(Photo by Juliana Reyes)
The 14th Police District had been getting slammed with home burglaries for years.
Officer Eric Person, a cop with the northwest district for more than a dozen years, knew that. That’s why, after he completed his training and became the district’s resident crime analyst, he made it his job to figure out how to reduce the number of burglaries in his district, which covers parts of Germantown and Chestnut Hill.
He mapped the crimes over time and realized that 24 percent of burglaries were happening in one quadrant of the district. He then took to the streets to survey the homes that had been hit and noticed that many of them had details that made them targets: rear driveways, windows that were easy to break into.
Then came the solutions: he suggested to his captain that cops should alert residents when their neighbors have been hit and tell them they might be next, they should offer “home surveys” that tell residents if their houses are easier targets and the district should have a team focused on burglaries.
In 2013, residential burglaries in the 14th District were down 39 percent compared to 2012, Person said.
In fact, crime is down all across the board in Philadelphia: in 2013, so-called Part 1 crimes, which include violent crime and property crimes, were down 5.8 percent from 2012, according to crime data.
Crime trends are notoriously fickle and there has been a recent decline nationwide in property crime, but the city’s top police officials say the local trend is in part because of the Police Department’s new crime analysts.
Officer Person, 36, is one of 27 police officers who have been trained as data scientists as part of the city’s Smart Policing program. Started in April 2012, the federally-funded program puts officers through a rigorous, two-week crime science program at Temple University. The officers learn how to use Excel and the Police Department’s new crime mapping system, as well as how to create surveys to collect information from residents.
Data is the future of the Philadelphia Police Department, said Deputy Commissioner Nola Joyce.
“Smart policing,” or data-driven policing, is on the rise nationally, Joyce said. It was one of the core principles of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey’s crime strategy, drawn up by Joyce and her colleagues in 2008 when Ramsey became commissioner. Training police officers as crime analysts is just one part of the program.
It’s a shift from the policing of old, where police had data but didn’t know how to use it strategically.
“Police departments have been very good at counting and reporting [crime],” Joyce said. “What we are now getting better at is understanding.”
So far, the approach has seen results.
“We do believe that a big part of the crime reduction in 2013 is due to the smart policing program,” Joyce said.
But before the department could see results, it had to convince police captains that crime analysts were valuable.
In order to do this, Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who oversees the districts, had the first cohort of analysts present their findings during the Police Department’s monthly crime briefings, Joyce said.
Joyce said the thinking was: “These four analysts were going to be so successful, their captains were going to be talking about them so much that I’m going have captains knocking on my door saying, ‘How can I get one of these?’ And sure enough, that’s what happened.”
Every district now has “the luxury” of having its own crime analysts, as Bethel puts it. That’s important because the districts are “uniquely independent,” said Tony D’Abruzzo, who runs the crime analyst program.
“Each district operates like a small city,” he said, with its own culture and way of doing things.
It’s one thing that makes Philadelphia’s crime analyst program unique: it trains sworn police officers, who are already familiar with department culture, as analysts, rather than importing a civilian crime analyst into the districts.
There’s two other things that make this program unique from those in other cities, said Temple University professor Jerry Ratcliffe, who teaches the analyst training program:
- The partnership with Temple University.
- The emphasis on crime science, not just analysis. “We wanted them to understand that analysis is useless if it’s not reducing crime,” Ratcliffe said.
The message, it seems, got through. Person, the 14th District’s former crime analyst (he’s since been detailed elsewhere), stressed the importance of actually putting data analysis to use.
“I can make a map [of crimes] but if I’m not applying theories, if I’m not telling you how to reduce crime, it’s only part of a solution,” he said.
The same goes for Officer Kristen Pazdan, one of two crime analysts in North Philadelphia’s 22nd District, who had completed a report for her captain on auto thefts this past fall.
"We do believe that a big part of the crime reduction in 2013 is due to the smart policing program."
The report read like a science experiment, with hypotheses on why auto thefts were so high and results after testing each hypothesis. But there was also another aspect, one that’s not often seen in science experiments: a list of solutions for her captain to implement.
In the three-month timeframe, during which the 22nd District implemented Pazdan and her partner’s recommendations, auto theft went down from 28 occurrences in 2012 to 10 in 2013, Pazdan said.
The 22nd District embraces the analysts now, even one decidedly “old school” lieutenant, Pazdan said, adding that people are constantly coming to them to do analyses on certain crimes.
“We’re starting to be in high demand,” she said.
There are a few concerns with the program, though.
One is sustainability. Several of the analysts have gotten promoted or detailed, like the 14 District’s Person, so the Police Department is figuring out how to deal with this turnover, with solutions like in-house training and monthly analyst meetups to make sure the analysts are constantly learning and sharing those lessons.
Another is education for commanders. The department wants to teach commanders the best way to make use of their analysts.
Of course, there’s always budget setbacks. The department received $700,000 in federal grants for the program to pay for laptops and people, like Ratcliffe and D’Abruzzo, to teach the officers, but those grants are coming to an end.
There are simple things, too: D’Abruzzo wishes he could get colored printers in every district, so when cops print out crime maps, the maps are easier to read. (Perhaps tablets or other mobile, colorful ways of displaying maps could also be a solution.)
The data-driven policing movement is also meant to be a move toward greater transparency. It acts as a check on police officers and the department as a whole, those involved with the program have said.
In monthly crime briefings, Bethel asks captains to show him evidence of why they’re adopting certain strategies.
“They have to demonstrate to me that there’s data that supports why they’re dong what they’re doing,” he said.
He’s also spoken of how the department’s crime maps help him hold captains accountable, using the data to make sure districts are focusing on high-crime areas.
But it’s also a tool for the public, Ratcliffe said.
The open data movement means that “it’s inevitable that the public sector is going to have to be more data-driven,” Ratcliffe said, because the public — journalism organizations, advocacy organizations and others — are able to access this data, ask the right questions and hold city agencies accountable for their actions.
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