Spreading the Word

With technology as an aid, law enforcement drafts community members in the fight against crime.

by / September 3, 2003
Community-oriented policing is not new ? it represents the current state of law enforcement's ever-changing philosophy. With the addition of new tools to disseminate information, however, the concept may be here to stay.

Law enforcement has gone from trying to prevent crime to merely reacting to it, and back to trying to prevent it. Beat cops that walked precincts were believed to be crime deterrents. Then police got mobile with squad cars, and the distance between law enforcement and the community grew.

Today, whether trying to prevent crime or catch a kidnapper, law enforcement is discovering that information is key, and in the hands of the community, it provides enormous benefits. With the advent of the Web and other technologies, police no longer have to go door-to-door to get their message out.

"We're back to using community-oriented policing, and we're really using technology to our advantage," said Rich Stanek, Minnesota public safety commissioner. "We used to say, years ago, that we couldn't prevent crime, just respond to it. Then we figured out we could prevent it by engaging different communities or citizens themselves."

Though the recent trend toward crime prevention is partly a result of 9-11, law enforcement has long known the benefit of involving the community. Now police agencies are taking it a step further by engaging communities with information they previously weren't eager to share with citizens.

"We always used to say what's classified and what's not classified, and 'We're police and we can't share it with you,'" Stanek said. "That's not necessarily true anymore."

In some quarters, in fact, the pendulum is swinging toward releasing more information and letting citizens filter it.

Decades ago as a young police chief, Jerry Boles, now associate director of Michigan Regional Community Policing Institute, was reluctant to release information to the public because he feared it would be used "unscrupulously by certain segments of the community." He later came to believe "people who would do that sort of thing are going to do it anyway," and the value of educating the public outweighed the risks.

"If you don't engage, if you don't enlist the support of the people you serve, then all you're going to do is respond," he said.

Some jurisdictions or agencies remain reluctant, but Boles said more information sharing is inevitable. "Information is power, and you're not going to be partners until you share the power."

The technologies to distribute information electronically now are readily available, and the public will demand access to more data, he added.

Some of those same tools also are helping law enforcement agencies internally by refining the problem-solving process, Boles said. "Historically we kind of shot from the hip in terms of dealing with police problems. Through better databases, through better access of information electronically, we're able to not guess anymore, not go by our gut."

Interactive Tool
Police in Minnesota enlisted a third party to help develop community engagement. CitizenObserver is an Internet-based business devoted to crime prevention. It gives law enforcement agencies an interactive tool to communicate with the community, providing a pipeline for information on fugitives, unsolved crimes, missing persons and related information.

CitizenObserver launched in 1999 after a man shot his soon to be ex-wife. Though the victim survived a bullet in the back, the perpetrator disappeared. Frustrated, the victim's stepson and another man collected information on the case and put it on a Web site interconnected with the St. Paul Police Department. This resulted in numerous tips -- including one that eventually led to the capture of the shooter -- and the creation of CitizenObserver.

The resulting software delivers four communication tools to participating law enforcement agencies, the primary being the business alert. Business alerts consist of e-mails targeted to businesses in a certain area or specific types of businesses. Residents or businesses can reply to alerts via e-mail using a prepopulated e-mail address. Reply messages are routed to a designated inbox at the local police or sheriff station.

In the case of a man who was writing his own medical prescriptions, CitizenObserver targeted pharmacies, emergency rooms and the like with e-mail, and helped solve the case -- one of about 20 solved as a result of CitizenObserver, according to company President Terry Halsch.

Information in that case, and most others, was specific and targeted to avoid becoming an ordinary occurrence to citizens.

"The rest of the community had no idea what was going on. They didn't need to," Halsch said. "That's one of the good things about it. It doesn't create alert fatigue. It sends out a note to just those who need to know."

Alerts also are sent via fax, cell phone or pager, depending on recipient preference. Businesses register in advance to receive alerts and give their preferences on how the information should be sent.

"Whether it's a Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target store or shopping chain, you have people forging checks or using credit card identity fraud," Stanek said. Law enforcement can now alert businesses to situations or trends.

Getting information out quickly is key to the program.

"Oddly enough, we used to do it through officers on the beat," Stanek said. "That was good. Then we did it by U.S. mail. That was OK. Then faxes came and that was better. Now with e-mail, one e-mail could go out to a thousand businesses in my community."

A citizen alert also can be sent to any resident who signs up, and school personnel will administer a school alert, which is in the works.

The program, which so far has seeped into 10 states and 140 jurisdictions, also involves citizens by developing neighborhood watch groups that work in conjunction with local police. About 50,000 businesses have signed up to receive the alerts, and CitizenObserver has developed about 1,000 neighborhood watch groups.

"Captains" are selected from each community group, and local law enforcement sends alerts to captains about things specific to the area, such as a burglar who habitually breaks into garages. There may be a description of the perpetrator and directions on what to do. Alerts also can be sent to all members of the community group.

"All of our stuff is two-way communication, so people are able to respond to those alerts and send information directly back to the department based on that alert," Halsch said.

The program has been particularly effective in missing children or child abduction cases. In one case, a man was cruising school zones and attempting to entice kids into his vehicle. The local police chief put out an alert, and the sheriff's department arrested the man shortly thereafter.

So far, the program has been free to all participating agencies, thanks to businesses that pay for local law enforcement agencies' participation at an average cost of $3,900 per year. Sponsors are happy to cover the costs and receive promotional considerations and links on the Web site, according to Halsch.

But the current funding arrangement could change as homeland security resources are disbursed to counties and the system becomes more sophisticated.

"We have worked with some departments that are submitting grants," Halsch said, adding that the program meets requirements of some technology grants.

CitizenObserver is an Internet and database driven system with the database stored at a different location than the Web site for security reasons. "It's database agnostic, so we're able to use a lot of different [technologies] and connect to a lot of different things," Halsch said.

On the Line
Child abduction cases, along with crowd control and hurricane warnings, are among the most common uses for IntelliCast Target Notification, a telephone-based warning service operated by Intrado Inc.

The subscription service was developed to quickly and efficiently send notifications to the 270,000 residents of the city and county of Boulder, Colo.

Boulder County used the system to warn residents of bears on the loose, riots at the university, a dangerous felon's escape and a hostage situation in the community.

Intrado has a massive database of listed and unlisted phone numbers throughout the country, and during an emergency, the company can use IntelliCast to notify residents of impending danger by ringing the telephone and playing a taped message.

"Here in Boulder, our students from the University of Colorado tend to riot [after football games] whether there's a win or a loss," said Mark Scott, vice president of government markets for Intrado. "That was one of the early deployments. We called all the households to tell the citizens, 'Don't go outside. Close the doors and windows because they're going to deploy tear gas."'

Intrado developed relationships with the National Crime Prevention Council, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which helps law enforcement agencies acquire the funding necessary to use solutions such as IntelliCast.

"[The Center] helps provide funding both to get the system set up and in conjunction with us for finding missing and abducted children," Scott said. "That would be one of the more prevalent applications."

Not only is the system valuable for helping to locate missing children, it can stave off an Amber Alert, which is beneficial for law enforcement and residents alike.

When a 911 call comes in for a missing child, an officer immediately is dispatched to validate whether the child has been abducted. If it is considered an abduction, the wheels of an Amber Alert are set in motion. The time it takes to launch an Amber Alert can be 45 minutes to 2 hours.

In the interim, IntelliCast can saturate the area with phone calls relaying a taped message of the missing child account. "This has worked successfully numerous times," Scott said. "Where it's worked most successfully has been in cases where they've recovered a child before the Amber Alert has gone off. That's what The Center for Missing and Exploited Children is most excited about. They don't want to alarm the community unnecessarily. The second thing is they don't want to cry wolf with Amber."

Earlier this year, an IntelliCast alert helped locate a missing child just minutes before an Amber Alert was launched. Scott said the system is being deployed throughout the United States.

Community Alert
Medina, an affluent community of about 4,000 residents near Seattle, experienced a rash of burglaries in 2002 that prompted one resident to approach Police Chief Michael Knapp and suggest a way for the department to communicate with residents: e-mail.

Hence the birth of the police department's community E-Lert program, designed to alert residents of criminal or suspicious activity in their neighborhoods through e-mail.

About 1,000 residents signed up for the alert, which recently won the American Society of Industrial Security award for community partnerships.

"We trademarked the name, just so we could put some context into how it was developed," Knapp said. Now he's getting calls from Seattle and North Carolina, among others, that are interested in the program.

"That's the wonderful thing about E-Lert. The e-mail program can handle millions of people," Knapp said. "You can make a large city small in a hurry by reaching out almost instantly to the community."

The program can be segmented too, reaching only portions of the community, or all of it. "We can address only portions of the city or people can sign up for only portions of the alert." Knapp said.

The alert also disburses notices from the Centers for Disease Control and State Department travel advisories, since many of Medina's residents travel the world. The alerts include tips for avoiding identity theft and other crimes.

Residents can e-mail the police department to sign up for all or selective alerts. The department also is developing a Web site that will allow city residents to sign up for alerts online instead of e-mailing the department.

Medina uses the system to keep citizens abreast of the federal government's various states of alert and what to do in each case. "We have to figure out how to talk to our citizens about what they may be hearing in terms of [homeland security warnings]," Knapp said. "We've molded this into a comprehensive emergency management plan, which post-9-11, has become an important component of city government."

Knapp credits the program for opening a communication line that didn't previously exist between the department and residents. "We get tenfold the number of e-mails we used to get. People will thank us or bring something to our attention that they would not have before."

Knapp is not worried about being inundated with responses, even though he has just one person to maintain the database. "I think communication happens to be one of the primary components of community policing," he said. "So whatever resources it takes, this is a good investment."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor