Chicago Police Cast a Wide Web
- By Tracy Mayor
- Apr 12, 1998
The Chicago Police Department is well-known as an early and ardent adopter of community policing, so it's no surprise the department's presence on the World Wide Web stresses community as well. But what visitors to the Chicago's Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) home page (www.ci.chi.il.us/caps) might not realize is that the department relies on the community behind the scenes too, particularly when it comes to Web development.
With the exception of one paid position, content for the site is contributed by a community of Internet enthusiasts inside the police department. The strategy has proved to be an inexpensive way to elicit heartfelt involvement from within the police department while simultaneously creating a site that is effective on a local level.
"We try and give license to [individual police] districts to make it more personalized and [to] give a sense of community to each neighborhood," said Kaylin Junge, with the police department's Research and Development Division.
As part of the city's Chicago Mosaic online project, the CAPS home page draws some 35,000 hits monthly as citizens access information on everything from neighborhood crime-fighting groups, district beat maps and police-contact procedures to local crime statistics, drug activity and the area's most-wanted criminals. Residents can log on to report neighborhood drug activity anonymously, volunteer with the court advocacy system or register their bicycles. Would-be crime fighters without Internet access at home can log on at local library branches, certain police department district offices or various neighborhood relations offices that are maintained throughout the city.
Chicago's management information services (MIS) department physically puts the pages on the site, and, as the principal methods analyst in the Research and Development Division, Junge maintains general-information pages on the site and has final approval over all content to ensure a standardized look and feel. But content for individual districts' pages-as well as input and ideas for the CAPS site overall-comes directly from officers in the field.
"In the districts, it's all volunteer," Junge said. "We basically rely on people who are already interested [in the Web]. A lot of officers are doing this out of their basements." So far the strategy has paid off. Currently, five of Chic-
ago's 25 police districts have their own pages online, and the movement is snowballing. "The online divisions have gotten a lot of positive response, and once people see it's been successful, they want to get involved too."
Sgt. Charles Holz, who maintains the 8th District's Web page, is one officer who's adopted his Internet duties as a labor of love. He took a weekend off from work to teach himself Hypertext Markup Language from a book, and he isn't allotted any extra time (or salary) to keep the page updated or to contribute to the CAPS site. "I do it on top of everything else, so it's maintained on off-duty hours," said Holz, who says he often checks and responds to e-mail generated by the page after 10:30 p.m.
Holz is a true believer in the crime-fighting assistance offered by the Web. If someone attempts to snatch a young child in a neighboring district, for example, Holz will post that information online to warn residents in his own district to be alert as well.
But of equal value, he said, are elements that may not be immediately associated with the police but that nevertheless help build a stronger community. For example, each district site features a map that shows residents the specific police beat for their address and lists information on beat community meetings for those who want to get involved in the citizen/police crime-fighting groups. But people also use the map to locate other community fixtures, such as recreation centers and senior services centers, Holz said.
"We've had [real estate agents] say they used the page to sell people on the neighborhood. You can go directly to your beat and see right away where the parks, library, schools and churches are," Holz said. As an added bonus, posting the map online also helps cut down on phone calls to the district station.
Similarly, noncriminal infractions that nevertheless affect residents' quality of life can also be redressed via the Web. When someone sent an e-mail complaining that he couldn't find a place for his car in a residents-only parking area, Holz was able to forward the complaint to officers, who ticketed and towed nonresident vehicles, thereby solving a local problem quickly and efficiently.
Holz's observation that people are most interested in their immediate neighborhoods is borne out in traffic on other parts of the site, Junge said. One of the most popular features on the CAPS site is a list of the top eight crimes indexed by district.
"Residents are using [the list] to keep updated, researchers use it for overall crime statistics, and it alleviates the workload of our statisticians," Junge said.
Although reference material makes up a large part of the site's offerings, not all the information is static. The department offers several online forms, the most ambitious of which allows people anonymously to report suspected drug activity online.
Sgt. Paul Mial, with the department's Organized Crime Division, who worked with MIS workers as well as research and development staff members to design the drug-reporting form, says the challenge was twofold: The team needed to present a form online that was extremely simple for people to fill out but also specific enough to yield good information. "We want to make sure they take the time and give us good, quality information," Mial said.
To ensure anonymity, the forms are received on a separate server, and e-mail addresses are stripped off before the forms are printed out and forwarded to the organized crime unit, which assigns each complaint an incident number and then distributes a hard copy to the appropriate investigative unit. Investigators know they have a good lead when they receive the same or similar tips from different media. An online complaint about a certain address that's received at the same time as a telephone tip, Mial said, is much more likely to yield useful information or lead to an arrest.
Thus far, the success rate of the drug-reporting project is modest but improving, he said. In 1997, the latest year for which figures are available, 8 percent of 139 complaints proved positive, with 78 percent remaining in open status and 14 percent in negative status. Online traffic jumped 25 percent from 1996 to 1997, and Mial expects that number to increase-perhaps significantly-once he has tallied results from last year. "The more familiar people become with the Web, the more traffic on our site and the more complaints we'll get," he said.
For the future, the police department is considering adding more forms to the site, Junge said, including a service-request form that would allow residents to report broken streetlights, potholes and other infrastructure problems that are often the first signs of neighborhood deterioration.
The future of the site within the department will likely bring about some adjustments as well. Junge, whose position is the only one officially assigned to the site full time, could use more help, she said. Additionally, she hopes soon to be able to post pages directly to the site rather than having to rely on MIS. And finally, the Research and Development Division hopes to get its own Internet server. "We're expanding and doing more internally to get more technical control," Junge said. "Within the year, we hope to have a new server and to put all the districts online."
-- Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached via the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a Glance
Chicago's Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS)
Organizational Payback: Gives officers in Chicago's 25 policing districts an easy way to stay in close contact with citizens, including fostering and sustaining neighborhood community-involvement groups. Affords the Chicago Police Department an alternative way to broadcast and gather information on drug activity, missing persons, most-wanted criminals, and new and unsolved crimes.
Citizen Advantage: Chicago residents can log on to anonymously report neighborhood drug activity, volunteer with the court advocacy system, register bicycles, enter their children into the Chicago Kids Identification System, determine appropriate police telephone numbers, check monthly crime statistics and request Illinois state criminal conviction information.
Cost Containment: One-time start-up charges include about $25,000 for the World Wide Web server and some $5,000 for software and development tools. The Chicago Police Department spends about $2,000 each month for its T-1 phone line. Content is supplied primarily by volunteers from within the police force. With the exception of one full-time position, there is no funding or time allotted specifically for the Web site.
Tools: Sun Microsystems Inc. Netra i-150 server with two ultraSPARC processors, 10G of storage and 128M of memory, Netscape Communications Corp. Server 2.0. For Web page development, a basic HTML editor plus Adobe Systems Inc. Photoshop, Illustrator, PageMaker and PageMill.