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Connecting the Dots

Crime-mapping technology gives agencies nationwide the intel to efficiently deploy officers and prevent crime.

April 01, 2004  |  by Joe Diamond

Using crime-mapping technology, police intelligence officers and crime analysts can spot trends such as a rash of car thefts and allocate police resources to end the problem.

Imagine this scenario. A woman has been raped and murdered in her apartment sometime in the last six hours. You arrive at the scene as the lead investigator.

But instead of inspecting the crime scene, interviewing witnesses, and canvassing suspects, you log in to your department’s intranet and retrieve a 3D model of the building that clearly identifies each dwelling. Then you zoom in on the victim’s apartment, calling up a detailed floor plan.

A few keystrokes later, you cross-reference her apartment with a database of probationers and parolees whose movements have been tracked over the last day by the Global Positioning System (GPS) of satellites 11,000 feet above the earth. An “icon” that looks like a generic male character in a video game appears on screen in the living room, where the victim was found. You hover your mouse over the man and a window pops up with the name of a parolee and the times he entered and left the premises. Sure enough, he was there five hours ago. Clicking on his icon calls up his mug shots and criminal history.

Suspect identified, you launch an animated simulation within your 3D model that shows his movements, starting a few minutes before he left the apartment. You watch as his icon runs out of the apartment and down the stairs. The lobby’s closed-circuit monitor caught the real man on camera, so now your simulation switches seamlessly to a few seconds of actual video of him fleeing toward the exit. You freeze a frame and amplify it in high resolution until blood splatters are clear on his clothes.

Finally, you pinpoint the suspect’s current location. His icon appears overlaid on the ground floor of an abandoned warehouse three blocks away, and, within minutes, you’re there to question him.

That scenario may sound like science fiction, but you may be surprised how much of it is possible today using crime-mapping technology that is now on duty with American law enforcement agencies.

Beyond Stick Pins

Computers have revolutionized the art of crime mapping. Once just an exercise of sticking pins into a map glued to a bulletin board, crime mapping is now built on a foundation of “geographic information systems,” or GIS, a fancy term for creating, updating, and analyzing computerized maps. The relevance of GIS to law enforcement is that these maps can be easily overlaid with strategic and tactical information such as recent burglaries and rapes, addresses of sex offenders, and current deployments of manpower.

Crime mapping grabbed the public’s attention when the New York Police Department launched its COMPSTAT initiative under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Police Commissioner William Bratton. COMPSTAT wasn’t the first use of GIS to fight crime, but it was the most high profile and much of the historic drop in crime in the Giuliani years was credited to COMPSTAT and its integration with what Bratton has called the core needs of all police organizations: timely and accurate intelligence, rapid response, effective tactics, and “relentless follow-up.”

It’s been nearly a decade since the NYPD adopted COMPSTAT, and crime mapping has emerged as a key crime-fighting tool across the nation. The following is a look at how this technology is serving law enforcement in many different communities.

Intel in the Trenches

The city of Lincoln, Neb., began developing a computerized mapping system in 1990, and its police department has embraced the technology. The Lincoln Police Department believes the primary value of GIS is to provide timely information to field personnel to help them plan their work and empower their crime-fighting efforts. “They know the local places and are out there mixing it up with the victims, offenders, convenience store clerks, cab drivers, and street kids,” says Lincoln PD Chief Tom Casady, who adds that marrying that expertise with technology gives his troops a formidable one-two punch.

The Lincoln PD had started a computerized record-keeping system as far back as 1980, and over the years had amassed volumes of data. The challenge was to mold the information into a practical tool for crime analysis. “GIS brings this data alive in a way that can’t be matched by a thick stack of green-striped paper,” says Casady.

Like the NYPD, the Lincoln PD holds regular meetings to interpret crime data and strategize responses. Lincoln’s version of COMPSTAT is called ACUDAT (Analyzing Crime Using Data About Trends). The sessions are designed to share information among sergeants, officers, detectives, and investigators.

While commanding officers may attend ACUDAT sessions, the priority is getting valuable intelligence to the street. For front-line Lincoln cops, whose tactical effectiveness often depends on focusing on one incident at a time, ACUDAT can be a real eye-opener, as it can map out for them in full color the connections hidden among the 400 or more incidents the department handles daily.

“[The officer] is the one who needs to know that the offense he or she just worked is related to several other reports,” says Casady, who explains that ACUDAT vividly depicts such relations. For example, adjacent icons representing two sex crimes on an ACUDAT map helped officers link a suspect in an indecent exposure case to a sexual assault on a child that occurred nearby.

The ACUDAT meetings are only one facet of the Lincoln PD’s aggressive approach to GIS. Fully enabled GIS workstations are also available to all officers and city employees, and they can even access the system at home through the department’s intranet. “If you can book your airline tickets online, you can use our GIS,” says Casady. “The learning curve is zero for anyone who’s used the Internet.” The LPD is also testing GIS on its mobile data computers. These initiatives have made Lincoln PD’s field personnel less reliant on the department’s crime analysis unit. Officers can now generate their own up-to-date crime maps without having to wait for one to be produced for them. “The ability to locate similar offenses quickly at any time of day or night can be quite valuable in leveraging a single case into a multiple clearance,” says Casady, noting that his officers have used GIS maps created on the fly to clear additional cases during suspect interviews.

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