Arming Beat Cops With GIS Weapons

The use of geographic information systems (GIS) and smart maps to combat crime traditionally has been a luxury that only big city police units could afford. But now the Justice Department wants to give average beat cops in smaller, less technically savvy departments access to the same technology weapons.

To do so, DOJ's National Institute of Justice (NIJ)-the agency's research and development arm for state and local law enforcement-has awarded Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. a half-million-dollar, 18-month grant to work with local law enforcement agencies and universities to develop and package high-end GIS crime-fighting tools for everyday law enforcement use.

In return, ESRI has promised to develop a series of three GIS modules for law enforcement agencies. The modules, which will run as extensions to the company's ArcView software, will be tailored for small to large police departments and will be offered to agencies at little or no cost. To build the applications, ESRI is working with a cross section of police departments, including California's Salinas Police Department, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department, to supply necessary sample data.

Simple Interface

"What we would like to see come out of this grant is a toolbox that lets [police departments] do analysis within ArcView with a simple interface," said Nancy La Vigne, director of crime mapping research at NIJ. "To do analysis today, you have to have pretty high levels of expertise or do a lot of importing and exporting of data."

Because police officers have different needs, ESRI wants to develop three GIS modules that target different users, according to Eleazer Hunt, an ESRI project manager. For very small police departments with just a PC or two-or for beat officers within larger departments-the company is working on a more basic ArcView module to create crime reports and reference maps for planning a day's schedule.

For more sophisticated crime analysis units within a larger police department, a second ESRI "product-oriented" module would be designed to quickly show statistics, such as auto thefts in a neighborhood, which managers could use in planning and presentations.

A third module would target information professionals in the crime analysis section of a large police department that needed a flexible interface to do ad hoc queries and to check what-if scenarios. Beyond helping individual police departments, such GIS tools also may be useful in turning up criminal patterns that extend beyond and fall between law enforcement jurisdictions. "The common wisdom is that police know what happens on their beat, but we know that crime isn't limited to just one beat area or time of day," La Vigne said.

In Los Angeles, this would be the GIS tool of choice, said Det. Rudy Pichardo of the LAPD's crime analysis section. "We are more concerned with the tools for the analyst. It is more cost-effective for the analyst to come up with the information than for patrol officers to do it themselves," he said.

To appeal to the maximum number of agencies, ESRI is developing the applications as Microsoft Corp.'s 32-bit Windows 95/Windows NT 4.0 programs. "The vast majority of agencies are using PCs with Windows NT or 95," Hunt said. The application will be a desktop extension to ArcView GIS 3.X and will incorporate existing ESRI extensions, such as Network Analyst, 3-D Analyst and Spatial Analyst. Agencies using Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh or Unix will be out of luck because ESRI's ArcView extensions are not yet available for those platforms.

What the project will not do is to establish a standard data type because law enforcement agencies have already invested in systems using too many kinds of files, Hunt said. "We'd never get anybody to standardize," he said. Instead, ESRI hopes to develop communications wizards that automatically identify data fields and match them correctly between different file systems. This will help departments share data more easily and, ideally, catch the crooks who operate in more than one jurisdiction.

"We are trying to do more with the guys we have," said Stephen Harris, supervisor of the crime analysis unit of the Sheriff's Department of San Bernardino County.

--Dan Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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