Data analysis partnership may help police and community

May 26, 2011

Heather Tirado Gilligan

A recent partnership between the Oakland Police Department and a local not-for-profit is giving police sophisticated data about crime trends in the city. The data isn’t just changing policing methods – it’s offering residents detailed information about what’s going on in their neighborhoods.

The OPD contracted with Urban Strategies Council to perform data analysis in late March after a two-year trial run. OPD has been collecting and analyzing its own data for 10 years as part of their policing strategy. What Urban Strategies brings to the table, however, is more than what the police alone can do, said OPD captain Ersie Joyner, the watch commander of Area III, which includes East Oakland.

Urban Strategies runs Alameda County’s data clearinghouse, InfoAlamedaCounty.org. They have access not only to police records through their partnership with OPD, but also to probation and parole records, liquor store licenses and foreclosure rates – information that the police don’t have at hand, Joyner said.

“For every move I make in crime fighting strategies,” Joyner said, “they are paramount in my decision.”

Mapping crime and trends

On a weekly basis, Urban Strategies develops a set of maps for each neighborhood that gives commanders a quick understanding of complex data.

Crime isn’t consistent across the city, and watch commanders have changing needs, said Steve Spiker, Research and Technology Director for Urban Strategies. Command Area II may want more information about street robberies, for instance, while Area III may need data to help solve a spate of shootings.

That’s the kind of specificity that’s needed to really understand crime trends in the city, Joyner said.

The police department, Spiker said, has come a long way since using pins on a map to understand trends.

In-depth information, Spiker said, eliminates guesswork and explains the nuances of what’s going on in the neighborhood, such as confirming, for instance, that foreclosures really do actually attract crime.

The information has changed his approach to policing, Joyner said, adding that he can use his knowledge about what’s going on in the neighborhood to “put the cops on the spot.” Urban Strategies also looks at year-to-year data to see if particular areas where policing efforts have been concentrated actually have less crime.

The command staff wants to know where to send resources, but they want a sense of trends over time too, Spiker said. Property crimes increase in the winter, for example, and violent crimes are more frequent in the summer.

“If you don’t have that in the back of your mind,” Spiker said, “then your planning will be off.”

Homicide and property crime rates dropped about 10 percent between 2009 and 2010, and Joyner attributed such improvements in part to data analysis.

Safety First

The point of the data analysis isn’t for Urban Strategies to become an extension of law enforcement, but rather an acknowledgement that changing the chances of low-income areas means improving public safety first, Spiker said.

Low-income communities in Oakland, he said, trust Urban Strategies Council. The organization works on issues like reentry, education and foreclosure in addition to their data analysis, and they believe more information will help communities hold police accountable for their failures and successes.

“We are very strong proponents of open government and open data,” Spiker said.

Part of their agreement with the OPD specified that Urban Strategies would be able to share much of the data they analyzed with the community, he added.

“The primary idea is to help the OPD, but we also want to help the community,” Spiker said. “This is information for them to say—this is a consistent problem in this community. And we want you to deal with it.”

Residents can look at a data map showing the number of arrests at a particular hotel, for instance, and urge police to close the hotel, or can see if crimes are occurring near a school and encourage police to make a quick response.

Urban Strategies agreed in turn to release data to the public in a way that doesn’t interfere with police work, Spiker said. With some crimes, such as sexual assaults, data that might compromise the identity of the victim won’t be released to Urban Strategies at all.

They’ll often hold onto information for a few weeks if it might compromise an ongoing investigation, though per their agreement with OPD, they typically release data within two to three weeks.

The mission of Urban Strategies is to improve the quality of life in low-income areas. “We want families to have better access to wealth and community stability,” Spiker said. “The safety issue really runs through a lot of what we do.”

Urban Strategies sees their work with the OPD as very much in line with this mission, because such improvements are not possible without a feeling of safety in the community, Spiker added. Residents need to feel secure walking the streets before reforms in areas like education can truly take hold.

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