Assessing Role of Technology in Police Crime Mapping

As the waves of change are intensifying in the Information Age, the role of technology in police operations has become pivotal because it aids our law enforcement agencies to do their tasks easier and less time-consuming. Indeed, the growth of technology in policing, from crime analysis and crime mapping to finger-printing and computers in squad cars, suggests that law enforcement is much more focused on promoting proactive justice.

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According to Nunn (2001), the law enforcement agencies use modern technologies because “the use of information technologies to create database collections fragmented across sectors and spaces means law enforcement authorities need to establish portals that can assemble and collate decentralized data files”. With the “increasing demand for cross-jurisdictional cooperation and information-sharing”, they see it as an inevitable “requirement for tapping into decentralized databases and allowing agencies to share crime data”. Another function for technology in police operations is to counteract “messages and warnings about the technological sophistication of criminal groups” where they can utilize “video surveillance and facial recognition” in order “to protect society from individuals who practice such violence” (Nunn, 2001). As modern crimes have become wide-ranged because of the onslaught of technology, the police need to be prepared and “make clever use of available technologies to augment criminal lifestyles and exploit new targets for crime” (Nunn, 2001).

One of the latest trends in law enforcement is the use of technology in crime mapping. Crime mapping has been defined as a “system where large amounts of crime data can be analyzed and made useful to police” (Fortner, 1998, p. 16). Like the upsurge of cellular phones and laptops, crime mapping is growing in popularity. Starting from the 1990s, there has been an outflow of using software in state and local law enforcement agencies because they want to modernize their decision-making practices (Henry, 2002). Policing strategies such as COMPSTAT, technological innovations leading to the development of complex data warehousing systems and crime mapping techniques, and the hiring of individuals with specialized analytical skills have encouraged the transformation of police agencies into analytical organizations. Inexpensive and adaptable software applications have allowed law enforcement agencies to begin to produce analytical reports and maps to aid in the identification of crime problems and implementation of subsequent police responses (Clarke & Eck, 2005).

As the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been modernized, many government agencies embraced this technology because investment in the newest software and hardware, coupled with training and good data, makes it possible for more and more police departments to fairly easily make their own crime maps. Along with analysis of crime data, mapping can allow for analysis of other variables that may affect crime. In Crime Mapping News, some key points were emphasized in considering when to implement a GIS program in law enforcement:

  • GIS must be flexible to adapt to the evolving needs of an agency.
  • GIS should be kept simple enough for police officers to use.
  • Preformatted maps and reports should be established to increase the use and effectiveness of GIS within the police organization.
  • GIS should be linked directly to the Records Management System to assist in investigations and operational needs.
  • Updates must be done system-wide.
  • Geographic information should support a Web application for information dissemination and gain community support.
  • Timely data is needed and necessary.
  • Training and user support should be available continually (Hughes, 2000).

In addition, Monmonier (1996) warned that a “single map is but one of an infinitely large number of maps that might be produced for the same situation or from the same data (p. 2). This means that in the map-making process, law enforcers should have a number of choices to make, which will affect how data is interpreted. A map is only a two-dimensional representation of a complex world, and what is selected to be displayed on a map requires some responsible thinking beforehand.

Apart from building crime maps, location monitoring and computer monitoring have been essential functions in using GPS. For example, electronically monitoring a subject’s location from a remote site traditionally requires an ankle bracelet linked to a telephone. Authorities in Brooklyn, New York, made domestic violence offenders wear electronic bracelets that alerted authorities via telephone if the wearer entered inside 500 feet of their previous victims’ homes. These systems have been augmented by GPS monitoring devices that use satellites to track the location of tracking devices worn by individuals. The use of GPS is an explicit operational linkage between domestic police and federal defense systems. The system of 24 NAVSTAR GPS satellites originally was launched by the DOD to aid targeting and navigation and to augment a support system of satellites that monitored nuclear explosions worldwide (Richelson, 1995). At any time, between five and eight GPS satellites are “visible” from any point on earth.

In addition, GPS monitoring can be used in different ways, like tracking stolen cars, the location of police cruisers, or the movements of an individual under house arrest. Other systems eavesdrop on computer monitors by capturing patterns of electromagnetic waves emanating from the terminal. A similar monitoring system is Digital Interception by Remote Transmission (DIRT), which targets a computer via an e-mail “trojan horse” to intercept keystrokes and logs of online activity. In Iowa, the Division of Criminal Investigation places mobile tracking devices on the cars of suspected burglars, then uses GPS monitoring to place the vehicles at the scenes of burglaries. These are similar to traditional eavesdropping or wiretapping, but the location is the focus.

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A more provocative use of GPS that is becoming more prevalent is to monitor the location of individuals on parole or probation to determine whether those individuals are staying within a circumscribed space. The DOD ComTrak monitoring system is used in nine states to track approximately 100 people. In Spokane, Washington, the sheriff attached GPS sensors to a suspected child murderer and gathered GPS surveillance data that he visited two different gravesites, which later became evidence used to charge him with murder. Two vendors, ProTech Monitoring and Advanced Business Sciences, have designed bracelets and wristbands, called “personal tracking units,” to monitor the location of an individual to within 168 feet. Their technology is called Satellite Monitoring and Remote Tracking System (SMART) and is marketed through Ameritech (Nunn, 2001).

In this case, it is safe to assume that current interest in information technologies (I.T.) has elevated enthusiasm for crime mapping and crime intelligence in large urban police departments, many of whom already have geo-coded dispatching records. Crime mapping is a technique based on software (usually ERSI, ArcView, or MapInfo) that converts geo-coded addresses or locations (one set of files) so that maps, tables, and figures can be created and printed. They display signs on maps (tables, graphs, or other figures) of a city or political area. In theory, a wide range of information can be included, such as fire risks, demographic characteristics, indices of disorder and quality of life offenses, and more conventional police-generated data concerning juveniles, adult crime, and traffic. A range of other sorts of data has been added by some departments, such as addresses where restraining orders are to be enforced, addresses of sex offenders or gang members, as well as demographics of social areas in the city. Variations in density by location, types of crimes, or days of the week can be mapped, as can offenders’ residences and patterns of co-offending (Bottoms and Wiles, 1997). Thus, anything that can be plotted spatially can be represented through software.

On the contrary, Manning (2001) warned of some problems in using software to create crime maps. He questioned, “What infrastructure (social, electrical, support staff) exists to transform the mapping data so that it is useful to investigators, supervisors, and patrol officers?” In Western, there was the isolation of patrol from the investigation, and the reactive nature of patrol work put them ‘on the road.’ The lack of supervision and evaluation of ‘problem-solving means officers have little interest in mapping. Manning (2001) mentioned that ethnographic research demonstrates further sources of police resistance and/or acceptance of I.T. is based on time and manner of introduction of the I.T., officers’ rank, specialized function, the level of information to which the officer has access, and must use, and local policing practices and traditions. The perceived utility of a given ‘tool,’ e.g., cellular phones, mobile digital terminals (MDT), computerized databases, crime mapping, and other analytic software, interacts with these variables. However, immediate responses to inquiries, accessible databases, and rapid processing of data in preformatted records are welcomed. The technical support staff in police departments is typically overworked and inadequate to maintaining complex electronic infrastructure.

Also, Manning (2001) questioned how to unify the physical and spatial problems in association with the use and distribution of crime-mapping knowledge. Will the information and terminal be centralized or decentralized? Who has training and access? Is the information’ online’ or lagged by days or weeks? The crime mapping function is usually isolated physically in headquarters in the planning unit, and the staff has irregular face-to-face contact with detectives or patrol officers. The links to external organizations are being created consistent with developing a community-accessible web page. While crime trends, mappings, and distributions of crime by time, area, and even modus operandi can be produced at each precinct for about a year, the maps are used (when they are used) merely as tactical representations of distributions, incidents that can be suppressed through crime attack tactics. Investigative officers do not use the system, nor do they routinely enter data into the database. Since detectives work on a case-based activity, they have no reference to trends or patterns unless they appear presently, e.g., a series of unsolved housebreakings in a particular neighborhood over the last few days or weeks. How and where is access to the data and output (maps, tables, figures, graphs)? By design, the Western system is decentralized, and this can be seen as a problem.

However, the biggest problem should be the interpretation of these crime maps. We all know that crime maps are multi-referential. Many things are symbolized by the signs found on the maps. Signs are not just read or seen but are read off or interpreted. No sign “speaks for itself,” it has to speak, metaphorically, to someone. There are also technical problems concerning the meaning of ‘blocks,’ ‘block faces,’ clusters of addresses that are incorrectly recorded or spelled, the notional location of many kinds of disorder, the fact that high-rise apartments may have multiple calls and complaints all at the same street address.

The scale of the map affects the size of a cluster, making it easy to inflate a handful of incidents into a hot spot or to make a large number of incidents appear rather small or unimportant. The database itself is important, and some departments are using calls for service, while others use reported crimes or crimes known to the police to map matters of concern. This is why Manning (2001) recommended that in order to develop a broader use, the maps and data ‘behind them’ would have to be viewed as more than mere collections of colorful icons or electronic pin maps. Crime maps (and other analytic models), while often colorful, fascinating, and provocative, have no intrinsic actionable meaning. A picture may need a thousand words to explain it. Maps combine diverse types of information, bearing on many aspects of social organization, often with complex linkages, and use dramatic size, color, and dynamics to command attention.

In this case, we cannot say that policing can entirely be technology-driven. Human activities are still at the core of the organization and absorb most of the time, energy, and wages. Information is a bit that makes a difference, but this must be understood in the context of matters in policing that shape or pattern information. Primary data are gathered by officers. The data are shaped by the context of interaction in which they are gathered. This includes a tacit understanding of what is relevant; the formatting effect of the forms used or the online menus supplied; and a variety of social and spatial facts that could be relevant when viewed as an analytic problem-solving exercise. The channel by which the messages are sent is an important shaping matter. In this case, face-to-face communication is most trusted in police work. Once these primary data become processed as information, their use is mediated. In policing, a job of assessing trustworthiness, any mediated communication is suspect, and as a general rule of thumb, the more abstract and distant from the officers’ experience, the less it is trusted. The database to which the message is sent and from which it comes is also a matter shaping the nature, amount, and kind of information that will be sought and used. The software contains the categories and classificatory system into which the information will be placed. The linking of this software and database to others is problematic as well.

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Lots of improvements in technology can be of help to police operations. Police technologies are transforming the ways in which urban spaces are viewed and the conditions under which citizens use spaces. As these technologies diffuse among law enforcement agencies, many questions remain about the privacy impacts of these machine systems, their effects on the everyday life of urban citizens (both the “guilty” and the “innocent”), the legal ramifications of profiling technologies, and the increasing automation of these mechanical systems. With this, we can say that technology can be a tool, but it can never replace human knowledge in advancing the policing profession.

Works Cited

Bottoms, A. and Wiles, P. “Environmental criminology”, in M. Maguire, R. Morgan and R. Reiner (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 2nd ed (pp. 305-59). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Clarke, Ronald V. and Eck, John. Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers: In 60 Small Steps. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2005.

Fortner, R.E. Computer technology: Mapping the future. Police, 22(1998): 16-21.

Henry, Vincent. The COMPSTAT paradigm. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law, 2002.

Hughes, Ken. Implementing a GIS Application: Lessons Learned in a Law Enforcement Environment. Crime Mapping News, Winter 2000.

Manning, P.K. “Technology’s Ways: Information Technology, Crime Analysis and the Rationalizing of Policing, Criminology & Criminal Justice, 1.1 (February 2001): 83-103.

Monmonier, Mark. How to Lie with Maps. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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Nunn, Samuel. “Police technology in cities: changes and challenges”, Technology in Society, 23.1(January 2001): 11-27.

Reaves, B. A. and Hart, T. C. Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, 1999: Data for individual state and local agencies with 100 or more officers. Washington, DC : U.S. Department of Justice, 2000.

Richelson, J.T. The U.S. Intelligence Community (3rd ed.), Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1995.

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