Thursday, October 13, 2016

Crime down, arrests up

A couple weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with our County Attorney, Joe Kelly. We ran into each other before a meeting at the Malone Community Center, and chatted about his perception that felony prosecutions are up this year. I pulled up the most recent data on my smartphone, and indeed felony arrests by LPD are up about 10% so far in 2016. We speculated about what might be cause of this increase.

Afterwards, I put together a chart of the trend since the turn of the century, and compared it side-by-side with the crime trend. It's rather interesting.

Crime in Lincoln has been falling pretty significantly, whereas felony arrests have been increasing--especially in the last four years. This seems a bit counter-intuitive: I would expect that less crime would mean fewer arrests.

These charts begin in 2000, but the patterns for both crimes and felony arrests are more longstanding. These trends actually start back in in 1991. Interestingly, misdemeanor arrests do not show a similar pattern. They have declined slightly between 2000 and 2015, and are down by more than a third from their 2008 peak. I have a working theory on why felony arrests are increasing, but it's going to require some research to put my guess to the test.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Crash alerts worthwhile

Last week, I was about to head home from the office when I learned of an injury traffic crash at S. 40th St. and Highway 2 in Lincoln., which would ordinarily be on my route. With an injury crash, lots of emergency vehicles would be responding, and I realized that an alternate path would be preferable.

When I got home 20 minutes later, I checked the traffic cameras. Sure enough, the eastbound lanes were essentially a two mile linear parking lot. The standstill persisted for the better part of an hour. I'm sure hundreds of commuters were stuck in that mess on Tuesday, wishing they had known about it in advance.

There's an easy way to be alerted to injury traffic crashes in Lincoln. Get the PulsePoint application, follow Lincoln Fire & Rescue, and opt in to alerts for vehicle accidents and expanded vehicle accidents in the app's settings. Now, when LF&R is dispatched to an injury crash, you'll get a notification on your device.

One tip, though: when you start setting up notifications on things like traffic crashes and fires, you'll want to go into settings on your iPhone, and find the do not disturb feature. It's there in Android, as well, though you may have to dig a little bit. You probably don't want to be awakened when a drunk driver plows into a parked care across town at 2:32 AM!

Friday, September 2, 2016

The busy season

Today marks the start of a busy season for Lincoln's public safety personnel. LPD has already cracked 400 daily incidents a couple times in the recent past, including 411 yesterday, Thursday September 1st. Last year, the busiest single day for Lincoln police officers, with 443 events dispatched, was September 5, 2015--the Saturday of Nebraska's home football game with BYU. Tomorrow's 2016 home opener with Fresno State will be similar, and today's pre-game will be no slouch, either

Five of the busiest six day for the police last year were the Fridays and Saturdays of home football games. The lone exception was May 7, the day of an unusual flooding event that inundated parts of Lincoln's south bottoms neighborhood.

September 5, 2015 was also the busiest day last year for Lincoln Fire & Rescue, with 128 incidents.  The day of the flood, May 7, was number two, but after that the lists diverge for police and fire. July 4 was pretty hectic for both, ranking 12th for LPD and 7th for LF&R

My rough count shows 47 officers and 16 firefighters with game-related duties tomorrow, and that's on top of all the other usual stuff associated with a busy fall weekend when tens of thousands of visitors descend on the City. Fortunately, it's a night game and the weather will be mild, which may take some of the edge off.

As busy as it gets during these weekends, it's also an exciting time for public safety professionals. The police officers, firefighters, and dispatchers who make it all work are generally exhausted in an oddly pleasant way when it all wraps up. My hope is that it comes off safely, and everyone eventually hits a cool pillow for a good and well-deserved rest sometime on Sunday morning.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Graffiti not as common

A couple years ago I blogged about the falling number of vandalism cases in Lincoln, and particularly the decline in graffiti vandalism. I attributed that decline, in part, to Lincoln's graffiti abatement ordinances, adopted in 2006, and to good work by William Carver at the Lincoln/Lancaster County Health Department.

I have an automated report that spawns every afternoon to let Mr. Carver know about new graffiti cases. I also direct a copy to myself, and have thought I was noticing unusually small numbers this year. I ran the data. Sure enough, the decline I noted back in 2014 has continued and has even gone significantly deeper in 2015 and 2016.  So far this year, LPD has handled 152 graffiti cases. Here's a graph that shows that same time period over the past six years. That is a mighty dramatic drop in a crime that was already falling significantly.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Call processing time improving

Time is of the essence in cardiac and respiratory arrest. When your heart stops pumping blood, and when you cannot breathe effectively, you're a goner unless something intervenes to change things mighty quickly.

We often talk about the importance of having fire stations strategically located and the importance of rapid turnout times by firefighters and paramedics. You don't hear much, however, about the critical role of the first first responders: the dispatchers.

When someone calls 911, the response is not instantaneous. In all but the smallest 911 centers, the job of fielding the phone call is separated from the job of radio dispatching: the call taker gathers the information, then forwards it to a dispatch position when enough has been collected to know who needs to be sent, where, and with what level of response--basic life support, advanced life support, multiple units, lights and sirens or not, and so forth.

This all takes a little time. Callers don't always know their exact location, and cannot always communicate clearly right away. Even in the best circumstances, call takers must ask clarifying questions:

"Are you with the patient?"
"Is she breathing normally?"
"Is she clammy?"
"Did she take any drugs or medications in the past 12 hours?"

... and so forth. The basic details are often forwarded to the dispatcher as this questioning continues, but even then the dispatcher has to read the call information, decide what to do, find some clear air time on the radio, and actually say the words necessary to set the responders in motion. It takes longer than you might think. This interval of time, from the 911 ring to the dispatch of the responders, is known as call processing time.

Earlier this year, Lincoln's 911 Center implemented some changes to our protocol, under the supervision of our medical director, to try to shave a few seconds from the call processing time for the highest priority medical emergencies. Our medical director also did some great staff training to improve the ability of our dispatchers to recognize an ineffective respiration pattern known as agonal breathing.

The results of this enhanced training the protocol tweak have been impressive thus far. These changes were implemented on June 1st, and since that date we have dispatched 79 presumptive cardiac arrest events. The call processing time on these was 31 seconds faster than the 51 incidents dispatched during the same time period in 2015. The numbers are still rather small, but that is a huge improvement, and if it holds, represents an accomplishment that will contribute significantly to survivability.

My hat is off to our medical director, Dr. Kruger, and to the 911 Center staff. These early results are very encouraging, and I will keep tabs on the call processing time as we gather more experience.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Just because they wear a badge

There isn’t a national census of police officers in the United States, but most sources peg the total number at somewhere around 750,000. These officers have hundreds of thousands on interactions with citizens every day: crime victims, witnesses, drivers in traffic crashes, arrests, traffic stops, mental health crises, dog bites, missing persons, drunk drivers, arrest warrants, and so forth. Most of these are in relatively mundane circumstances, and some are in the most ugly situations imaginable.

Inevitably, a small number of these contacts will go badly. Some of those involve not mere error or misjudgment, but rather misconduct by a police officer: anger, hatred, lack of emotional control, maliciousness, reckless disregard. Officers are hired from humankind, where all of these bad motives exist, and where even otherwise good people do bad things from time to time.

In the context of the enormous number of police-citizen interactions, it is perhaps remarkable that so few tragic errors, lapses, and bad acts occur. We learn about this tiny number, however, almost instantly, and seemingly continuously, in this day and age of social media and a news cycle that never rests.

When malice or recklessness by a police officer is the cause of the bad thing, he or she deserves to be held accountable just as any other person—maybe even more so. We should rightly be able to expect more from our police, to whom we cede power and authority.

But rational people should understand that “the police” is a false construct. Rather, policing is composed of individual officers, organized into individual departments. The officers and the departments have differences in their skill levels, training, education, disposition, orientation towards the use of force, accountability systems, and cultures. To target the Dallas Police Department and 12 Dallas officers with violent rage due to the bad act of some officer elsewhere entirely is more than absurd, it is the most evil manifestation of stereotyping.

You will be hard-pressed to find this phenomenon with any other occupational group. Individual teachers, preachers, senators, presidents, and physicians commit bad acts, but no one indicts the entire field of education, the clergy, the senate, the presidency, or medicine.

Imagine you are the husband or wife of a police officer anywhere in the United States today. You’ve watched an assassin kill five Dallas officers who had nothing whatsoever to do with the events that created the grievance motivating his attack. Think about how you would feel when your loved one goes to work this evening, as you realize that the same mindless anger could be directed at him or her,

just because they wear a badge.

Isn't that the same process by which mindless anger is directed towards someone just because of the color of their skin, their religion, gender, national origin, or sexual identity?

Friday, July 1, 2016

Still appears to be working

Here's an update to the police department's strategy to deal with chronic repeat suspended drivers by impounding more of their cars. We now have a fourth month of data, that the decline in suspended drivers compared to overall traffic tickets continues. The 218 suspended driving tickets in June represent 2.95% of the total tickets, which is the lowest month since the time-series comparison period starts in January, 2013. Each of the four months since the policy change has been the lowest month.

Now, a little theory: crackdown strategies like this are usually based on the belief that violators will be deterred. The deterrence can be specific (the offender ticketed is deterred from continuing to violate the law) or general (other suspended drivers, learning of the crackdown, will be less likely to drive and/or drive less frequently). Crackdowns are generally announced with considerable fanfare, in order to increase general deterrence.

There is a considerable body of research demonstrating that the deterrent impact of crackdowns usually decays rapidly over time. Interest fades, publicity lags, things rebound more or less to the same condition as before the crackdown. It will be very interesting to see if that occurs with the police impound strategy. It certainly hasn't yet, despite the fact that there has really been little publicity about the strategy since the initial blast of news stories back in February.

I think there is a good chance that the effect of this strategy may be quite sticky compared to other crackdowns, because this one is not just based on the deterrent effect. It has an additional component: removing the instrumentality of the crime--the car. Impounding the car for 30 days makes it more difficult for the suspended driver to continue to drive. The time and effort necessary for finding another vehicles to drive is significant, and that alone should impact the likelihood the driver gets back behind the wheel, as well as how quickly he or she does so.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The old-fashioned way

With the explosion of social media and smartphones, there has been a growing expectation that police departments and 911 Centers ought to send tailored alerts of potential risks directly to citizens and organizations, such as schools, businesses, assisted living centers, and just ordinary citizens. Last night, a local TV station ran a story about this, interviewing the proprietor of a day care center who was unhappy that she wasn't notified of a shooting that happened at 3:50 AM on Sunday morning a short distance from her business.

There are many software systems out there for delivering mass notifications. The problem is not the lack of technology, rather it is the lack of the infrastructure necessary to exploit the technology. Specifically, it would require personnel. Essentially, someone would need to be dedicated to the task of listening to the radio and watching the flow in the computer-aided dispatch center. This person would need to make a determination about which incidents need to trigger a public alert, to whom it should be sent, and what the content should be. He or she would not only need to compose the alert, but would also need to determine when an "all clear" rescinding the alert is appropriate.

This is no small task. It would require someone with exceptionally good knowledge about the dynamics of police events in the field. Not very many robberies, for example, represent an immediate risk to people in the surrounding area. Many reports are belated, and in many cases the assailant is known to the victim and was long gone before the police were even called. Conversely, a simple hit-and-run crash could turn into an emergency event, if the wanted felon involved in the collision flees the scene on foot armed with a pistol and disappears into the surrounding neighborhood. Although technology can help, this is something that cannot be entirely automated. Human judgement is needed to distinguish the incidents that require notifications from the background noise.

Moreover, a mass notification system like this would need to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That requires about 5.5 full-time equivalent employees. In a low-volume environment, you might be able to use employees who multi-task, performing other duties but able to drop what they are doing to attend to alerts as needed, a sergeant, for instance, or a dispatcher. That's not going to happen reliably in a busy 911 Center where employees are frequently working mandatory overtime, and where its a struggle just to fill the seats. Consider that during a big event that might suggest an alert, the dispatchers and police officers are especially busy.

If it's so difficult, you might ask, why are universities able to manage such systems, notifying their students and staffs of risky business? Aside from the fact that universities are generally mighty well funded, the simple fact is that your typical university police department is not very busy. As an example, the University of Nebraska Police Department handled 13 incidents yesterday. The Lincoln Police Department handled 334.

I'm not saying "never," but the impediments to such notification systems are substantial. Recently, we have been looking at various notification systems, and trying to brainstorm about how we might possibly incorporate these into our operations. If we had the personnel to do so, we might even use something as simple as the police department's Twitter feed, but it isn't staffed or monitored constantly, and we don't have the people to do so. We've also been considering the feasibility of launching a real time crime center for Lincoln, which might be an ideal location for a public notification system.

In the days before Twitter and Facebook, people turned to the news media in order to stay abreast of things going on in the community. Folks actually used to listen to AM radio, and could follow the news reports of the Martian invasion and take appropriate precautions. If we had some big deal going on and needed to get the word out quickly, a couple of phone calls to the radio stations were obligatory. In every news room in Lincoln, whether print, radio, or television, assignment editors and reporters are listening to police scanners right now. These days, they are often tweeting about interesting or emergent transmissions they hear in near real-time.

For the moment, your workaround might be to simply follow the Twitter feeds of a few of the local news outlets if you really need to know what's breaking bad at any given moment. Rest assured that if we thought a day care, senior center, business, or residence was in imminent risk of harm, we'd be making concerted efforts to notify you the old-fashioned way: door to door, and also through the news media.