No More Excuses

Crime analysis software avails itself to smaller Maryland agencies.

by / April 16, 2002
The Baltimore Metropolitan Council (BMC) is trying to spread a little "gadget envy" among the state's law enforcement agencies to encourage better use of crime analysis programs. By handing out free crime-mapping programs and training as incentive, the council hopes to strengthen crime analysis strategies and, ultimately, reduce crime.

A 1999 survey of Maryland law enforcement agencies found that out of more than 150 agencies, fewer than 30 had some kind of crime-mapping program. In an effort to increase that number, the BMC landed a grant of nearly $99,000 from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention that will provide six agencies with the equipment and training they need to develop crime-mapping strategies. In turn, the agencies will be required to train at least two employees on the system and submit monthly reports on the status of the program.

"Hopefully by providing them with the software, the hardware and the training to do this, these departments are going to start to use this tool and realize how powerful a tool it is," said Marce Scarbrough, information systems manager for the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

"We're hoping that once these departments, which are spread across the state, start using this, we'll get demands from other departments for the equipment and training," he said. "Our answer is going to be, 'Yes, here you go.'"

BMC accepted the Byrne grant, which was awarded to Maryland by the federal government, developed a curriculum for training and picked a few smaller agencies in which to implement the program. Thus far, only larger agencies have the crime-mapping technology because the software and training were expensive and difficult for small-to-midsize agencies to implement. That's not the case anymore, according to Scarbrough.

"It's affordable; the technology is fairly easy to use. They're just not using it, and we're trying to eliminate the excuses," he said. "Any department with your average PC and officers who are willing to invest a day or two can be producing crime maps like your big departments [in] New York are doing."

Crime Data Vacuum
Typically, crime analysis data fails to trickle down to where it's really needed: the officer on the beat. By enticing law enforcement agencies to take advantage of the program and implement their own specific crime analysis systems, BMC and the governor's office anticipate that better crime analysis data and better use of that data will result.

In a local program started in the mid-1990s, called the Comprehensive Communities/Hotspots program, agencies work with the public on locating "hot" crime areas. As part of the requirement for receiving grant money, they submit the data to the state. But that data is not being used effectively as a crime-fighting tool.

"That's one of the biggest problems now with the crime analysis field. How do we get this information out to the patrol officers?" said Cynthia Lum, a Baltimore police officer and crime analysis consultant, who is helping to train the agencies on the new system. "As a patrol officer, I understand the need. As a crime analyst, I understand the gap between the analytical people and the operational [patrol] people."

Lum said that, traditionally, crime analysis units worked for the police commissioner or the chief, and officers on the streets were a little suspect because they weren't privy to the inside information. As more agencies involve patrol officers in actual crime mapping and crime analysis programs, that suspicion wanes and the information becomes useful.

As a group, patrol officers tend to be younger with less experience than detectives, and so crime analysis is especially beneficial to these officers. "Police officers tend to patrol randomly. With this they can direct their patrol in such a way that's more intelligent," Lum said.

Simplified Solution
Another problem police departments have had in implementing crime-tracking software is that it has been too complex and has lacked flexibility. "You can't change it around for your own purposes," Lum said.

The Street Level Activity Mapping (SLAM) software developed by the BMC is designed to address that shortcoming. It will allow the six agencies to adapt crime maps to meet their individual needs so that officers on the streets can apply the information directly.

"A lot of GIS software never reaches the patrol-officer level, so the patrol officer becomes isolated from the actual crime analysis," said Lum. "The whole point of SLAM is to break that barrier so that officers themselves can go to work, download maps of their area and find out what crimes have occurred in that area recently."

The six agencies will use SLAM to target different types of crimes. Some agencies are interested in tracking quality-of-life incidents, such as noise complaints and suspicious activity. Others want to track property crimes or violent crimes. Each agency is trained on how to set up the program to track a particular type of incident in a particular area. And different agencies use different terminology. For instance, Baltimore may use the term "post" to describe an area, while another agency may call it a "beat" or just an "area." The flexibility of the SLAM program accommodates such nuances.

SLAM runs on GIS technology from MapInfo Corp. Anyone familiar with the Microsoft Windows operating system can use the program after a few hours of training. "It's not for the computer savvy, highly sophisticated crime analyst but the beat officer who's been on vacation for the last two weeks," said Josef Nathanson, director of metro research of BMC. "He's coming back to duty and he wants to have a good sense of what's been happening during that time." That officer can look at a SLAM map and find icons representing crimes - such as a skull and bones for a hate crime or a money bag for a robbery - and the locations where those crimes occurred.

What They Get
Howard County police, Laurel City police, Westminster City police and some Maryland state police barracks commanders began receiving SLAM hardware and software this summer. Each of the six participating agencies will get custom crime-mapping and analysis software, a computer and printer, installation, training, technical support, and a local computerized base map, as well as continued training if they need it. The computers are Gateway PCs loaded with Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system. They have 256MB of RAM and 20GB of disk space. The machines also are equipped with Microsoft Office 2000. In choosing the six SLAM program participants, BMC looked for agencies that weren't involved in crime mapping but were interested in putting crime data to good use.

One of the benefits that BMC hopes to see eventually is the sharing of data among different law enforcement agencies. "We have an interesting experiment going on over in the eastern shore of Maryland where a local sheriff's office and a state police barracks patrol basically the same area," said Nathanson. "The idea is that as a result of this crime mapping, there will be a greater likelihood that they'll be exchanging data and working collaboratively."

The goal is to achieve an overall reduction in crime.

"That's one of the big debates in criminology now: whether or not crime analysis has an effect on reducing crime," said Lum. "There is research out there that does show that target-directed patrol can reduce crime."