People of Portland safer, thanks to GIS

January 21, 2016

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The use of GIS in the field of criminal justice isn’t exactly new. As early as the 1980s, police bureaus in major cities were using crime mapping to visualize where major incidents were occurring. Gaining this information has greatly altered the way crime is currently understood.

In few cities has the use of GIS for criminal justice been so successful as in Portland, Ore. Over the past few decades, the city has worked to revolutionize crime analysis and reduce both its violent and nonviolent crime rates. While criminal justice departments across the U.S. struggle with negative issues surrounding equality, justice and public perception, Portland is an exceptional example of using GIS to make a meaningful, positive difference in its communities.

Making highways safer

Part of the reason that Portland has been able to utilize GIS so effectively is its dedication to accurately collecting data on crimes of all types and finding ways to address them. In order to gain more accuracy in highway traffic incidents, for instance, Portland Police Department worked to gather GPS coordinates of all of the mileposts within city limits. Doing so helped to provide greater spatial data related to traffic violations.

Shortly after the maps were put to use, then-Portland Police Chief Rosanne M. Sizer was interviewed about the project for ArcNews Online. She felt there was a very bright outlook for Portland’s GIS capabilities and was quoted in the article as saying, “Being able to look at crime data by location has always been an important capability for the department. Locating crime data occurring on a freeway has not been possible previously. This problem has been resolved through the extraordinary efforts of our GIS team. PPDS [Portland Police Data System] can now support identifying crime locations on our freeways and highways by precinct, district, and grid.”

That project helped police understand where most incidents were occurring, and assess if units should be spread out or concentrated in certain locations. With the significant police force budget cuts that took place across the nation during the recession, this helped to stretch their limited dollars. Additionally, collecting and mapping traffic incident data helped to provide a more substantial argument to city planners to make the adjustments needed to provide a safer commute to citizens.

Image: Traffic injuries and fatalities of Portland 2004-2013. Credit: Vision Zero Portal(Portland Police and Portland Department of Transportation)

Easing public minds

Even though crime has dropped significantly in Portland over recent decades, like it has in many cities throughout the U.S., many citizens fear that violent crimes have actually increased in their neighborhoods. To begin addressing this issue, the Portland Police Bureau teamed up with criminal justice students at Portland State University. The goal is to produce interactive maps for the general public.

It is hoped that providing citizens with real crime data collected over the past 50 or more years through the Crime Mapper tool will help ease fears of high crime rates and start to break down  associated stereotypes. Furthermore, it will provide a means for locals to better understand where crimes do happen and when they are most likely to occur. It is expected that once the database is running, students will maintain and update it annually.

Navigating turmoil

Issues related to biases within criminal justice have become hot topics across the U.S. in recent months. Although it may not solve every problem, the use of GIS is a great step toward increasing transparency within police departments. The program provides hard data for increased patrols in various areas and has been linked to improved organization, leading to a decrease in crime.

Providing real data sets through a public portal provides the means for a greater understanding of how police bureaus are using the data they have. In addition, it invites other organizations to draw conclusions from the data, so that they may also work to solve social justice and safety issues throughout the sections of the city identified as hotspots. Departments such as those in Portland are harnessing the real power of GIS — solving real-world problems. 


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