Hartford Arms Citizens With Crime-Fighting Tools
- By Tracy Mayor
- Feb 28, 1999
Don Noel has owned a home in Hartford, Conn.'s Blue Hills neighborhood for nearly 34 years, but don't mistake him for a man who lives in the past. Noel is well aware of the modern-day crimes that have permeated the neighborhood, including robbery, larceny, assault, auto theft and drug dealing.
He also is among a growing band of Hartford citizens who are fighting back with some equally modern tools: the desktop PC and custom-built crime-mapping software. As secretary of the Blue Hills Civic Association and its unofficial "computer guy," Noel receives, disseminates and helps interpret detailed biweekly reports on citizen-initiated calls for service, reported crimes and arrests.
The Neighborhood Problem-Solving software, developed by Abt Associates, Cambridge, Mass., under a grant from the National Institute of Justice, helps citizens' groups identify, categorize and sometimes formulate responses to local crimes. For example, Blue Hills recently experienced a rash of house break-ins. By analyzing crime data, it became apparent the break-ins were occurring not under the cover of darkness but at midday-within an hour of the neighborhood mail delivery. And mail left uncollected became a clear indicator to burglars of who wasn't home. Armed with this information, block captains were able to advise their neighbors to make appropriate alternative arrangements for their mail.
Although the software can produce five types of reports, including tabular detail lists, top 10 lists, event trend lists and time trend graphs, Noel and his counterparts in the 17 neighborhood groups throughout the city say the geographic map is by far the most popular and useful report. Maps are particularly helpful in spotting trends, such as an increase in drug activity, that might otherwise appear as random incidents.
"Drug traffickers float, so we tell the block captains to call every single time they see activity, and eventually we'll be able to identify a 'hot spot,' " Noel said. "The dot map is stunningly useful in that kind of discussion. A hot spot jumps right out on that kind of map."
San Diego Community Mapping
A similar series of projects is getting under way in San Diego. Participants hope to reap results by overlaying crime data on maps that show community features such as schools, parks and recreational facilities. "We'd like to see if there is a cause-and-effect relationship by combining police data and environmental data," said Deena Bowman-Jamieson, an information systems analyst for the San Diego Police Department. "If there's been many calls for service for a particular [land] parcel, we can say, 'Is that a vacant lot? How does that piece of land look from the street? Is there an abandoned structure on it? What about street lighting? Is there a crime-watch group in that particular neighborhood?' "
The San Diego mapping project, which was funded by the U.S. Justice Department's Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, is administered by the San Diego Operating Project, an umbrella civic group that represents 18 community organizations within the city.
San Diego, Chicago and a growing number of other municipalities are making strides in distributing crime-mapped data to citizens, according to Nancy La Vigne, director of the National Institute of Justice's Crime Mapping Research Center in Washington, D.C., and overseer of the Hartford grant. But so far, she said, Hartford " is the only community that I'm aware of that's putting mapping in the hands of community members. Citizens are controlling the maps they want to see and doing the mapping themselves."
La Vigne awarded a grant to Tom Rich, an associate at Abt Associates, in part because her organization was interested in seeing what happens when citizens themselves can manipulate their own crime data. "Along with the development money, the NIJ also provided funding to examine how communities use the software and to answer the question, 'Should other communities be using this?' " Rich said. Indeed, one emerging fact from the Hartford project is that different neighborhood groups use the software in different ways.
In Blue Hills, the emphasis is on increasing calls for police service and identifying hot spots. But United Connecticut Action for Neighborhoods (UCAN), a Hartford-based organization that provides technical assistance and training to nonprofit and community groups, uses the software to help repair strained relations between citizens and the police.
"It's a neutral way to see if the police information is consistent with what the block clubs see," said Lorenzo Jones, a community organizer with UCAN. Working with the same set of data allows block club captains and the police to work on solutions rather than "fighting about what's real and what's not," Jones said.
Citizen group members have to be trained before they can fully understand and correctly interpret the crime data, but the education can work the other way as well, with citizens adding details that police might not otherwise know about. In one instance, the police recorded multiple arrests for prostitution at a single address, which happened to be the building in which a block captain lived. The block captain was able to point out that the solicitations were occurring on the corner outside her building and that police simply took the closest building number when they were making a street arrest. With that knowledge, police were able to target an abandoned building on the block where prostitutes actually were basing their business.
The Tools of the Trade
In developing software for neighborhood organizers, Abt Associates' Rich chose to custom-build a stand-alone executable program that requires no resource-intensive base map rather than use a commercially available mapping package (even though the Hartford Police Department uses a MapInfo Corp. product).
In contrast, San Diego chose to develop its citizen-mapping application using Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.'s ArcView mapping program, which has been used by the police department since the late 1980s. The program, designed to be used by citizens' groups in the field, runs best on an Intel Corp. Pentium machine running either Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95 or Windows NT, and the licensing fee is $1,000 per machine. "That makes it cost-prohibitive for individual citizens," Bowman-Jamieson conceded, but she added that people can either contact their neighborhood association for crime-mapped data or check out static maps that are available for free over the Internet.
In San Diego and Hartford, neighborhood software is or will be completely separate from police data for security and technical reasons. In Hartford, data on police calls and arrests is extracted once every two weeks from the police department computer and delivered to Rich, who further massages it into packets for individual communities. Files are sent out by e-mail or, for groups with slower Internet access, by regular mail.
Rich's $100,000 NIJ software-development grant for Hartford covered needs analysis and requirements exploration, development (some of which was done by subcontractor Blackstone Inc., Waltham, Mass.), installation, training and the writing of documentation. A separate grant, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance as part of Hartford's Comprehensive Communities Partnership (CCP) initiative, covered the cost of computers and printers for each of the 17 neighborhood or-ganizations.
Would It Work in Your City?
Hartford's project would not have enjoyed such initial success without having had two key pieces already in place: an active neighborhood network and a cooperative police department. As part of the city's CCP initiative, the 17 neighborhood associations were established years before the mapping technology arrived, so the city wasn't starting from scratch in trying to promote community-based crime prevention.
And the police department--which could justifiably have interpreted such crime-by-crime, complaint-by-complaint scrutiny as extra and possibly unwanted pressure--said it welcomes the interaction and challenges brought about by the mapping software. "I'm amazed that the police have been willing to open up their system," Noel said. "It's definitely a mixed bag. We give them a lot, but we are looking over their shoulders."
"We've become accustomed to it," said Sgt. Albert Beauchamp, supervisor of the police department's Crime Analysis Unit. "And the police should be held responsible for their actions." The police department has been using computer-driven crime patterning internally for several years, so the culture of the database is well-established within the department, he said.
The police department itself reaps two benefits from its participation, he said: improved communication with the community and a public perception of crime that's tied to real statistics rather than hearsay. "This project has helped me on a personal level understand what the community wants rather than what the police believe is good for them," Beauchamp said.
As for public perception of crime, everyone from Beauchamp to Abt Associate's Rich to La Vigne at the NIJ and Bowman-Jamieson in San Diego said an accurate perception of crime is nearly as important to communities as crime reduction itself. "Any time you have folk accessing maps, either on the [World Wide] Web or in police meetings, there's an increase in awareness of areas that aren't crime problems but are perceived so by the public," La Vigne said.
"Perception of crime is a big element," Beauchamp agreed. Showing citizens exactly what crimes are occurring where-and just as important, where they aren't occurring-has proved invaluable in boosting neighborhood morale. "The more information we disseminate directly, the less people have to rely on newspapers or gossip."
Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.