Public Safety & Justice

Clear Connection

A high-tech partnership is driving down crime in Chicago.
by | August 2007
 

"You get lied to a lot out there," says Brian Joseph Tierney, a burly beat cop with the Chicago Police Department. Tierney is referring to his regular street-level encounters with individuals he thinks might be skating under the law's radar.

Until recently, Tierney didn't have much choice but to accept someone's story and whatever name he or she gave him, and let the individual move on--even if he strongly suspected that the person had something to hide.

But things are changing quickly in Chicago, thanks to the convergence of two very powerful tools: first, rapidly filling reservoirs of data on everything from warrants and rap sheets, to nicknames, scars, tattoos and mug shots; and second, the technology to quickly sift through it all and retrieve relevant information in moments from just about anywhere.

Now, says Tierney, he can use the equivalent of a BlackBerry or laptop computer to quickly cross-check names, physical features, style of dress and even fingerprints--all while he's out on the street. As a result, the tenor of Tierney's beat encounters is starting to change. "It's very deflating to them," he says, "when some character finds out that I know he's lying to me because I was able to pull up his picture with the touch of a finger."

The reason for the turnaround in Chicago is CLEAR, which stands for "Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting." CLEAR takes the basic concepts behind data-driven crime mapping (a tactic pioneered by New York City through its Compstat program) and vastly expands it, creating a widespread and cross-cutting system of information gathering, storage and retrieval that gives all law enforcement officials--from foot patrols to high-level managers--as well as citizens a virtual view of the total crime picture in the metro region.

ACTIONABLE INTELLIGENCE

CLEAR isn't an technological monolith, rather it's a collection of high-tech tools and IT-enabled tactics that have been woven together over more than a decade to allow for more information-driven and prevention-focused crime fighting--giving rise to the term "fusion centers."

On the hardware side, CLEAR includes everything from the squad-car laptops and handheld devices police officers use to check and collect names, license plates, photos and fingerprints out in the field; to field microphones that pick up and triangulate gunshots; to stationary cameras that monitor potential crime hotspots; to mobile cameras that can scan thousands of license plates an hour to check for stolen vehicles or possible fugitives or suspects.

On the intelligence side, CLEAR links databases that contain a huge range of information on arrests and convictions, stolen vehicles, warrants, firearms data, investigative alerts, gang activity (including individuals' affiliations and rank), juvenile curfew violations and incidence reports, among a host of other information sets. Meanwhile, relevant information on incidents and key events can be quickly mapped to identify patterns and trouble spots--and even predict where and when an offender or trouble might show up next.

The whole idea behind CLEAR is to get the right information to the people who need it most when they need it most, says Jonathan Lewin, director of IT for the Chicago Police Department. For example, when it comes to strategic deployment, that information may be used at a fairly high level. David Sobczyk, head of the department's deployment center, notes that the days of getting in a patrol car and cruising around town waiting for a dispatch are long gone. "Now, you go where we tell you to go based on actionable intelligence," says Sobczyk.

What is "actionable intelligence"? With CLEAR, it can be just about any detail related to a crime or a suspect. In one recent case, the police had only a discarded lottery ticket as evidence at a murder scene. Guessing the number sequence chosen might have some significance, they ran it as a street address through CLEAR, got a clean hit on a career criminal, cross-checked DNA found at the scene with samples on file and made the arrest.

In another improvement over past Compstat-style efforts, CLEAR also pushes all kinds of relevant--and potentially life-saving--information down to the street in real time so that police officers have a much better idea of who they're dealing with and what they might be getting into. Lewin describes these capabilities as "crime fighting at the speed of thought."

CITIZEN INPUT

This is hardly a phrase that would have described the Chicago Police Department in action not very long ago. It was so bad in the late 1980s, says Philip J. Cline, who just retired as department superintendent after 37 years on the force, that when he was head of the department's violent crimes unit, he and some of his fellow detectives actually pooled their own money to buy a computer--which they used mostly for word processing.

Back then, if a detective or a uniformed officer wanted a mug shot or a rap sheet, Cline recalls, he'd have to make the pilgrimage to "11th and State," the venerable old Chicago police headquarters that housed all the paper files on which crime-fighting intelligence depended. Mug shots were on one floor, rap sheets on another. "You'd make this sort of onion-skin copy," says Cline. "And everything was in black and white." It was slow and uncertain work. Cases often went cold in a hurry.

Ultimately, though, it wasn't frustration on the part of the police force over their woeful technological status that finally pushed the department into the next century, according to Cline and Lewin. It was a different phenomenon that was taking hold in cities across the county--community policing.

While pressure was coming down from top elected officials to improve police-community relations, a new theory was building within law enforcement itself that effective crime fighting required a tighter connection between police and neighborhoods. As the CPD began considering ways to implement community policing, it dawned on them that to create any kind of decent partnership would require sharing a lot of information--much of which either didn't exist or wasn't readily available absent much better IT tools.

"In 1991, Mayor Daley made a commitment to community policing," says Lewin. "As part of that effort, he wanted us to create a system of data gathering that was fast and easy to use and that could generate maps."

The technology push was aggressive and sustained. But while CPD was going from worst in class to high performer on the IT front, it wasn't exactly proving to be a model when it came to community policing. That began to change with the gelling of CLEAR in 2002. From the start, Lewin says, there was a strong outreach effort in order to find out what sort of information citizens wanted at their fingertips, so the department could build that into CLEAR.

Alvaro Obregon says he knew the police were serious about improved community relations when he made his very first request regarding CLEAR at a District Advisory Committee meeting. "It was heartening right off the bat," recalls Obregon, who chairs his west side DAC, "when we said that it was important that whatever information was included be bilingual, and the police department said 'Check, we're already on it.'" Community-accessible information offered through CLEAR is now available in more than a dozen languages.

And so the first--and perhaps most significant--benefit of CLEAR to community groups such as Obregon's DAC was simply that the push to include citizens and local businesses in its design served to rekindle a tighter police-community relationship in general. "It was more than just about software and data and how to link up to it; that's important but dry," says Obregon. "It was involving the community in the planning process. I saw people who had been very cautious in how they related to the police start to open up."

DEMOCRATIZATION OF POLICING

On the "dry" side alone, though, CLEAR has plenty to offer. For starters, it allows citizens to quickly find out who, exactly, is policing their neighborhoods, from foot patrols to beat commanders. And it allows for the rapid exchange of information on criminal activity in specific neighborhoods.

Currently, 20,000 citizens and local businesses subscribe to a service through CLEAR that offers regular updates on what's happening in specific beats (there are 280 citywide, generally organized along the lines of recognized neighborhoods), including alerts if police are seeing--or anticipate--some uptick in crime in a particular area or if they need help finding a particular person.

At the same time, the system also offers residents a way to pass along tips--anonymously, if they wish. They also can attend "virtual" beat meetings through CLEAR. Meanwhile, the department is working with the city's District Advisory Committees to create Web-based bulletin boards listing everything from what community and city services are available in a particular area, to recreational and job opportunities for youths.

The potential to build on CLEAR to improve community-police relations is significant, says Dennis Rosenbaum, who teaches criminal justice and psychology at Loyola University and evaluates community policing efforts nationally.

For example, CLEAR isn't used only to monitor criminal activity. It also contains personnel information on police officers themselves, ranging from keeping track of sick leave to complaints about excessive use of force. The system allows for "early intervention" if a cop seems to be racking up an unusual number of complaints out in a particular neighborhood.

Rosenbaum envisions CLEAR being used to do citizen polling, including asking questions around police-community relations generally, what sort of law enforcement services residents would like to see more of or how safe people feel walking the streets of their neighborhoods. "It's the democratization of policing," he says of the CLEAR-community connection. "It's about expanding the dialogue between the police and citizens around police and public safety."

Another spin-off of the CLEAR-community connection has been that other city agencies are now frequently called in to help solve neighborhood problems that were initially identified by citizens and the police--whether it's a need to repair streetlights, remove abandoned cars or deal with derelict properties.

But at the end of the day, CLEAR is first and foremost about fighting crime, and to that end, CLEAR seems to now routinely prove its value. It's been so effective in helping police, in fact, that dozens of jurisdictions in the metro area have signed on to access CLEAR databases. "We border the city on two sides," says Oak Park police chief Rick Tanksley, "and so we share some of the same criminals."

Tanksley says CLEAR has dramatically shifted how his department does business. "We use it every day, and we've made plenty of arrests based on CLEAR information." One small, recent example: The Oak Park police were looking for a "person of interest," and found him after the police downloaded a color picture of a tattoo.

In all, more than 300 other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies--including some in Indiana and Wisconsin--have access to CLEAR. The department also is adding more than 100 downstate police departments to the system. "The benefits of sharing information can't be overestimated," says Lewin. In fact, the federal government is so impressed with CLEAR's capacity for sorting through suspects, it has asked the CPD to work with the Department of Defense on creating a system to be deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Chicago's Type I crimes have been ratcheting down every year since CLEAR went live, even as crime in other major cities has trended upward. And just about every police officer or detective in Chicago seems to have a story about how CLEAR has made a difference.

Burglary detective Dewey Lee Jr., characterizes his job as "chasing ghosts," because of the citywide game of hide and seek in which he's engaged full time. Except these days, ghosts are starting to discover they're not so invisible, Lee says, thanks to the connect-the-dots capacity of CLEAR.

To see how citizens in Chicago can use CLEAR, check out the Web version at http://gis.chicagopolice.org. There you can search for and map crime by type, date, ward, park, school, community or address. Data is updated daily, and tracked for the past 365 days. Additional information includes beat, district and station maps, reports and statistics, and the official blog of the Chicago Police Department.

This article is part of an ongoing series on public performance measurement and citizen engagement, for which support is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Sloan Foundation may assist some of the programs mentioned in these articles, but the foundation has no control or influence over the editorial content of the article. All of the reporting and editing was done independently by Governing staff.

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