Crime and Traffic Safety Data Help Public Safety Agencies Reduce Serious Crashes and Crimes

Using data to find the overlap between traffic accidents and serious crime, public safety managers can deploy resources efficiently and effectively.

by / June 13, 2010
National Institute of Justice/police car stock photo

An emerging concept of policing appears to be helping communities reduce traffic accidents and serious crime.

Consider Lafourche Parish, La., one of seven test sites nationwide implementing a paradigm known as Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS). In 2009, the number of severe traffic accidents in the parish dropped to just 10, down from an average of 24 annually in previous years. Major crimes also declined, while drunken driving arrests increased from 154 in 2008 to 297 the following year.

DDACTS puts forward a simple proposition: Look at the times and places where major crashes and crimes occur. Map the two together, look at where the circles overlap and then boost deployment of law enforcement resources in those areas.

While the process may require some technological investment, participants say, it often can be launched using the data already on hand.

Mapping the Hot Spots

"All of the elements to do DDACTS, we were already doing. We do look at our crashes. We do look at our crime reports on a weekly basis," said Sgt. Eric Spratley of the Washoe County (Nev.) Sheriff's Research and Development Unit.

Washoe County relies primarily on Tiburon public safety software to produce crime statistics. To achieve the overlay with traffic data, the department tapped into the county's existing ArcGIS mapping capabilities and began generating color-coded maps. "Once you do that, the hot areas really jump off the map. It becomes really clear," Spratley said.

Led by the data, the department has been focusing its policing in areas where the most incidences of crime and crashes have been reported. Those deployments have had a deterrent value, Spratley said. In 2009, serious crimes in the county decreased 9 percent from the previous four years; in DDACTS zones, crime fell an additional 16 percent.

"If you overlay your high-crash areas and your high-crime areas, and you go out and work those crash and traffic problems, your crime will go down," Spratley said. "Criminals can't operate when there is significant presence out there."

Federal Involvement

The federal government has stepped in with technical assistance in support of DDACTS implementations across the country. The National Institute of Justice is helping to coordinate demonstration projects in seven jurisdictions.

DDACTS has drawn interest from Washington, D.C., not just because of its policing potential, but also for its ability to meet cost constraints. "The economic environment we are in today really requires that we use all available technology," said Jim Burch, acting director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

"If we could combine our analysis and look at traffic safety at the same time we were addressing crime problems, that would really give us a leg up," he said. "It's an economic imperative that we use data to drive our efforts to reduce crime."

The U.S. Department of Transportation also has thrown its weight behind DDACTS, with technical assistance and some grant funding. Planners say the ability to make headway in public safety while working off data that's already in existence makes DDACTS a compelling proposition.

"It provides a very effective and efficient use of the resources that they already have available," said Earl Hardy, a highway safety specialist in the Enforcement and Justice Services Division of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "This is not overtime enforcement; this is not adding additional officers. This is about focusing their efforts in areas where they need to be focused."

But does it work? Suppose one can tabulate the statistical intersection of high crime and high accidents. Will putting more police officers in those zones really bring the numbers down? Reports from the pilot jurisdictions suggest the strategy can work.

Hardy pointed to Nashville, Tenn., an early entrant into the program. Since 2003, the city has cut

serious offenses from 48,000 per year to 41,000 annually. Driving under the influence arrests are up 72.6 percent under DDACTS and fatal crashes are down 12.2 percent.

In Baltimore's 15 DDACTS zones, burglaries decreased 16.6 percent from April 2009 to December 2009, Hardy said. Robberies fell 33.5 percent, auto theft decreased 40.9 percent and traffic stops increased 42.5 percent.

The Right Technology

Observers say it's possible to achieve these results with little upfront technology investment.

"If your records management system is 3x5 cards in a shoebox, that's where you start," Hardy said. Many departments are still charting crashes and crimes on the wall with pushpins. So as long as the data is accurate, that can yield effective results.

That being said, better technology will result in better outcomes.

In Lafourche Parish, Patrol Division Commander Capt. Scott Silverii said his department's DDACTS effort hit an early hurdle when it kicked off in April 2009. The problem was mapping. "We could count the number of crashes and crimes, but we weren't capturing exact locations," he said. "That was our Achilles' heel."

While the department was bringing DDACTS online, managers were shopping for new computer-aided dispatch and records management tools, which they eventually acquired from Zuercher Technologies, partly to solve their mapping problem. "We had been wanting this, but when DDACTS came about, it showed us that we really needed it," Silverii said.

Spratley's office in Washoe County also made some technology investments as DDACTS took on a more prominent role. Besides its existing data-driven software, the department purchased Bair Software's Automated Tactical Analysis of Crime software. An NHTSA grant helped offset the $22,000 price tag, Spratley said. The new software can pick apart Tiburon reports for a more detailed analysis.

These technology upgrades may be typical of DDACTS newcomers, Hardy said. "You really need robust records management systems and mapping capabilities, but you don't have to have the Cadillac system in place to start," he said. "You may start to see a need for more real-time data collections and analysis. But you start with whatever you've got."

Getting Buy-In

Because the technology behind DDACTS is relatively straightforward, technical hurdles to implementation should be relatively low. Challenges arise, though, when it comes to the human side of DDACTS. Spratley said he has struggled at times to win buy-in from deputies and sergeants working on the streets. "In law enforcement, people are trying new things all the time, so it can really burn guys out," he said. Cops on the beat don't need another theory of policing. "They just want to go out, catch criminals and make it a safe community."

To sway opinions, Spratley uses every opportunity to spout statistics. If he can demonstrate the hard-and-fast successes of DDACTS, he said, officers typically are more willing to go along with the program.

Some pushback may stem from those who see a new idea muscling in just as other emerging tactics, such as community policing, are beginning to take hold. But at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Burch said the two strategies are not mutually exclusive.

"You still got to have that community connection," he said. "You can't replace all that intuition and all those connections officers make in the community. The two ideas really have to work together."

Of course, there's also the matter of money. To support surge operations, Spratley needs more feet on the street -- an added expense to the department. To bridge the gap this year, he is using a $48,000 grant received in November 2009 from the Nevada Office of Traffic Safety. Silverii, meanwhile, has hired a data analyst to compile the weekly data reports that shape DDACTS deployments.

Despite the cost of technology upgrades, possible personnel expenses and some resistance from within the ranks, those who have test-driven DDACTS say it has been highly successful in helping them smooth out bumps in the road.

"Because we are being smarter about the way we work, these officers can really focus their time, rather than just running from to call," Silverii said. "That is making us a lot more effective."


Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide. 

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