Preserving Law and Order with Maps and Data

September 28, 2022

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One of the many pillars of a safe and open society is the preservation of law and order, with law enforcement managed by civilian entities. Ever since the killing of Michael Brown in Missouri in 2014, police have been subject to much more scrutiny, so this subject seems very topical. We won’t get into politics, but instead, explore the many ways that geospatial technology is used in law enforcement.

For full disclosure, I have a number of friends, colleagues, and family in law enforcement. For obvious reasons, I won’t disclose their identities or agencies, but some of the topics below are firsthand accounts. Also, be advised that some of the content in this article, as well as some of the links, contain content that may be disturbing to some readers. Crime isn’t pretty.

From the outside to the inside: GST in corrections

Formally called secure detention facilities, jails and prisons are an unpleasant but necessary element of infrastructure in the U.S. and throughout the world. The Department of Homeland Security offers a downloadable database of the nearly 7,000 such facilities in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, as well an AGOL map, from juvenile jails to maximum security prisons.

The federal Office of Justice Programs published a very comprehensive white paper discussing various aspects of GIS in corrections. While only three pages, it covers many topics, such as demographics, parolee addresses and site selection on the outside of the facilities, and facilities management and inmate-on-inmate violence inside the facilities, as well as technical aspects, such as data sharing and GIS implementation.

In a similar vein, Esri has a brochure showing how GIS can be used inside the facilities, as with an occupancy status plan for example, and outside, with examples of monitoring high-risk and convicted sex offenders, and selecting the most effective places for community reporting centers.

The theme of both of these publications is that the relationship between the inside and outside of the facilities are interlinked in many complex ways. The ideal goal is to keep people on the outside, but of course, that isn’t always possible. Then, there is the goal of managing them on the inside, and once they are back outside, making sure they don’t come back.


Prison Boundaries

The academic perspective

Law enforcement in the 21st century has come a long way from the days of the Wild West and prohibition. Most of my interviewees have been in “the business” for decades, and many learned on the job, but all went to some kind of training, for which they were very grateful. They also indicated that law enforcement is much more intellectual than in the past. It requires far more training and education. All of them had trained at various programs, which included courses in investigation, technical communication and psychology, among others, along with the standards, physical fitness and marksmanship.

Some, of course, are more rigorous than others. There are literally hundreds of academic programs in this field offered at four-year universities, community colleges and online. Clearly, this a dynamic and growing field of study. Then, there are the various government programs, such as the FBI Academy, hundreds of local police academies, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers and others.

At the University College London, they have established the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, the first ever. More than an academic program, it is also a research facility. They published a very comprehensive (and dense) PowerPoint on the subject of GIS and crime. Like Esri’s and the Office of Justice Programs’ papers mentioned above, it covers a wide variety of topics. However, it offers many more case studies, as well as some academic studies on predictive modeling and regression analysis.

Of the many programs I researched, several offer individual courses as part of the major, like Michigan State University, and the University College London offers several short GIS courses on the subject. I also discovered a number of programs that offer certificates in the subject, and the University of Colorado Denver has a Masters’ program.

On the streets, in the woods and on the border: tactical GST

One of my favorite movies is the 1980 classic, “The Blues Brothers,” in which motorhead Elwood says, “I just hope they don’t have SCMODS.” Joliet Jake replies, “What?” “State County Municipal Offender Data System.” Like the 1983 movie “War Games,” it was unintentionally prescient in how technology would evolve into many of the systems we have now.

In a previous article, I described how game wardens in Washington State and park rangers in Oregon integrated GST with other methods to capture poachers and other violators. This use of technology is evolving quickly. Three decades after SCMODS, officers have real-time GPS and access to multiple databases at their hands.

Back in the early aughts, while working for Esri, I did several software demos to the Seattle Police Department and the U.S. Border Patrol in Havre, Montana, just a few miles from a border crossing with Canada. This was using ArcView 3, so the idea of enterprise deployment was still rather atavistic then. Nevertheless, my colleagues and I were able to convince them of the power of GIS. We demonstrated how they could hook up a webcam and create hyperlinks to points on a map. We also showed them how to make heatmaps of crimes for predictive policing.

The heatmaps, as illustrated in the many case studies in the publications mentioned above, can be parsed to individual crime types, from bike thefts to murder. This helps police determine where to allocate resources based on the number of crimes and their severity.

Like many other disciplines, such as environmental science, archaeology and facilities management, mobile GIS has become an important piece of the toolbox. Since mobile GIS changes so rapidly, many officers are reluctant to embrace it. My personal contacts know their jurisdictions and their people. Naturally, they use GPS for navigation in unfamiliar territory, but mobile GIS adds an additional layer to an already complicated job. However, they do recognize the value of predictive policing enabled by GIS. There are only so many officers out there to cover so much territory.

In a gruesome case of serial murders, police were able to determine the location of the suspect by geo-coding evidence on the victims — specifically the store names of plastic shopping bags around their heads. (As I warned, crime isn’t pretty.) Using ArcView’s Animal Movement extension, normally used in wildlife studies, they were able to determine the suspect’s general movements, and using standard on-the-ground policing, apprehended the killer.

Book ’em, Danno! Crime mapping in the popular media

Crime shows are a very popular genre on television, some more accurate than others. I don’t watch the dramas, but confess that I do like reality shows like “Cops,” “North Woods Law” and “Jail.” When I asked my contacts how accurate the shows I watch (and don’t) are, they had mixed responses. The dramas are less true to the actual processes, while the reality shows portray the day-to-day operations well, but tend to gloss over the tedium of wearing a badge.

 One authentic example was CBS’s “The District,” a short-lived police drama set in Washington, D.C. in the 1990s. It was a collaboration with Esri, and they used real operations in ArcView 3x. If you watch clips from the episodes (and if you remember ArcView), you can see they’re actually doing GIS tasks. Buffers and “Select by Location” show up a lot.

The geographic perspective

As a geographer, I naturally see everything from a geographic perspective and realize that everything is connected to… everything. One of my takeaways from all of this research is that law enforcement — from the streets to the courts — recognizes the interconnected reality of society, and how GST can help illustrate complex data in a quickly digestible format.

Working on a park poaching investigation, we determined conclusively that the incident occurred within park boundaries. What we had to prove was that the poacher knew s/he was inside the park. The lead ranger made his map request clear: Tell a powerful and easily digestible story for the jury. Use strong graphics, big letters and short text. And in his self-deprecating way, he said, “Make it easy enough for a cop to understand.”


Privacy and security

As technology becomes ever more advanced and ubiquitous, there have been discussions regarding the balance between security and privacy. One of the earliest examples of this was in Spokane, Washington, when, in 2003, the sheriff’s office installed a GPS tracker in a suspect’s car without a warrant. It led them right to the shallow grave of his 9-year-old daughter, whom he had murdered years earlier.

After being convicted, the suspect filed a lawsuit claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights. The details of the case are far too complex to explain here, but the state Supreme Court ruled that such an action requires a warrant with probable cause. His conviction was upheld, however, and he was given a very long prison sentence.

In a thriving democracy such as ours, we must be ever vigilant of this balance between security and privacy. As Benjamin Franklin warned, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”


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