Fighting Crime with Technology: A Detroit Success Story

In Forbes magazine’s annual piece about America’s most dangerous cities, published in October, the article leads with an anecdote from Detroit. Detroit has been a mainstay on such lists for decades, and last year, it led the nation in violent crimes with with 345 murders and 1,111 violent crimes reported per 100,000 residents.

According to the Detroit Police Department’s website, 327 murders have been committed as of Dec. 11, a 12 percent increase over 2010, which means we’re on pace to have another exceptionally violent year. (Interestingly, though Forbes put the 2010 murder total at 345 using data from a combination of sources, including the FBI, Detroit police put the 2010 murder total at 292. Given that the department has been under a federal consent decree since 2000 due to concerns over its use of excessive force and arrest and detention practices, I’m inclined to go with the bigger number.)

What gets lost in Detroit’s raw crime statistics are the innovative, tech-heavy, crime-fighting efforts of the Wayne State University Police Department—efforts that are now beginning to pay off. Along with installing cameras and using CompStat data to constantly refine deployment to ever-shifting crime hot spots, the department has embarked on an ambitious crime-mapping project with the university’s Center for Urban Studies.

WSUPD Chief Anthony Holt has also made it a priority to heavily engage his department with local business owners and security officers from all the major institutions in his jurisdiction, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Hospital, and the Detroit Public Library.

In a city where the police department at large is viewed as underfunded and overburdened at best and hopelessly inept at worst, Chief Holt’s strategy shows what’s possible in Detroit when cooperation and accurate data meet good old-fashioned community policing.

“All of these activities have resulted in a major reduction in crime,” Holt said. “Crime overall in Midtown is down 15 to 25 percent, break-ins are down 29 percent, and dangerous drugs are down 47 percent. This is directly related to technology and the partnerships we’ve formed with the community and other agencies.”

WSUPD patrols an area just north of downtown, commonly referred to as Midtown, that is the size of a small city—200 acres supporting 32,000 students, 7,000 employees, and thousands of full-time residents who have no relationship with the university. Its borders are Virginia Park to the north, I-75 to the east, Trumbull and 14th to the west, and Mack to the south. Midtown is also considered the city’s cultural center, as it’s home to all of the major museums, the city’s best hospitals, and the university.

The WSUPD force is made up of 51 officers who patrol their jurisdiction in cars, on bikes, and on foot. Each officer has at least a bachelor’s degree and many have advanced degrees. Nearly half of police officers are Wayne State graduates.

The WSUPD emails a monthly crime report to all students, faculty, and staff which lists the number of reported incidents for the previous month and includes information on homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, breaking and entering, larceny, vehicle theft, and arson. The main source of data in the emails comes from the department’s bi-weekly CompStat meetings. CompStat is a multilayered approach first used in the New York City Police Department that uses Geographic Information Systems to map crime and identify other problems.

I was invited to attend WSUPD’s Dec. 1 CompStat meeting to get a better sense of how the department is using technology to reduce crime. As a superfan of “The Wire,” I expected the meeting to be a little rowdy—cops hate “juking the stats,” right McNulty? But I found this meeting to be a pretty straightforward, professional affair. The atmosphere wasn’t so much rowdy as convivial, and the only concession to stereotypes was a box of fresh Dutch Girl donuts.

“Rough night last night?” a plainclothes officer asked his uniformed colleague as he took his seat.

“No. Too slow,” the uniformed officer answered as the meeting began.

Seated around the table under a screen projecting a Google map of the jurisdiction were Wayne State cops; a Detroit police officer fresh off his beat near the north border of Wayne State’s jurisdiction; a representative from the Department of Corrections, which works with WSUPD to track absconders; representatives from the cultural institutions’ security teams; two members of Wayne State’s criminal justice department; and a gentleman at the end of the table who looked more like a member of academia than law enforcement.

The first order of business was reviewing crime statistics from the preceeding two weeks. Sexual assaults and aggravated assaults were each up 5 percent, but everything else was down: dangerous drugs by 43 percent, burglaries by 30 percent, larceny by 21 percent, robbery by 28 percent, and stolen vehicles by 25 percent. Thirty-seven arrests had been made in the past 14 days, including 12 offenders under Department of Corrections supervision. (In Detroit, as in elsewhere in the nation, recidivism continues to be a major problem.)

The CompStat meeting participants discussed various hot spots in the jurisdiction (it turns out the block where I live is a larceny hot spot) and how to manage them.

“Let me see assaults from the past year in the cultural center,” an officer asked, referring to the small stretch of Woodward where the museums and library sit. The gentleman on the end, who turned out to be David Martin, research director for the Urban Safety Program in Wayne State’s Center for Urban Studies, clicked his mouse a few times and the map on the screen lit up with a rainbow of icons, one for each assault since January. A cluster appeared at the intersection of Cass and Palmer. “Looks like it’s time for another visit to the gas station,” the officer said, noting that the station owner’s crime prevention efforts seemed to stop with a hand-lettered “no loitering” sign.

Later in the meeting, Martin demonstrated a new project the Center for Urban Studies is working on—tracking the relationship between repeat offenders, victims, and witnesses, and trying to figure how to keep them from showing up in one another’s police reports. The diagram Martin projected onto the screen depicted a woman who was arrested for assaulting her daughter and showed up in separate police reports as a witness to two other assaults, which in turn linked her to both the victim and perpetrator in still more assaults, including a man who is a co-offender in a family neglect case.

“Repeat offenders are still committing many of the crimes, even after our crime rate has gone down so much,” Martin told the group. “This software will allow us to link all of the perpetrators in a network to see which ones are involved in the most crimes. The live network analysis will also allow us to see who’s moving up in the criminal world.”

That news met with grunts of approval from around the table and, after reviewing block club concerns (lack of working street lights, loitering), and briefing the group on the progress of a stolen-car transaction the department was tracking (a satellite had monitored the car overnight), the CompStat meeting was adjourned.

“Every police department has something,” Martin explained later in his office when asked about the role technology now plays in policing. “At minimum, they’ll talk about persistent problems at roll call, and maybe the chief is involved. But as you get to larger cities, these are big geographical areas with lots of people. Police departments collect so much information at traffic stops, in crime reports, from calls to dispatch, but it’s only in the past 10 years that great leaps in technology have helped police departments exponentially. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.”

Martin first got into the field in 1995, the very early (and primitive) years of crime mapping. Back then, his department had to spend $1,000 on software and then put him through training before he could use it.

“There was no online webinar,” Martin said. “I had to go to class for a week to learn how to use it.”

Martin describes the Detroit Police Department’s crime mapping of the time as being limited to one sergeant who decided to dedicate the last years of his career to mapping Detroit’s streets. He also printed out hard copies of “data dumps” and then took the stacks of paper and ran them through scanners that converted the scanned images into text files. Then, the data was imported into mapping software.

“There was no easy way to get information out of the mainframe system, but the sergeant really wanted to create those maps,” Martin said with a laugh.

In the late 1990s, the Center for Urban Studies teamed up with Wayne County to poll nearly 2,000 residents on the safety of their neighborhoods and the performance of the police department. They presented their work to Detroit police, who then asked them to help map the growing problem of carjackings.

“We bought them a computer and placed it in the department,” Martin said. “All we needed was the data. It turns out there was no easy way to get it. Cops would write the reports, and then someone else would type them into the computer, which was a Unisys mainframe—very old technology. The bottom line is that nobody was reading the reports. There was no mapping going on.”

Martin says that as DPD dedicated more resources to getting the carjacking problem under control, opportunities were opened for his department to work with the police in both the DPD and WSUPD. Students were placed in the departments to help the officers learn how to work with the data and incorporate it into community policing.

Ten years ago, the Center for Urban studies finally began implementing automated crime-mapping tools and five years ago, they started using the state-of-the-art system that WSUPD uses today.

“The Wayne State department doesn’t have a central database, but a patchwork of systems,” Martin says. “With this initiative, we’ve been able to demonstrate how police departments can use open-source software to produce crime analyses.”

Martin said he uses the Middleware software program to query different databases on crimes, calls, and arrests, and from there he creates the maps. “More than 500 crime reports a day with everything from slip-and-falls to murders are constantly being input into the system,” he added.

The result is a real-time crime feed not unlike Twitter. As soon an officer hits enter on his in-vehicle computer, it shows up on Martin’s crime feed. From there, anybody with access privileges can pull up the feed and get a quick rundown of crimes being reported in real time. Martin said he’s taken the process further than most police departments by reading and including the narrative information from the reports.

“That’s where the real data is,” he said.

Martin said he’s built a lot of little tools into the mapping system in the name of place-specific crime reduction and encouraging the involvement of Midtown residents, business owners, and institutional players. He’s further broken the map down into 10 neighborhoods so he can share data with community groups. He’s also created an arrest feed similar to the crime feed to help track the “huge” population of fugitives that resides in the area.

“For every person arrested in Midtown, we have a student who looks them up in OTIS and searches for prior arrests,” Martin said. If the department gets a hit, they record the suspect’s OTIS number and add them to a watch list. “Right now, we’re tracking 557 offenders, 20 percent of whom are accounting for 45 percent of all arrests. Managing crime has a lot to do with managing the offender population. Our police officers are working closely with corrections, which is unusual.”

Martin said he’s created a similar mapping system for DPD to use downtown, after a group of business owners and their security forces came to him and asked him to replicate what he’s doing for WSUPD. So far, though the data is there, the manpower for enforcement isn’t, meaning the reductions in crime Wayne State has been able to achieve has not been duplicated downtown.

Martin said one of his pet peeves about law enforcement and politicians is how quick they are to hold a press conference when crime is down, but hesitate to do the same when crime is up.

“We really need to look at longer-term trends to see if we’re moving the needle,” Martin said. “The system I’ve created is an evaluation tool. It’s used for CompStat meetings and tactical deployment of police resources. Chief Holt has really bought into it—I don’t think he’s missed a meeting since 2009.”

The reality, Martin said, is that today’s police officer in a city like Detroit needs to be more like a solider, which means using every bit of technology possible to gain an advantage.

“The police in Detroit are outmanned and outgunned,” Martin said. “That’s the thing Detroit has really grappled with. The public demands hard police enforcement—the lock ’em up approach as opposed to community policing. But we’re trying to strategically pick those who are causing the disproportionate amount of problems.”

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