failure would mean a fresh clean operating system and application install. Choose your poison.

Every single workday, I use a large capacity USB drive to copy all of the folders and files in my My Documents folder. I use a batch file with the XCOPY command to copy every directory and every file in it to the USB drive. I also use the /d switch to copy only those files that are newer than the ones on the USB drive. This option cuts down on the time required to complete the operation from over two hours to just under 30 minutes once you’ve made the initial backup. This is for just under 16GB of user data. Plug the drive in, double click the batch file and wait for it to complete. Couldn’t be simpler. This handles all the mission critical stuff that I would need to get up and running if need be. Plus, since the files are just copied to the USB drive, it’s super easy to find a file you need.

Every week, I then burn all the files from the My Documents directory as well as all the files on a shared network folder to DVD /R’s. These disks are then stored in a fireproof safe. I also periodically make additionally copies of these disks and store them off site. I use a repeating To Do item on my Task list to remind me to accomplish the weekly backups. I also archive old project files and data yearly to DVD /R and store them in a fireproof safe by year.

More than once I’ve had to go to my backups to find something that inadvertently got deleted or corrupted. The time spent backing up is nothing compared to the time and headache saved by being able to retrieve a file that went AWOL.

Do you have a backup strategy? Do you regularly backup using it?