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Timely Crime Data that is Easy to Interpret Leads to Better Law Enforcement Decisions

Organizations of all types, especially law enforcement agencies, are being buried in Big Data. As defined by Wikipedia, the term Big Data  represents data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process.

The same problem can also referred to as Information Overload, and aside from the technical challenges to Big Data, too much information can be difficult to access, store, share, and be useful. In today’s more electronic world, we aren’t in jeopardy of being buried in paper – rather the biggest threat of all is that the data goes unused.

Useful information leads to better knowledge, and thus better decision-making.  A typical approach to managing data and information can be:

  1. Collect raw data
  2. Sort into useful information
  3. Analyze information
  4. Share findings
  5. Information is turned into useful knowledge

The Information Sharing Environment (ISE) provides vital information about terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and homeland security to analysts, operators, and investigators in the U.S. government. From ISE’s Website:

A fundamental component of effective enterprise-wide information sharing, for example, is the use of information systems that regularly capture relevant data and make it broadly available to authorized users in a timely and secure manner.

While focused on activities mostly related to terrorism, ISE acknowledges its ideas of data sharing are extremely effective in local law enforcement as well.

In law enforcement, timely and accurate information is vital; as untimely or inaccurate information simply causes problems. PublicEngines audits show that up to 25% of all law enforcement data housed in RMS or CAD systems in the average agency is not accurate – often mislabeled or improperly mapped. This can lead to a poor allocation of resources and confusion.

However, some agencies struggle with sharing relevant and timely information at all. Time spent reporting, analyzing, and distributing information can be tedious, and time-consuming. And with up to 59% of agencies stating there is a lack of staff for crime analysis, it’s no surprise the critical information is often not shared.

The lessons are clear – sharing data that is relevant, timely, and easy to interpret, is an effective way to become more efficient in law enforcement.

PublicEngines recently announced it has added Email Reports to its widely popular CommandCentral Analytics solution. You can read the announcement here: PublicEngines Launches Email Reports for CommandCentral

Creating more tools that allow for easier sharing of critical information is a step in the right direction of tackling this challenge of too much information for law enforcement. This is especially true when the information shared is easy-to-read and interpret. The more people that have access to timely and valuable information, the better law enforcement decisions will be made.

So, how is timely and relevant information shared at your agency? Do you have an internal process, meeting, or technology solution that works particularly well for you? Let us know in the comments section.

Intelligence Led Policing Yardsticks: Data Cleansing and Management

So let’s start piling in the data! Right?

Not just yet cowboy; pull back the reigns for just a minute. I know you’re anxious to get your Intelligence Led Policing initiative up and running, but don’t skip the most important step: making sure the data you are going to feed into your intelligence system isn’t garbage! We’ve all heard the term, “garbage in, garbage out.” Well, the data integration between an RMS/CAD system with an analytics solution is where that term really comes to life.  So many agencies I speak to have unwittingly made the mistake of pushing data into an intelligence system without vetting that data first.  What makes it worse is that most of these agencies won’t figure out that they pushed bad data into their system until they begin to get results from that system that doesn’t make sense.  Some of the most common results they will see as a result of bad data are:

  • Maps will be a mess
  • Multiple crime types getting bulked together (think murder, rape, theft, lumped together in an “other” category)
  • And generally, their numbers won’t jive with what they know to be true

So let’s talk about your data; I mean really talk about why it is so important to spend time on your existing data set to make sure that it is clean, standardized, and accurate.  Don’t assume that your data set is correct. It may be a difficult thing for you to do, but I want you to assume that you data set is “generally” correct, but needs verification before it is trusted.  As President Reagan said so often, “Trust, but verify”. Now don’t get me wrong, you can certainly use your existing data, as it sits, without verification, for your intelligence initiative.  You can pull intelligence from that un-vetted data set and distribute that intelligence throughout your department.  But, without verifying your data, your intelligence will be wrong.

Data verification is the key to good intelligence.

So how do you verify your data?  Here are a few areas to check in what I would consider the most common error categories, and steps to take to correct any mistakes you may find.

1.   Maps – Most commonly our mapping data, whether from GIS, Google, Lat/Long, or address, is far from perfect.  As a matter of my experience, I would say that maps are one of the most inaccurate, yet one of the most desired data sets for an agency.

crime map, crime mapping, crime reports

Crime map data comes from a variety of technologies.

Meaning, we all want good maps, but very few of us actually have such.

Why? – There are a multitude of reasons that our maps leave a lot to be desired, such as: inaccurate input from our officers and dispatch, duplicate addresses resulting from some unknown oddity in city planning, and GIS, Google and other mapping systems simply putting the map point in the wrong place. Very few of these, other than officer/dispatch mistake, are under our control.  This is what makes the mapping issue such a big problem, many of us just throw up our hands and exclaim, “it’s out of my control, so we’ll just have to live with it.”

Effect – By leaving bad mapping to its own devices, we are allowing our data to be tainted.  In essence, we are saying, we don’t really care about those crimes that are mapped incorrectly, we will just rely on the crimes that are mapped correctly.  Of course, this is false logic because, as we all know, especially Intelligence Led Policing  should be an “all crimes” approach.  With an “all crimes” approach, we know we are getting the entire picture. Without it, we are only getting a biased view.

Solution – The first step is training – make sure your officers and dispatchers are entering the addresses correctly.  After that is done, choose a software solution, such as the one I use, CommandCentral by PublicEngines, that allows you to identify incorrect mapping points and move them to their correct location.  I have seen many software solutions, records management systems included, that allow the user to see incorrect mapping points, but very few allow the user to move those bad points to where they really need to be.  CommandCentral, however, has gone one step further than just allowing you to identify and move your mapping points, it has streamlined that entire process down to just a few clicks of the mouse.  I am able to look at all of my crimes over a particular date range in the entire city, un-click my zone designations, and then click a tab called “outside” that shows all of my crimes that mapped outside of my zone designations.  I can utilize the administration tools to move mis-mapped crimes to their proper location.  A quick solution to a menacing problem.

2. Crime Types – Used widely by agencies to easily designate the difference between certain crimes, such as Burglary Residential and Burglary Commercial, these designations have quickly gotten out of hand in many jurisdictions.  What I mean by out of hand is that many agencies have found themselves with so many crime types, some have 400, 500, or more, that they have a hard time keeping the designations separate.

Why? –  Let’s face it, so many times it is much easier for an officer to pick Theft/Other than it is to find the exact designation that the crime demands, especially when there are so many options. Whats more is that in so many records management systems, in order to run a report on a parent crime type such as theft, you have to run multiple individual reports on each crime type designation within that parent theft designation.  And sometimes, an officer incorrectly categorizes a crime.  He may write a burglary report, when in actuality, it should have been a theft report.

Effect –  You find your data is scattered all over your records management system.  For instance, in order to run a report of the thefts in your jurisdiction, you have to go to multiple report tables, run multiple reports, and then you still have to compile, generally manually, all of those records into one document.

Solution –   Like Maps, the first step is training. Make sure you train your staff the proper way to designate each crime and more than that, make sure they know why it is so important to properly designate each crime.  The second step then is to revert back to your software solution to make this whole process easier for you.  I again refer to CommandCentral, it allows me to easily bulk my various crime types into easy-to-understand quick tabs.  Meaning then, that all of my various thefts are bulked into one tab simply called “Theft,” while still allowing me to just choose one type of theft and generate a report on it alone if needed. The system also allows me to bulk these crime types myself. That way, if I want to move a specific crime type to another category, I can do so with ease.

3. Numbers – Truly at the heart of the matter aren’t they?  The chief wants them, the city council wants them, even the FBI wants them. But if the data problems we spoke of earlier are not right, then your numbers are surely off as well.

Why? – There is a direct correlation between your numbers being off and the data supporting your numbers being off.  As go the earlier topics, so goes your numbers, and so on.

Effect – So many times we are in a rush to get the numbers out that we forget the correlation.  As a result of putting out bad numbers, we all look poorly to those we have created the report for. We are working with something the likes of a living organism, all parts must work together for all the parts to work correctly.

Solution – Begin by correcting all of the areas that you would get your numbers from, such as the areas we spoke of earlier. Please be diligent about this. You must understand that if your data sets are not correct, then there is no way your numbers, which come from those data sets, can be correct.

In closing, I want us to all remember an old saying some of us were taught in mandate    school: “The Fruits of the Poisonous Tree.” Use it as a guide for our Intelligence Led Policing.  If we use bad data (the poisonous tree) in our intelligence initiative, then the intelligence that we get out of that bad data (the fruit), is corrupt, misleading, and all around garbage. Your Intelligence Led Policing initiative lives and dies on the quality of the data you feed it. Feed it good, accurate data, and it will thrive, feed it fruits of the poisonous tree and it will wither and die.



Mapping Technology Delivers Powerful Information, Leads to Smarter Decisions

David Weisburd and Tom McEwen opened their groundbreaking 1997 paper, Mapping and Crime Prevention, with an interesting bit of trivia. The first known case of mapping occurred in London during a cholera outbreak in 1854. Dr. John Snow plotted the deaths on a map of the city and compared them to the locations of water pumps throughout the afflicted neighborhood. Through investigation, Dr. Snow was able to pinpoint the exact source of the cholera, and end the outbreak.

Original map made by John Snow in 1854. Cholera cases are highlighted in black.


Today mapping has evolved into a high-tech information motherlode. Applications on smart phones can find you the nearest Starbucks in a matter of seconds.  But for all the convenience these consumer-oriented maps offer, none is more important than those mapping crimes.

As a parent, the safety of my kids is my number one priority in making more decisions than I can count. It influences which houses I’ve bought, which schools they attend, sometimes even which restaurants we frequent or events we visit. I want to know my family will be safe.

Take for example, when we were looking at buying a new house.  After touring a home, looking in closets, measuring the space in bedrooms, and driving around the neighborhood, we’d always pull up the local crime mapping site when we got back to our place.

Some houses were dropped from our list within a few minutes after seeing the crimes report. Seeing a series of thefts within a few blocks of the house was a deal breaker for us.

But even more important to us was locating sex offenders in the area. One house we liked in a seemingly quiet neighborhood fell off our list immediately after we saw that a registered sex offender lived down the street.

Please don’t misunderstand, we believe in second chances for everyone after a person has paid his or her debt to society. But for us the risk of our children’s safety – even theoretically – far outweighed the house’s many attributes.

Having access to the knowledge of what crimes have occurred in near real-time is an incredible tool for everyone. And the more crimes that are mapped every year the more efficacious crime mapping becomes as a tool for overall community safety.

The engagement with local police departments mapping offers is an important added benefit. I’ve always been a firm believer that communities are safest when police and citizens work together.  Mapping provides transparency about the crimes in my area. It offers members of the community the opportunity to proactively help in solving and reducing crimes by offering police tips and helping citizens make informed decisions.

Most importantly, mapping gives me an incredibly valuable benefit: the knowledge to empower myself. It helps me make educated decisions to protect my family.

Right now, CrimeReports has 80-million crimes mapped. That’s a staggering number. It is also an empowering number. The more we know, the more we can react and help to bring those numbers down. It will be great day when we start seeing fewer and fewer crimes mapped, because it will mean our society is measurably safer. I think Dr. Snow would be very proud.

Crime Data – What to Do With Your Data and How to Share it

This is part four in a multi-part series on Intelligence-Led Policing

Crime Maps, Charts, Graphs – Oh My 

So you have all this data, now what to do with it. This is your next stumbling block along the road to true Intelligence-Led Policing. Many agencies make the mistake of thinking data itself is intelligence, this is simply not the case. Truly, very little is further from the truth when it comes to Intelligence-Led Policing. Data is the brick and mortar upon which intelligence is built, but like lone bricks, without being put together properly, it will not support anything.
So, how do you put all of your newly found data together so that it can work for you and your staff?

There are a number of ways to present your data; the best rule of thumb for this is to know your staff. How does your staff best understand data, maps, charts, graphs, etc.? Most cops are visual learners, so if you are unsure of the answer to the previous question, maps are a great place to start. So let’s use maps as our example. Cops know their beats; start with a map showing the crime in each beat/zone for the last month. But don’t stop there, do the same map for the last three months for comparison and the same months last year. When you have created these maps, it will be clear that your jurisdiction has crime patterns. Don’t keep the maps for yourself, distribute them to your staff and teach them how to recognize the normal patterns from the abnormal.

Beat Comparison Charts,  crime maps, graphs and any other way you choose to distribute your intelligence can be intimidating to your staff. Keep in mind, they may have never seen information presented to them in this way and moreover they have never been expected to fully embrace something so new and so foreign in a quick manner. I have found that using staff meetings to first teach your command staff how to understand this new approach, is the best way to introduce them. If you can wow them, they will spread the word to the rest of the staff.

So, how to wow them……show them the crime patterns we spoke of earlier, show them that the crime in your jurisdiction is predictable from year to year and therefore, month to month. I did just this in one of my very first staff meetings. I presented a graph that showed that our part one crimes for the last three years were predictable within a variable of 25 to 30 crimes, some within 5 to 10 crimes. You want an attention getter, that’s an attention getter! Within 15 minutes of the conclusion of the staff meeting, I had front line officers at my office door asking about my “crystal ball.”

“Why Intelligence-Led Policing? The Answer”

This is part two of a multi-part series on Intelligence-Led Policing written by Detective Daniel Seals of the Covington, GA Police Department. Stay tuned each Thursday for a new entry.

Why Intelligence-Led Policing 

Well, because you are probably already doing it and just don’t realize it. Ask any of your veteran officers, “where are our highest crime areas?”or “who do we deal with the most?” They’ll all have answers for you, and they’ll all sound pretty similar. This is what Intelligence-Led Policing is all about though — taking the information you already have and doing something useful with it. That last part is usually the gap in most departments; doing something with it. Officers have actionable intelligence, but rarely do they put it to use or share it with other officers and command staff. There is for a multitude of reasons. For instance, officers are told; “stay in your zone/beat”, “drive around and make sure the public sees you”, “don’t get in to anything so you can answer your calls.” These are all generally good tenants of policing, but they don’t allow for an intelligence-led, focused way of policing.

Focus on High Crime Areas

If you know where your crime is generally and where it isn’t generally, then why not focus your patrols in the areas where crime is? This sounds pretty obvious, but all too often policing turns into a game of, “drive around and see if you find something while answering calls in between.” This is akin to the “spray and pray” method of firearms, where you fire your weapon multiple times in multiple directions with the assumption that you will surely hit something. We would never teach our officers to do this. We teach them to be precise and exacting on the firearms range. How about using the same precision and exacting nature in the rest of their job? Why not go to where you know the crime is and hang out there until you get a call? I guarantee your mere increased presence in these high crime areas will at the very least disrupt the criminal element in these areas. By no means am I suggesting a neglect of the other areas of your city or township, but rather a focus on the higher crime areas. This is, of course, a very elementary break down of Intelligence-Led Policing — it’s also an illustration of a starting point.

Extract Individual Information and Compile it Holistically 

Intelligence-Led Policing starts with taking all of the information your officers already have, coupling it with other local, state, and federal intelligence, adding it to the crime data you have compiled in you records, and finally, mixing it together to create an intelligence product that your entire department can use. Again, this is not far from what you are doing now, it’s just a more structured way of putting it all together and most importantly getting it out to your officers so they can use it every day, all day.

Between now and my next entry, I encourage you to make a list of all the different information sources that you currently have access to. Because in my next blog, I will describe how to compile this information, make it accessible, and actually get your officers to “buy in” to this new way of policing.