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Data-Driven Policing

With little or no additional funding, geomapping can help law enforcement fight crime while lowering traffic incidents.

Police in a growing number of communities are finding that by merging crime and traffic data, they can take steps to dramatically lower traffic accidents and violations, and reduce crime with little or no additional funding.

Using data to determine community "hot spots," where both criminal activity and traffic incidents occur, police are deploying high-visibility traffic enforcement officers to targeted areas. The initiative, called Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS), was first piloted in several communities in 2008 by a partnership among the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Bureau of Justice Assistance and National Institute of Justice.

The pilot sites -- law enforcement agencies in Baltimore County, Md.; Lafourche Parish, La.; Nashville, Tenn.; Rochester, N.Y.; the Vermont State Police in cooperation with St. Albans, Vt.; and Washoe County, Nev. -- used geomapping technology to plot areas with high numbers of both crime and traffic incidents.

After mapping, they quickly noticed an overlap: Where crime is high, traffic incidents are often high as well. "You don’t hear of walk-by shootings," says Michael Alexander, commander of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. "Most of the time the criminal element is either riding or driving in the car."

To address the overlap, the pilot agencies targeted specific areas, and stepped up their police presence and traffic enforcement in these places. The result? Decreases in robberies, vandalism, theft and many other crime categories, and increases in vehicle stops, warnings, traffic citations and DUI/DWI arrests.

The successful pilot initiatives quickly gained national attention, and today an increasing number of police and sheriffs’ departments are taking an interest. Communities wanting to learn more about the initiative are invited to participate in workshops offered by the NHTSA and representatives of the pilot cities.

Shawnee, Kan., a Kansas City suburb, was the first city to take part in a workshop. With a population of roughly 60,000, Shawnee was struggling with reduced budgets, fewer resources and increasing crime. DDACTS was a natural fit.

Shawnee focused increased enforcement on an area that covers about 4 percent of the city but accounts for one-third of the total crime. In moving from reactive to proactive policing in the targeted area, residential and commercial burglaries decreased by nearly 60 percent, and vehicle crashes declined by 17 percent, says Shawnee Police Department Capt. Bill Hisle. "Overall, crime in the entire city is down about 8 percent," he says, "due in large part to the effect of just reducing crime in that one area."

Maryland’s Baltimore County, with a population of around 800,000, also saw significant declines in robberies, burglaries and vehicle crashes. In 2010, 14 areas were targeted with increased, highly visible enforcement. Robberies and vehicle crashes fell in 10 of the 14 target areas based on a three-year average; burglaries decreased in 12 target areas.

Though DDACTS’ results speak for themselves, some police departments are hesitant to implement the initiative due to a lack of both funding and data analytics capabilities, says Baltimore County Police Department Capt. Howard Hall. But one of DDACTS’ strengths, he tells interested communities, is that it doesn’t require a large investment or new personnel. Because this is a philosophy rather than a program, changing the way people think doesn’t cost a thing. Increasing enforcement in targeted areas is simply a redirection of resources.

As for data analytics, Hall says, "If you’ve got a map with some pins in it, that’s where you can start." As the philosophy becomes ingrained in the culture, departments can work toward accessing better information and sophisticated analytics.

That was the situation in the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office. "We had nothing. No true record management system ... no mapping," says former Capt. Scott Silverii, who is now chief of police in Thibodaux, La. "Our beginnings were very, very humble."

With call record data and a map, Silverii and his team plotted out the data and decided how best to target enforcement. As the initiative continued, Lafourche saw the need for a more seamless system, and eventually invested in one.

Lafourche relied heavily on the NHTSA to help build an analytics system and assist with analysis. It’s this partnership that the NHTSA and other federal organizations involved in the initiative want to stress.

Since the pilot phase began, no federal mandate or specific guidelines were created for participating departments to follow. The pilot phase did, however, lead to the creation of seven principles. No agency is required to follow any of the principles -- they are merely suggestions -- but the NHTSA and other federal agencies nevertheless encourage communities to learn them.

One principle that the NHTSA says is key to DDACTS’ success is information sharing and outreach. "The communication piece is big whether it’s in the agency or out to the community," says Nashville’s Alexander. Internally communication helps get the necessary buy-in from top administrators in a department. Making leaders comfortable with DDACTS’ philosophy is key to ensuring officers on the street have the right attitude as well.

Furthermore, internal communication cannot be a one-time occurrence throughout the initiative’s implementation -- it’s important to keep the lines of communication open and information flowing. In Nashville, daily roll call briefings now feature crime maps that track DDACTS’ enforcement and progress. Sharing this data with officers on a daily basis helps keep them motivated. "Hanging our hat on the data speaks to the officers buying into the management philosophy," Alexander says.

The difference between DDACTS and other crime reduction programs is that it doesn’t have a start and end date; it’s about a long-term change in the way commanders and police officers think about enforcement. "This is not just an initiative for us," Hisle says. "This is really a new policing philosophy for our department."

The change in thinking doesn’t come overnight, but seeing steady progress in high crime areas helps DDACTS become part of the policing culture. Baltimore County is stressing this idea to its 2,500 personnel, but Hall admits that it’s a slow process. "Long term, this is one of the primary methods we’re using to deploy our resources," he says. As officers understand this, it continues to get easier.

Externally law enforcement entities in DDACTS’ communities are taking their message to homeowners, businesses and "anyone who will listen," Hisle says. Shawnee’s Police Department met with the community in its target area before implementing DDACTS so residents and business owners better understood why they would see an increased police presence. For the most part, the community is receptive. Now, Hisle says, officers hear from community members who say, "It’s great you guys are here; we feel safe in our neighborhoods again."

Nashville’s Alexander echoes the importance of outreach, noting the concern that business owners have expressed about the increased police presence deterring patrons. But having data available on the reduction in crime in targeted areas over weeks, months and years makes a difference. "If you don’t have the data, it’s much harder to be accountable not only to department leadership, but to the community as well," he says.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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