Recent FBI statistics show that serious crime has been dropping steadily in U.S. cities since 1990. Certainly, some of the decline can be attributed to continued economic growth, perhaps reinforcing the maxim that a rising tide lifts all boats. But other factors are involved. Social programs funded by block grants and combined with joint public-private-sector partnerships are addressing some of crime's underlying causes. At the other end, aggressive law enforcement and improved police methods are taking more criminals off the streets.
This seems to be the story in Minneapolis. The city has had a strong economy and a broad range of social programs in place for five years. These factors -- combined with community-oriented policing, proactive law enforcement and a GIS application called CODEFOR (Computer Optimized Deployment Focus) -- have significantly reduced crime. In 1998, CODEFOR's first year in operation, serious crime in the city was down 16 percent from the previous year.
According to Amy Phenix, press secretary to Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, the city's strategy has been to tackle crime from both sides. "On the one hand, aggressive law enforcement; on the other, intervention at the human level, helping more people to achieve self-sufficiency, helping those with chemical dependencies to get into treatment -- focusing on the human condition underlying criminal activity."
The city and county are administering a wide range of social programs, often in collaboration with the private sector. The Minneapolis Employment and Training Department works with employers to help bring the most-difficult-to-employ people -- those with felony records, no work history, little education, and those who speak little English -- into the workforce. A Youth Coordinating Board, with representatives from the respective city, county, library, school and park boards, provides free programs for young people, all operated by nonprofits. To find out about the programs and activities, parents and kids can call a youth information line staffed by young people.
The mayor also pushed for later first classes in the morning to reduce unsupervised after-school time for middle-school students. For the chronically homeless and those with no income and few work skills, a special task force in the early 1990s created 108 transitional housing units, along with various support services.
One of the major changes Police Chief Robert Olson brought to the Minneapolis Police Department was a stronger emphasis on community policing. Through the national Police Athletic League, police officers, young people and families build community ties and positive relationships around athletic and recreational activities that include football, basketball, volleyball, roller skating, and a baseball league held in partnership with the Minne-sota Twins.
Olson also instituted many of the now widely adopted law enforcement measures promoted by former New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, including tougher anti-gang, anti-drug measures, the application of GIS technology to support proactive policing, and seeking longer sentences for chronic offenders, in cooperation with the city attorney's office.
Using Bratton's approach, the Minneapolis police put together CODEFOR, a crime-reduction strategy, partly based on methods instituted by the New York City police in 1993. One of the major differences was community response. Despite a 40 percent increase in arrests in the first year, complaints against Minneapolis officers dropped by one third. According to Minneapolis Sgt. Robert Allen, this was not the case in New York City.
CODEFOR uses GIS technology to support four operational elements -- accurate and timely intelligence, rapid deployment of personnel and resources, effective tactics and relentless follow-up and assessment. The GIS is MapInfo Professional, a Windows-compliant desktop system used in conjunction with MapMarker Plus, for geocoding, and MapBasic, which enables developers to create a simplified graphic user interface. For the department, a big advantage is being able to access, carve out and scale data from disparate sources -- large DV2 mainframes, Oracle, Access, Paradox, Excel, etc. -- then pull the data into an application. CODEFOR runs on a client-server system within a local area network.
The technology makes accurate and timely intelligence possible in near-realtime. As crimes are reported via 911 and other channels, they are immediately plotted. All five precincts, and every unit and office on the force -- patrol officers, investigators, administrators, special units and support services -- can pull up a computerized map to see the types and locations of crimes almost as they occur. An icon of a bank, for example, indicates a robbery of a business; a skull and crossbones symbolizes a homicide; a broken lock indicates a burglary. Clicking on an icon brings up a case number, which provides access to a computer-aided reporting system containing the original report.
According to Allen, the operation enables police to identify crime patterns, trends and hot spots. Instead of patrolling randomly, cops armed with computerized maps put their resources into serious trouble spots. "For example, when we see a pattern of stolen cars in a particular area, one strategy might be to put a bait car in the area with hidden video cameras, tape recorder and a GPS tracking system. When somebody steals the car, the system alerts us, and we put squads behind it."
Effective tactics involve improved intelligence by street officers. "We have a strategy," Allen explained, "that we call debriefing. For example, if I were to arrest suspects in a liquor store robbery, before I could ask them questions about that robbery, I would have to give them a Miranda warning and record the conversation. But there are no constitutional constraints against my asking them questions about other crimes that have been occurring. Everybody who is arrested is asked general questions about who is dealing drugs in the area, who has weapons, who was involved in a certain shooting. If we have a hot crime question, we ask everybody who is arrested about that particular crime."
He said the technique works better than they had expected.
"We're surprised at how much information people are willing to give us," he said. "Sometimes they do it to knock off their competitors in the drug trade. But it's still information we can use, and it has helped us recover a lot of narcotics [and] weapons and solve a fair amount of crimes. They also think that if they cooperate, we will help them in the future."
Effective tactics also call for many more misdemeanor arrests. Allen said these frequently lead to felony arrests because of the number of people carrying weapons.
"Recently, a 12-year-old kid was arrested for stealing gumballs -- I know that sounds ridiculous -- but in talking to him, we found he had some juvenile friends involved in stealing guns, and he knew where they were stored. The information we got from that kid led to the recovery of several stolen guns that had been used in burglaries. Also, because of those misdemeanor stops, we're also finding a lot of people with warrants against them."
Allen also cited a stop over a broken taillight and subsequent debriefing that led to information about a burglary ring that had been operating in western Wisconsin. A search warrant generated from the information retrieved not only a lot of stolen property but also explosives and bomb-making equipment. "We hear about different cases like that every week at the CODEFOR meetings."
The most frequent arrests, Allen said, are narcotics-related. "Through them, we're learning the locations of people who are fugitives -- robbery or homicide suspects -- because we're out there looking for them and asking questions. The hope is that increasing those stops will decrease the sort of spontaneous homicides we've had in the past caused by people carrying guns. We're trying to reduce the number of weapons on the street."
As part of the relentless follow-ups and assessments of CODEFOR, precinct commanders must give a weekly presentation of crimes that have occurred and trends that have appeared in their jurisdictions. They are then grilled by headquarters on the steps they are taking to combat these developments. CODEFOR is part of the process.
Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communications and information technology. He is based in Santa Cruz, Calif. Email