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Mapping crime becomes a powerful tool for police departments

November 14, 2015



PEORIA — Every call — a vehicle rear-ended, an apartment burglarized, a deadly shooting — ends up in the office of Doug Ward.

Ward, administrative operations manager at the Peoria Police Department, is tasked with distilling the huge amount of data collected with every police dispatch and report into a comprehensive view of police and criminal activity, where the former police officer works as part statistician, part weather man.

“If you tried to have your weather map with one rain drop, it really wouldn’t show much. It would be a dot, and that would be the same in crime mapping,” Ward said. “You’d see that one dot of that one incident, but when you get a cluster of raindrops, it becomes a storm.

For the Peoria Police Department, that means funneling all reports and statistics into Ward’s office for analysis, where he sorts them into databases and plots them on maps. His goal is to take the massive amounts of data, and craft easy-to-understand snapshots of criminal and police activity.

“It’s like a doctor reading an MRI or something. Once I see the picture — ‘Oh, there it is,’ ” Ward said.

Since the Peoria Police Department and Peoria County Sheriff’s Office launched the CrimeView system in 2009 — Bartonville police also use the database — Ward has used the technology to analyze data sets ranging from thousands of calls for dispatch to a few gun crimes to provide officers an added tool to pinpoint hotbeds for crime, and sometimes, individual suspects.

When investigating a string of car burglaries, for instance, police know that suspects tend to stay close to home or work and develop a routine. They also know such criminals tend to continue until they’re caught.

“They’re almost like footprints. You can see the pattern of where they’re going and sometimes you can anticipate where they’re going next,” Peoria police Chief Jerry Mitchell said. “They can be used to help us catch somebody or prevent something else from happening.”

By tracking that information, police can try to nab a suspect, and by sharing it with the public through CrimeView, they can warn potential victims to lock up and look out.

“People think of police as arresting the bad guy, but we do a lot of other things to prevent violence,” Ward said.

Prior to 2009, police had to work harder to identify trends in crime, and when they identified them to get that information out to the public.

Ward points back to two high-profile Peoria serial criminals in the 2000s — killer Larry Bright and rapist Monterius Hinkle — as cautionary tales of how technology might have helped police and the public.

During Bright’s killing spree targeting prostitutes, the bodies of his eight victims were found in three different law enforcement jurisdictions, launching separate investigations.

Police in Peoria, Peoria County and Tazewell County went to the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission for regional maps to plot the crime scenes, and began to make greater headway in the search for the serial killer.

Bright was arrested in 2005 after a 15-month spree, Ward said, but if they’d had a collaborative data-sharing system like they do today, the pattern may have been detected earlier.

“If we had crime mapping, we might have helped the community a lot faster than we did,” Ward said. “That’s why it was a slam dunk for our agency and the sheriff to say let’s take this grant and, instead of going our separate ways, combine our efforts.”

In the case of Hinkle’s attacks, police were most concerned about how to get information to the public so residents, and the parents of young girls he seemed to prefer, could be alert.

Short of holding a news conference after every attack, the department struggled with ways to provide the relevant information directly to the neighborhood.

Hinkle was suspected in up to five sexual assaults but eventually pleaded guilty to charges in three cases; he sits in prison with earliest possible parole in 2068.

Law enforcement agencies could now see the benefits to keeping and sharing information, with each other and with the public, so in 2007 the City of Peoria and Peoria County together applied for the Justice Administration Grant that would fund most of the start-up cost of the crime mapping system.

“All of those kind of came together at the same time to give some more drive to it, if you will,” Ward said.

By mid-way through 2010, a spike in gun violence led to 78 shooting victims in Peoria, a trend that had police and the community concerned. Police used crime mapping software to isolate “hot spots” for gun violence and shared that information in a joint press conference to announce that glowing corridor of violence would be the target of aggressive police patrols.

With Illinois State Police and Peoria County, Peoria sent an additional 16 officers to monitor the area overnight with increased stops of suspicious persons and vehicles.

The initiative — driven by analytics — worked, and data showed that 30 days later violent crime had vacated the area; the initiative drew widespread community praise, including some by the local NAACP.

“Had we just gone in and said we’re going to go in on Western and Lincoln and we’re going to be stopping people, it would have been much harder to get people to join in,” Ward said.

Maps of shootings and gun crimes were taken before City Council when the department sought the two installments of ShotSpotter, a gunshot location system.

When administrators went before the horseshoe to say what areas should be a priority for ShotSpotter coverage, or where resident officers should be located, the decision isn’t influenced by public perception or political clout — it’s driven by objective data delivered in the unmistakable clarity of a color-coded map.

“It kind of takes the politics out of it. When the storm is coming you stop arguing about your area. You take care of the areas that are going to get hit,” Ward said.

Eventually, Ward said, this technology could evolve to provide predictive analysis.

Imagine a police officer on patrol in his or her squad car. While driving down the street, a screen on the dash follows the car’s location via GPS.

When he or she drives past the home of a registered sex offender, it appears on the map.

So does the residence of a known gang member, and the home that was burglarized last night.“So the officer who may not work that district every night still has that flood of data that comes to (him or her),” Ward said.

It isn’t a far cry. The Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department implemented the Proactive Police Patrol Information, also known as P3i, in conjunction with the University of Nebraska.

Geocoding data, which Peoria area departments are already doing, is — according to a 2011 article in Police Chief Magazine penned by then-Lincoln police Chief Thomas Casaday — the most difficult step.

Ultimately, the goal is more effective policing, and that will require the work of officers, analysts and beyond.

“We’re only 224 people here, and when we put this in we really said we need to have the community help police,” Ward said.

This map shown above, which shows the density of police response to dispatches, is not a direct reflection of criminal activity.    Rather it’s an indicator of where police are spending most of their time and resources — responding to both crime and non-crime events — and a demonstration of how police departments can use technology to operate more efficiently.

“We base our resources off where they are needed most, so the vast majority are going to be down in the valley area, and that’s where we have them,” Peoria police Chief Jerry Mitchell said.

In fact most of police work doesn’t involve crime. Of the 125 dispatch codes used for police, most are not crime related, and while a Peoria police officer was dispatched 5,820 times in September, only 908 crimes were recorded.

More often, police are called to render aid, whether that’s checking on a person’s welfare, investigating a suspicious vehicle, responding to a traffic accident or assisting on calls for fire or medical service.

“This gives you a real good snap shot of what the service part of our job is,” Mitchell said.

Additionally, the map doesn’t control for population density. Much of the map’s coloration is in the southern half of the city, where homes are more dense and multi-family housing is more common. The “hot spots” tend to hover over businesses such as retail, liquor stores and bars.

“We would fully expect to have more calls for service where there’s more people, and when you add some at-risk neighborhoods to it, you’re going to expect to have a few more,” Mitchell said.

PJ Star