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After spotting a red sport-utility vehicle bumping down Wilmington's South side on a dark morning last week, Officer P.D. Schwarz cut on his blue lights and pulled the driver over.
Schwarz stepped out and approached the driver's side door. "Do you know why I pulled you over?" he asked. The driver answered no. "Your tag lights," Schwarz said, making a square with his thumbs and index fingers.
The officer ran the man's driver's license and found nothing suspicious. So Schwarz gave a verbal warning and wished the man a good night.
Enforcing traffic rules is a duty patrol officers like Schwarz discharge daily. But in recent weeks, the Wilmington Police Department has stepped up traffic enforcement in sections of the city where crime – such as robbery, burglary and assault – is at its worst.
The strategy is grounded in the theory that concentrating patrols in high-crime areas and cracking down on traffic violations deters thieves and thugs by making police presence plainly known.
It is one of many attempts to reduce crime unfolding around the city, efforts made possible by technological advancements and an escalating focus on hard data to drive decision-making. The police department is also developing a list of repeat lawbreakers as part of a program to curb criminal activity on the city's north side. And last year, the city incorporated a system known as ShotSpotter, which triangulates the origin of gunfire the moment it goes bang and sends that location directly to officers in the field.
Much about those programs is focused on the city's northern reaches, where numbers show criminal activity has historically been most pervasive, police officials said. But the concentrated traffic enforcement efforts, which follow a model known as Data Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety, or "D-DACTS," also span some areas on the south side and northwestern sections of the city.
The model is based on the notion that crimes such as burglary and robbery are frequently committed using vehicles to travel to and fro, so the chances of intercepting someone en route to a crime or leaving one is greater when police stop more cars.
But it is also based on a documented statistical relationship between crime and crashes.
"There's a huge correlation," said Barry Coburn, the Wilmington Police Department's analyst. "So the benefit is you can work these areas very much like would a high accident area, using high visibility and high traffic enforcement to reduce both accidents and crime because they occur in the same locations."
At least every couple of weeks, Coburn draws up new maps defining areas of the city most affected by crimes as well as those most affected by wrecks. Police then target their enforcement efforts where those two hot-spots overlap, concentrating on the time of day when both occur most frequently.
"If you got a fish-finder and it says all the fish are here, that's where you're going to go fishing," said Capt. Jim Varrone, commander of the police department's northwest patrol division, drawing a piscine analogy to explain the benefits of harnessing data.
Wilmington police deployed a version of this strategy last year, but this time around the department adopted a tweak to make is easier for officers to respond to 911 calls while also spotting traffic violations.
Officials say it is too early to measure the strategy's effectiveness, but some officers say they already see it paying dividends.
"When they first came to us about this I was kind skeptical," said Schwarz, as he stopped his cruiser in the police department's parking lot around 3 a.m. Wednesday morning. "But in actually doing it and seeing the stats month by month, it was obvious it was working."
But critics of diverting finite manpower to traffic enforcement question whether the model actually reduces crime or just displaces it.
In a telephone interview, Varrone acknowledged the criticism, but said the police department is monitoring criminal activity to tell if the strategy is working. Other proponents of using this measure say it actually maximizes resources by concentrating officers where they are likely to have the most impact.
"You can't just do hit and run, put this tactic up in a box and maybe pull it out again a year later," Varrone said. "We have to be fluid enough to say we've reduced crime here but maybe it's increased on the peripheral and now it's time to focus on those areas."
Law enforcement agencies around the country have replicated these methods to counter crime and traffic violations in their respective communities
In Baltimore County, Md., police in 2008 conducted patrols along 18 road segments chosen through an analysis of crime and crash data. The Baltimore County Police Department encouraged officers to make traffic stops and contact with the public as many times as possible.
Over a 10 month period, police scored a 14 decrease in robberies but actually saw an uptick of 2.4 percent in burglaries in the targeted areas, according to a report prepared for the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. Police noted an improvement in traffic, recording 373 fewer crashes than the same period the year prior.
The Wilmington Police Department launched its program on May 21. Varrone said after eight weeks, the department will take a snapshot and decide whether the strategy is effective, i.e., it is driving down crime rates and traffic incidents.
"If we see a continuing trend after 8 weeks, I'm going to feel pretty good ... that this is working," Varrone said. "Time will tell."