A New Weapon

The Eastern District of Pennsylvania uses technology to identify and target criminals.

by / January 2, 2006
Law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania have a new weapon in their fight against crime -- a Web-based, GIS-powered mapping application that gives leaders the information they need when targeting criminal elements in communities.

The Eastern District of Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO) includes Philadelphia and eight other counties: Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Lehigh, Montgomery and Northampton, and is at a geographic disadvantage when it comes to crime. It's located in the southeastern part of the state, and is increasingly attractive to the criminal element because a network of major thoroughfares connects it to New York City and Philadelphia.

"Because of the proximity to New York City, drugs and firearms are often transported to and from the Eastern District. In addition, drug dealers routinely travel back and forth to make deals, obtain contraband, and to obtain recruits for their illegal enterprises," said Robert Reed, deputy chief of the Criminal Division of the USAO. "Although most of the district's crime occurs in Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, each of the eight other counties has its own violent crime problem."

Because of the substantial crime rate in the area, the USAO for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania -- among the largest of the 94 USAOs around the country, covering more than 5,000 square miles with more than 5 million people in nine counties -- is on a mission to make a change. As part of its efforts to reduce crime, the USAO participates in the federal Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) initiative.

The PSN encourages federal, state and local agencies to cooperate in a unified offensive led by the U.S. attorney in each of the 94 federal juridical districts. In Eastern Pennsylvania, the USAO has taken a unique step in using GIS and Internet technology to facilitate the PSN initiative, and in doing so, is helping law enforcement make more informed decisions.

Building on GIS
For several years, the USAO used GIS to spatially track, display and analyze homicides, firearms and drug crimes in Philadelphia. The system relies on coordination with the Philadelphia Police Department to provide the incident data used in the GIS system, and allows the USAO to analyze patterns of crime citywide. Using this system, the USAO can determine if there are connections between investigations being conducted by local and federal agencies.

The USAO wanted to replicate this system in the eight other counties it oversees to maximize data sharing among PSN partners, and to provide the district attorney's offices, as well as local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, with an easy-to-use Web-deployed mapping tool. The system would enable users to gain a geographical perspective on firearm incidents and homicides in their own jurisdiction, bordering jurisdictions and the entire Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

"The challenge for law enforcement is to understand how drugs and firearms are coming into the district, and to identify and target the criminals," said Reed.

The USAO formed a team to develop the relationships between federal, state and local law enforcement required to form a GIS-based system that could be used in all nine counties.

The team determined it could use the crime reporting procedures, security trust model and data warehousing infrastructure already used by the Regional Information Sharing System (RISS), which comprises six regional data centers across the country. The team then used an existing database that law enforcement was already utilizing to share information, and encouraged the participating agencies to increase the volume of data being submitted.

The next hurdle was obtaining inexpensive regional spatial data sets to provide a street file with the inherent accuracy for geocoding and enough other context layers to provide rich base mapping. The solution was found in ESRI's ArcWeb Services. ESRI charges a small transaction fee, covered through PSN grant funds, which provides the USAO up to 100,000 transactions. This gives USAO a cost-effective way to map incident locations across all nine counties.

Straight to the Heart
The new system, called the Project Safe Neighborhoods Mapping and Analysis Program (PSN MAP), allows users to ask questions, the results of which are displayed and visualized in different ways. The PSN MAP's primary interface provides users with a multi-tab form, built using ASP.NET, that allows them to complete a "quick picks" search page or a set of more complex who, what, where, when and how search pages.

The quick-picks search page is a simple form where the user determines general offense groups to query over a general time period, within a jurisdiction, that may involve an individual or a weapon-type. The advanced who, what, where, when and how search pages provide more query-refining controls that allow the user to narrow the search parameters to a very complex, unique question. The user can then view the query results in a general table listing that provides six key attributes, or on a map with base map context data.

The real power of PSN MAP is in its multi-jurisdictional approach. Users can define a search area that crosses township, city, county or state boundaries, and patterns of crime along transportation corridors become much more visible as a result of this analysis.

"PSN MAP helps us get to the heart of the problem more quickly," said U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan. "It streamlines the process, helps us cut through the data and allows us to target areas where gun violence is having its most devastating impact."

Better Decisions
PSN MAP is the first federal-level solution that integrates local police department data into a federal warehouse, and it's the first multi-jurisdictional application to track regional gun violence and firearm statistics using geospatial technologies. Because PSN MAP is Web-based, users only need Internet Explorer and access to the RISS database, which most major police departments and district attorneys offices already have, to use it.

Besides reducing data redundancy and allowing law enforcement to make more informed decisions, PSN MAP also has proven to be an innovative way to foster communication and cooperation among law enforcement agencies in eastern Pennsylvania.

"In several counties, the crime rates have dropped dramatically as a result of Project Safe Neighborhoods," said Donald Totaro, Lancaster County District Attorney.

Future functionality being developed for PSN MAP includes temporal charting of events, which is analyzing the change in variables over time and mapping/charting incidents based on time periods; and buffer analysis, which is similar to density mapping, in which users can define a search area to see how many incidents have occurred in that area or near it. In addition, a greater number of users are being introduced to PSN MAP each month with hopes of broadening participation and program use to multiple states.

"Our partnership with the United States Attorney from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has been unprecedented, and has allowed the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office to aggressively prosecute violent criminals," said Totaro.
Justine Brown Contributing Writer