Mapping database tracks crimes
By BRENDAN LYONS
Date: September 02, 2003
The burglar was wiry, fast and never risked going for big items like televisions or computers.
With a lookout, possibly a girlfriend, keeping watch nearby, he darted into dozens of homes across at least six Capital Region counties, careful to stay for less than four minutes and only to target easy scores such as jewelry and cash. As an ex-convict with a history of burglary arrests, the 26-year-old suspect probably figured the odds were long that police would connect the heists. In late May, state troopers in Rensselaer County showed him he was wrong.
Still, authorities admit that police agencies in different jurisdictions -- sometimes neighboring communities -- often fail to recognize patterns or invest in analysts who might connect crimes that appear unrelated. In 1999, Gov. George Pataki and top criminal justice officials announced a bold plan to implement within two years a computer crime-mapping system that would link 500 police departments statewide. The idea was for information to be loaded into a central database, enabling a detective sitting in front of a computer to accomplish in seconds what now takes some departments days of old-fashioned police work.
"It's a criminal's worst enemy and a victim's best friend, and that is why we must get the system up and running without delay," Pataki said that year. Four years later, the state Division of Criminal Justice Services has developed the system, with many experts touting it is as a model crime-mapping program. But enlisting participants has been tough. Only about 110 police agencies are feeding the system with data, and even fewer use it to help solve crimes, including the State Police.
"The problem is that it's a capital cost, and very often citizens say we want more cops on the beat instead of saying we want our cops to be more efficient," said Michael Martz, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Martz helped develop one of the nation's first computer crime-mapping systems for the Chicago Police Department, which allows members of the public to access its system via the Internet and to get up-to-date information on crimes in their neighborhood.
Similar systems are being used in Charlotte, N.C., Phoenix and several cities in California. Law enforcement experts contend crime mapping is the future of policing. It has the potential to zero in on serial killers, redirect police resources to neighborhoods overrun by crime, break up car theft rings and give authorities a broader view of resurging problems -- such as New York's flourishing methamphetamine problem.
Albany's department became one of the first in the state to sign on to the system. The department trained a graduate student to use the system, and she began producing data sheets on crime trends that were being distributed to officers at roll call. But when she left the department for a better-paying job, the program fell into dormancy.
DCJS officials said they recognize the difficulty many departments have in coming up with money to keep analysts on staff. In response, they are working with the State University of New York to develop a graduate program for computer crime analysts who don't need to carry guns.
Too often, experts said, tech-savvy college graduates head for the private sector because law enforcement doesn't pay. "Police officers want to put people in handcuffs. ... And we're looking to have full-time analysts who don't all have to be police officers," said James W. McMahon, who retired from his State Police superintendent's post last week to take over the state's anti-terrorism office. "It's taking what New York City did in a citywide effort and making it statewide."
Compstat, New York City's innovative mapping system, arguably changed the course of policing nationwide when it was developed during Rudolph Giuliani's administration. Some say the program led to a decade-long decline in New York City's crime rate as authorities used technology to pinpoint problem areas and saturate troubled neighborhoods with cops.
Former NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton, who helped implement Compstat, is setting up a similar system for the Los Angeles Police Department. Many of the NYPD personnel that had a part in Compstat have been lured to cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans.
But developing a statewide system to be used by even the smallest police agencies has been difficult.
"Honestly, no, it is not part of roll call and part of everyday business," DCJS Deputy Commissioner Daniel Foro said. "We're starting that push now. ... The big focus is to get the data in real time and to get people to use it."
Efficiency is a big selling point.
Consider a sexual assault case. If a girl was attacked on her way home from school on an Albany street, investigators using the system could immediately know of similar assaults in that area and whether anyone had been charged. They could narrow the search to find assaults only at a specific day or time, and then punch up a computer-generated map showing where schools are located and the addresses and backgrounds of known offenders in the neighborhood.
But the program is even more effective at tying together crimes that take place across police boundaries. For example, an analyst with access to data from other police agencies could pinpoint whether a series of burglaries or armed robberies shares traits and may be connected. Often, police only learn that cases are related once they have made an arrest and encourage a suspect to confess.
John Markovic, a crime-mapping expert with the Manhattan-based Vera Institute of Justice, which helped DCJS develop its system, said it's important for all departments to submit their data "cleanly," so it can be downloaded accurately into the system. Speed is critical.
"The system can be used to make informative maps now, but it's only as good as the data," Markovic said. "Albany ... and some of the other departments are just backlogged in terms of entering the information into their system, so that the data is not as timely as you would like it to be. I'm hoping crime mapping and its utility sort of become the driving force that gets agencies to redirect their resources."
More than 860 agencies statewide use DCJS's award-winning EJustice crime network system, which gives authorities Web-based access to criminal histories, mug shots, fingerprints and other criminal justice data. That system enables police to get the results of FBI criminal background checks within 30 minutes -- a process that once took weeks, in some cases.
Now, officials at DCJS said they hope more departments will sign on to the mapping system so that New York can be the first state to link every police agency to a crime-tracking network.
"We're basically a technology house for law enforcement," Foro said. "We want the local police agencies to do it on their own. ... As long as you can get around the Internet, you can use this system."
Several Capital Region agencies are contributing data. Schenectady Police Chief Michael Geraci has been using an analyst from DCJS to create maps that show the locations and times of crimes. The information is being used to change the way police are deployed and to make patrol officers and commanders more accountable, he said.
"At least now you can have a graphical display of exactly where some of these incidents are occurring," Geraci said. "It becomes much more prominent when you can see it displayed on a map. You can make more rational decisions about how to take countermeasures."
But Geraci said many cities have trouble finding the resources to pay for technology advances, including people who can use the systems. It's also tough to get old-school cops to adjust to doing things differently, he said.
"We certainly have a long way to go, but this is a major step in the future of this agency," Geraci said. "It's nontraditional, up to this point, in policing, so it's taking us -- the police culture -- awhile to adjust. But there comes a point when you have to make some decisions on the future of your agency. Policing in general is starting to catch up."
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