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Police Turn to Data Analytics to Fight Crime in Reading, Pa.

The strategy, largely proposed by Deputy Chief Osborne Robinson III, aims to address a recent uptick in violent crime by analyzing the available data and deploying policing resources accordingly.

(TNS) — Reading Police Department leaders Friday unveiled a crime-reduction strategy that embraces analytics with the vigor that many sports teams today use to get a step ahead of the competition.

Deputy Chief Osborne Robinson III, the prime architect of the plan, said at a city hall news conference that he believes wholeheartedly in the use of data to maximize resources.

“If you find effective and successful organizations, they are using data to make them successful, and that is what we’re going to do,” Robinson said. “We want to put cops in the right places, at the right times for the right reasons and using the tactics that correspond to the problems in those places.”

Robinson outlined the crime-fighting strategy to an audience in city council chambers that consisted of members the police department command staff, Mayor Wally Scott and other administration officials, county Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, and business representatives.

Chief Andres Dominguez Jr. delegated Robinson to outline the department’s first sweeping crime strategy update in Dominguez’ 21/2-year tenure.

The presentation comes on the heels of a violent 10-week stretch that saw nine murders and numerous shootings and criticism of Dominguez from the police union.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 9 revealed in November that the FOP members had earlier in the year voted no confidence in the chief’s leadership.

In a written statement, the FOP said Dominguez had never given the police force a clear blueprint of how the department is going to attack the crime problem nor modified the crime plan during the recent spike in shootings.

The city had 19 homicides in 2018, six more than the previous year and the most since 2005.

Nine of the killings, including a fatal shooting in the 600 block of Moss Street that left three young men, occurred since Oct. 19.

Dominguez started the conference by highlighting the successful take-down of a violent drug organization in Operation Shattered in cooperation with the Berks County district attorney’s office; the organization was believed responsible for numerous shootings and at least one murder.

Although the 19 city murders was much higher than recent years, investigators thwarted several murders by making timely arrests, he said.

Dominguez said the safety and security of city residents remains his top priority.

Amid the recent wave of violent crime, Dominguez picked Robinson, a retired colonel in the Baltimore Police Department, to succeed former Deputy Chief James J. Marasco, who resigned April 26 after a little more than a year on the job.

Marasco, a retired state trooper, resigned the same day Dominguez placed him on leave due to an investigation into reports of misbehavior.

Robinson brings years of experience as a detective and administrator in an urban police department.

He said Reading’s entire police force, numbering more than 160 officers, is about the size of one of the nine districts in the Baltimore force.

Robinson said he served as a commander of one of the worst districts in the city and under his leadership homicides were cut in half and there were reductions in every major crime category.

“Why? Because I looked at data, constantly,” Robinson said. “I focused the troops on where I needed them to be.”

He said that included detectives as well as uniformed officers.

“It wasn’t that one component of that district made it happen,” he said. “It was the culmination of the things that we did together and how we as a leadership team in that district looked at crime and focused our troops, and that is what we’re going to do this year.”

The use of data is not new to the Reading Police Department. Commanders used data to direct resources under the previous administration led by Chief William M. Heim.

District Attorney John T. Adams, reached for comment after the presentation, said it was his impression Reading was already using data as part of its crime strategy. All county department have access to the CrimeMapping software and other technology tools, he said.

But Robinson indicated his department will integrate analytics into the management philosophy, embracing the tenets of CompStat, a dynamic approach to reducing crime.

CompStat has been credited with significant reductions in serious crime in New York City and has been adopted by numerous police departments, he said.

Police will analyze data for major crimes such as shootings, murders and robberies by week, 14-day and 21-day spans, and so on, to identify “patterns, trends and clusters of behavior,” he said. They will also compare specific periods of time to the same period in previous years, what Robinson called historic comparisons.

They’ll even pay attention to anniversaries of homicides because his experience in Baltimore showed retaliatory shootings often occurred near the anniversary of a killing.

Good police work, not data alone, solves or prevents crime, Robinson said, but the use of accurate, timely data makes for the most effective deployment of officers.

Robinson also talked about two other pillars of the crime strategy: community engagement and leadership accountability.

Engaging the community

He stressed the department will strive to build “relational equity” with city residents by engaging them with the help of schools and businesses. The goal is to develop healthy respect between police and the community.

“What we want to start off very early is establishing healthy relationships with the young that we can continue to foster over the years,” he said.

Two “Hot Chocolate with a Cop” events are planned at city schools and the department will partner with Olivet Boys and Girls Clubs and other organizations to connect cops and kids. Officers will be encouraged to come up with their own innovative ideas for community engagement, he said.

Robinson acknowledged there may be some pushback from officers who may use the excuse that they’re too busy to try to engage in relationship-building.

It’s been his experience as a police officer that officers, even on the busiest forces, have time for such engagement during their shifts, he said.

Department supervisors will need to be accountable that all aspects of the strategy are carried out, he said.

Will young people be heard?

Annarose Ingarra-Milch, a city business owner and Reading mayoral candidate, said from the audience that the youth of the community has an “astounding” amount of information and asked Robinson if police are listening to them.

“There’s an entire community out there who wants to help and they have creative innovative ideas, and my question to you is: Are they invited to the table?”

Robinson said he’s been trying to connect with community stakeholders, people who live in the city, with little success so far.

“When I ask that question here, I don’t seem to get a direct response as to who those folks are,” he said.

He welcomed Ingarra-Milch to facilitate the connection between his department and those who want to help.

Barnhardt said the county commissioners stand ready to help the city fight crime and would especially be willing to sit down with the city administration to talk about a strategic plan to combat the perception, at least, that gangs run rampant.

“We want people from Berks County to come into the city of Reading and vice versa,” the commissioner said. “There’s that perception (that the city is a dangerous place) and we want to help you fight that.”

Crime called bad for business

Randy Peers, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, applauded the initiatives and offered the business organization’s support.

The perception of crime translates into businesses being afraid of investing in the community, he said.

He noted that CompStat and other initiatives have helped New York become one of the safest big cities in the world. Along with community engagement and use of data, he wondered if police would be more aggressive with rooting out those who come from outside the city to perpetrate violent crimes.

“I’m wondering if more aggressive vehicle stops are part of those tactics because when you stop a car for a broken taillight, missing a stop sign, double parked, you find things: outstanding warrants, drugs, guns,” he said.

Robinson said those tactics “are in the toolbox.”

Charles Menges, president of the FOP, who was in the audience, said he needed to hear the specifics of the plan before he could offer much comment. He added, however, that the department was doing much of what Robinson talked about before manpower cuts implemented under the city’s Act 47 financial recovery plan made it more difficult.

“Much of what he said was just generalization compared to what he’s going to tell us later,” Menges said.

©2019 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.